UN rights chief suggests mission to assess possible war crimes in Gaza conflict

9 January 2009

The top United Nations human rights official today proposed a mission to assess violations and possible war crimes committed by both Israel and Hamas in the Gaza conflict, and called for immediate implementation of a ceasefire.

“The situation is intolerable. The ceasefire called for by the UN Security Council must be implemented immediately. The violence must stop,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“The vicious cycle of provocation and retribution must be brought to an end,” she said, pointing out that the ongoing conflict had already caused the loss of hundreds of lives since Israel started its military operation 14 days ago with the stated aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.

Ms. Pillay stressed unequivocally that international human rights law must apply in all circumstances and at all times, and strongly urged the parties to the conflict “to fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law to collect, care for and evacuate the wounded and to protect and respect health workers, hospitals, and medical units and ambulances.

“Accountability must be ensured for violations of international law,” she said, suggesting that the Council should consider authorizing a mission to assess violations committed by both sides in the conflict in order to establish the relevant facts and ensure accountability.

“I remind this Council that violations of international humanitarian law may constitute war crime for which individual criminal responsibility may be invoked,” she added.

She also called on the parties to the conflict to allow the deployment of independent human rights monitors in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory to document any violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. She urged that so-called Special Procedures mandate holders be granted unrestricted access to Gaza and the West Bank.

The special session was called in response to a request by Egypt on behalf of the Arab Group and the African Group, Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Cuba on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In a message read out to the session, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory Richard Falk said the use of force by an occupying power against security threats emanating from a population under occupation was permissible within the constraints set by international law.

There was no legal or moral justification for firing rockets at civilian targets, and such behaviour was a violation of international human rights, associated with the right to life, as well as constituting a war crime, he stated. At the same time, the nature of the offence should be evaluated within the context of its occurrence.

This included the fact that for the year prior to 27 December not a single Israeli death resulted from rockets fired from Gaza, he noted. Also, while Israel had been expected to lift or at least ease the blockade that had imposed severe hardships on the entire population of Gaza, it failed to do so.

Such a blockade does not alter the unjustifiable character of the rocket attacks, but it does suggest two important conclusions from a legal perspective. First, the scale of civilian harm resulting from Israeli unlawful conduct was far greater than that of Palestinian unlawful conduct, he said.

Secondly, any effort to produce a sustainable ceasefire should ensure that Israel as well as Hamas respect humanitarian law, which most concretely means that interferences with the access of goods for the maintenance of normal civilian life must end, and cannot be re-established as a retaliatory measure if some sort of rocket attack occurs in the future, he added.

A joint statement by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Children''s Fund (UNICEF) said the terrible suffering of the civilian population in the Gaza Strip and the south of Israel demanded the Council''s urgent attention.

Nothing less than ending the violence would be effective to improve the situation. In addition to those killed and wounded, thousands of Palestinians had been displaced, but there was no safe haven for them as had been shown by the incident at an UNRWA school, where Israeli shells killed 43 people and injured over 100, the statement added.

The lack of medical supplies and security had left the wounded without care and insecurity continued to restrict the movement of medical personnel. Medical facilities had been damaged in most cases it took hours before ambulances could reach the wounded, if they could reach them at all, because of continuous shelling. Children urgently needed access to food and psychological counselling.

Health workers were exhausted and the insecurity had severely impaired food distribution. The lack of electricity was preventing people from cooking food. As pointed out, the needs of the population were so great at this time that humanitarian organizations needed to operate around the clock, the agencies said. The free and safe movement of the wounded had to be ensured. All parties to the conflict had to adhere to their obligations to protect the civilian population.

The Council will continue the session on Monday when it is expected to take action on a related draft resolution.

 

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