Press Release

17 October 2000

Commission on Human Rights
Fifth Special Session
17 October 2000

Address of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,
Mary Robinson

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

On previous occasions, I have discussed with this Commission its role in the protection of human rights during times of emergency, crisis, or conflict. This is the Fifth Special Session of the Commission. The first two dealt with the situation then prevailing in the former Yugoslavia. The third dealt with the situation in Rwanda, and the fourth with the events in East Timor last year. All of these special sessions had one raison d'ĂȘtre, namely, that the Commission should take account of the situation on the ground with a view to providing a human rights input into the search for peace and stability, and for the protection of the innocent victims of conflict. This, I understand to be the rationale of this special session as well, but the crisis we will examine is, I believe, very grave indeed. It behoves us, therefore to ensure that in our statements and discussions over the coming days we seek to further the fundamental purposes of this Commission.

As we approach this special session, many thoughts come to my mind. In the first place, the search for peace in the Middle East has been with us for half a century. Secondly, so much suffering has taken place and lives lost in conflict over the past half century. Thirdly, numerous reports have been written about violations of human rights in the area. Fourthly, no one can doubt that the Palestinian people living in the refugee camps and in other difficult conditions have had to endure much. Fifthly, one is acutely aware of how much work has been done, more lately in Camp David, to seek to achieve a lasting peace. It is poignant to think that peace seemed to be within grasp so as to allow the two peoples involved to mould their destinies.

This makes it all the more painful when one thinks of developments on the ground in recent weeks and particularly within the past week or so. I cannot help asking the question: why have so many people had to die and so many people, young people in particular, to endure so much suffering? This question is particularly acute for an Irish person. We, in Ireland, have had the experience of protracted conflict. We have had to face the agony of violence as we pursued the quest for peace. I have had occasion to write to Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the past referring to our experience in Ireland and sharing our experiences in the pursuit for peace in the midst of conflict. When the British and Irish Governments were finally able to conclude the Good Friday Agreement, I wrote to the leadership of the two parties and inviting them to consider the Irish experience in the quest for peace and in particular to note the central importance accorded to human rights and the institutions of human rights in that Agreement. I say this for one reason only: even in the midst of despair it is possible to hope and to dream of peace, but sustainable peace must be based on a framework of protection of human rights.

While it is the task of this Commission to examine issues from a human rights perspective, one is acutely aware that the route to the long-term protection of human rights lies through a just and lasting peace. It is very much my hope, therefore, that the deliberations of the Commission and the outcome of this special session will have in view the imperative of bringing about a just and lasting peace while addressing human rights issues.

When the first special session of the Commission was held in 1992 on the situation in the former Yugoslavia, the international mediators addressed a message to the Commission inviting it to consider human rights building blocks for the future peace and welfare of the peoples of the area. As we meet here today, I think it would be important for this Commission to consider insights and recommendations it might make to the parties and to peace-makers when it comes to human rights building blocks that can contribute to a just and durable peace.

In this perspective, it would seem to me important for the Commission to discuss, and for the parties and others to consider, ways and means through which exacerbation of the situation on the ground can be avoided in the future through early warning and preventive measures. How can the parties to the conflict establish a mechanism of consultation so that either side can bring to the attention of the other potentially dangerous developments with a view to heading them off? Surely it must be one of the lessons from the situation at hand that the descent into violence was rapid and that the situation seemed to run away with the parties. I am convinced that neither side - not the Israelis, nor the Palestinians - wanted the situation they now find themselves in. The key to a peaceful and stable future in the region lies in developing a culture of human rights and tolerance. There is much evidence that the majority of the people of the region understand this very well. We all know that a very difficult process still lies ahead. The immediate priority is for all the violence to stop so that the peace process can continue.

When it comes to the situation on the ground, you have heard from the sponsors of the special session and you will also hear from the parties involved. Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur has just visited the area and will brief you. I had urged the Israeli authorities to meet with him on this occasion, but without success.

We in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have an office in Gaza with regional sub-offices and they have kept us regularly briefed about developments on the ground. We have also received information from other quarters. From the information available to us, it appears that the crisis that led to the current situation began to emerge following the conclusion of the Camp David meetings with popular frustration at the impasse that had apparently been reached in the negotiations. This found expression in unrest on he part of young people in the West Bank and Gaza. On 13th September, stones and incendiary devices were thrown at Israeli positions in Gaza. This was followed by a number of increasingly violent incidents. On Tuesday, 26th September, a road-side attack was carried out near the settlement of Netzarim and an Israeli soldier was killed. On 27th September, a Palestinian policeman belonging to a joint patrol attacked the Israeli soldiers he was working with, killed the officer of this patrol and injured another soldier.

On Thursday, 28th September, the Leader of the Israeli Opposition, Ariel Sharon, visited Haram Al'Sharif - the Temple Mount - in Jerusalem with members of his parliamentary group and a military escort. Palestinians protested against what they saw as a very provocative visit and clashes ensued. On 29th September, after afternoon prayers, the protesters threw stones and the Israeli Defence Forces responded. During the day, four Palestinians were killed and over two hundred Palestinians were wounded by police gunfire. Since then, over one hundred Palestinians have been killed and large numbers injured. Unfortunately, those killed include many children. Questions have been raised about the proportionality of the response on the part of the Israeli Defence Forces, particularly having regard to the large number of persons killed and seriously injured..

On 2nd October, an Israeli soldier was ambushed and killed by a Palestinian policeman. On Saturday, 7th October, the Israeli Defence Forces evacuated its soldiers from Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. Shortly after the withdrawal, Palestinians attacked the Holy Jewish site of Joseph's Tomb in the West Bank. It was ransacked and set afire by angry Palestinians. In their attack on the Tomb, Palestinian agitators shot at the border policemen securing the site. A border policeman was wounded and subsequently died. The site was attacked by small arms fire, stones and fire bombs. The mob killed a rabbi and systematically destroyed all remnants of the Yeshiva, the furniture and books. A synagogue in Jericho and mosques in Jaffa and Nablus have also been damaged.

After Hezbollah captured three Israeli soldiers along the Israeli border with Southern Lebanon, Israeli warplanes attacked Hezbollah positions in the area. On Sunday, 8th October, two Palestinians were reportedly shot by Israeli Jewish settlers.

In the midst of all of these developments, the Security Council met on 7th October 2000 and adopted resolution 1322 in which it expressed its deep concern over the tragic events since 28th September 2000 that had led to numerous deaths and injuries, mostly among Palestinians. The Council reaffirmed its call for a just and lasting solution, expressed its support for the Middle East peace process, and urged the two sides to cooperate. The Council condemned acts of violence, especially the excessive use of force against Palestinians, resulting in injury and loss of human life, and called upon Israel to abide by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention. It called for the immediate cessation of violence, for the avoidance of provocative actions, and for a mechanism for a speedy and objective inquiry into the tragic events with the aim of preventing their repetition.

On 8th October, two Arab Israelis were killed during violent clashes that erupted between Jews and Arabs on the road between Nazareth and Upper Nazareth. Indeed, one of the saddest features of the present conflict is the evidence of rising hostility between fellow citizens : Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews.

Continuing peace efforts included talks in Paris involving the leadership of the two parties with the participation, among others, of the United Nations Secretary-General. The Secretary-General followed this up with a shuttle mission to the area during which he advanced various ideas for the re-establishment of peace.

On Thursday, 12th October, 2 Israeli soldiers were killed in Ramallah by a Palestinian mob in circumstances that were shocking to say the least. According to Israeli sources, the reservists had taken a wrong turn as they drove to their military base at Bet El near Ramallah and were stopped at the Palestinian roadblock. They were brought to the police station where a mob lynched them. In retaliation, Israeli helicopters fired rockets at several targets including a police station in Ramallah. The West Bank Headquarters of the Palestinian Authority was also reportedly hit and the situation took on even more dangerous proportions.

Acts of terrorism in the wider region included a suicide attack on an American destroyer resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors, and the injuring of a number of others, and the bombing of a British Embassy.

From the information available, in their attempts to disperse Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli military authorities have used live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear-gas, which have resulted in deaths and injuries among the Palestinians. Palestinians, for their part, have used fire-arms, incendiary devices and stone throwing. The majority of the Palestinian casualties are reportedly to the upper part of the body, including eye injuries sustained through the firing of rubber bullets at close range.

The number of children casualties is high. According to information available, over 22 Palestinian children have died, and hundreds of children were wounded. Ambulance and medical personnel have also been injured and killed.

Palestinians claim that private houses and civilians have been attacked indiscriminately, particularly at night. They have also complained of the increasing involvement of settlers in such attacks. Tensions are high among the settlers and Palestinians in the midst of the mounting violence in the region.

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Members of the Commission:

The foregoing account of the situation is necessarily brief and incomplete. It is meant to provide a snapshot of the factual contours of the situation with a view to helping the Commission assess the situation from a human rights perspective and to provide the benefit of its insights and recommendations.

An objective independent inquiry into events of the past weeks may assist in resolving issues which remain in dispute. These issues go beyond, but also include, human rights matters. In envisaging such an inquiry one would need to consider the most appropriate entity to conduct it, and to have regard to discussions elsewhere relating to this matter. It may be that the Commission is the appropriate body, or it may mandate a human rights component to participate in or support such an inquiry under other auspices. My Office stands ready to assist in any way that may be considered helpful.

An examination of the recent past could be appropriate, but I urge delegates also to give careful consideration to the future. I have already said that the route to the protection of human rights lies through the conclusion of a just and durable peace. I have also referred to the need for a mechanism to head off such crises in the future.

It would seem to me of crucial importance to insist on the following:

o All concerned must place the protection of human life at the top of their agenda and must contribute to bringing about an immediate halt to the deaths and injuries on the ground.

o All concerned must act in faithful compliance with the norms of international human rights and humanitarian law. In any event, there may be no derogation from the right to life and the prohibition of torture.

o Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides the bedrock principle for a situation such as the one under consideration. That article provides that:
The following fundamental guarantees contained in Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 are also applicable in situations such as the one under consideration:

International human rights standards as set out above are very clear: torture, disappearances and indiscriminate killings can never be justified under any circumstances, not even in time of war.

o Children must be taken out of the front line and their protection must be an absolute priority for both parties.

o The parties must return to the negotiating table as a matter of the utmost urgency.

o The international community, the parties concerned, and neighbouring States and friendly countries, must engage in deep reflection with a view to implementing strategies for the promotion of tolerance and harmony among two kindred peoples. On the eve of next year's World Conference to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, it behoves all concerned to help in the promotion of tolerance and harmony.

In the Vision Statement subscribed to by many heads of state and government across the globe on the occasion of the Millennium Assembly, they declared that: "We all constitute one human family." And called for Athe full exercise of our human spirit, the re-awakening of all its inventive, creative and moral capacities, enhanced by the equal participation of men and women. "This, they underlined, Acould make the twenty-first century an era of genuine fulfillment and peace."

Racial and religious intolerance, if not a cause of the present situation, are unfortunately becoming a consequence of it. The violence in the area must be resolved, not just in order to save lives, but to permit a process of healing to begin. The future of Israel and Palestine will depend largely on the ability of both communities to put away thoughts of revenge and to ensure that human rights and humanitarian principles are promoted and respected without discrimination. The Israeli and Palestinian people are linked both by history and by geography and must learn to live together. I am deeply troubled by evidence that violence and animosity have spread beyond the region, between Jewish and Muslim communities. I note with deep concern attacks on synagogues and mosques in a number of countries, and a growing enmity between muslim and jewish communities. It would be a terrible pity if, in the lead-up to a World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, when our focus should be on unity and healing, we are wracked by division and distrust.

The vision of the oneness of the human family is a powerful perspective that can help steer this Commission and the parties on a course towards a future of peace, justice and respect for human rights. My message to the people today is, "Please maintain hope; peace is possible and within your grasp." To the leaders it is stark; "You cannot condemn a new generation to violence, hatred and their consequences. You must arrive at a minimum basis for re-opening political dialogue leading to an enduring peace"
For information media - not an official record