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ROUNDTABLE ON LEGAL ASPECTS OF THE QUESTION OF PALESTINE OPENS IN GENEVA
Meeting organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People
24 April 2014

A two-day United Nations Roundtable on Legal Aspects of the Question of Palestine, organized by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People was opened at the Palais des Nations this morning.  The Committee heard introductory statements from Abdou Salam Diallo, Chairperson of the Committee, Michael Møller, Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, who also delivered a statement on behalf of the United Nations Secretary-General, from Anders Kompass, representing the High Commissioner for Human Rights and from Issa Qaraqe, Palestinian Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs.

In his message, the Secretary-General urged the Israeli and Palestinian parties to continue the current round of peace negotiations on a substantive basis beyond 29 April 2014, as the costs of walking away from the negotiating table would be exponentially higher than the pain of the compromises required to resolve the conflict.  He also stated that the establishment of an independent State of Palestine based on the borders of 1967, alongside a secure State of Israel, was long overdue and the suffering of millions of Palestinians under occupation had lasted far too long. 

Michael Møller, Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the roundtable would discuss two key issues; the legal status of Palestinian political prisoners and detainees under international law, and the general legal implications of Palestine’s admission to the United Nations as an Observer State. 

Ambassador Abdou Salam Diallo, Chairperson of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said that participants in the Roundtable would learn more about how the Geneva Conventions applied to prisoners held by the Occupying Power.  They would also look at the legal aspects of the accession of Palestine to the international conventions and treaties, which was essential because if the current round of negotiations failed, it was critical that Palestine had other legal options available. 

Anders Kompass, representing the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the granting of United Nations Observer status was a significant step towards the realization of the right to self-determination for Palestinians.  He highlighted key human rights violations and said there was an urgent need for investigations into allegations of unlawful killings and torture of prisoners, for the prosecution of individuals responsible, and provision of effective remedies to victims. 

Issa Qaraqe, Palestinian Government Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, spoke about the question of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention facilities and the legal and political implications. He made several recommendations, including the possible accession of Palestine to the Rome Statute and the legal obligations of Israel under the Geneva Conventions. 

The roundtable will continue through 25 April in private meetings, and  the various sessions will be chaired by the following panellists: Judge Fausto Pocar, former President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; Professor William Schabas of the University of Middlesex, Professor Paul Tavernier of the University of Paris XI, and Judge Flavia Lattanzi of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. 

A background release on the two-day meeting can be accessed here.

Statements

Message of the United Nations Secretary-General delivered by the Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva

MICHAEL MØLLER, Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, said it was an honour to be here to represent the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-moon and at event to highlight the significance of the provisions of international law in efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting solution of the question of Palestine.  Following the historic General Assembly vote of 2013, the State of Palestine was now welcomed as an Observer State.  Thus, the roundtable would discuss two key issues; the legal status of Palestinian political prisoners and detainees in international law, and the general legal implications of Palestine’s admission to the United Nations as an Observer State. 

Mr. Møller then delivered the message of BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who urged the Israeli and Palestinian parties to continue the current round of peace negotiations, led by the United States, on a substantive basis beyond 29 April 2014 as the costs of walking away from the negotiating table would be exponentially higher than the pain of the compromises required to resolve the conflict.  The Secretary-General said that no lasting peace could be achieved away from the negotiating table, and the current situation was not sustainable for both parties, the region and the international community.   

The establishment of an independent State of Palestine based on the borders of 1967, alongside a secure State of Israel, was long overdue.  The suffering of millions of Palestinians under occupation had lasted far too long.  The Secretary-General remained deeply troubled by Israel’s continuing settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which was illegal under international law.  Settlement activity was deepening the Palestinian people’s mistrust in the seriousness of the Israeli side about achieving peace; it also risked rendering a two-State solution impossible.  The peace efforts were also being hindered by violence and incitement from all sides.  The Secretary-General also expressed concern over the rising tension with respect to the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem, and called on all parties to show utmost restraint as well as full respect for the sanctity of holy sites of all faiths.

The deteriorating condition of Gaza’s civilian population remained a source of alarm, as the seven-year-old closure continues to cause serious humanitarian consequences, the Secretary-General said.  More than 80 per cent of all families in Gaza were dependent on aid, yet Gaza remained subject to severe restrictions on imports, exports and the movement of people by land, air and sea.  The Secretary-General called for a complete opening of crossings into Gaza, including Rafah, to allow legitimate trade and movements of people.  At the same time, Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be addressed by continuing to thwart militant attacks and preventing the smuggling of weapons, he said.  The Secretary-General also reiterated his condemnation of indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza, which contravened international law, emphasizing that Israelis had a right to live free of cross-border violence.

The Secretary-General said he had repeatedly expressed concern for the more than 4,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and called again for an end to the practice of prolonged administrative detention.  He also called on Israel to abide by its legal obligations as expressed in the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the wall and the settlements.  The Secretary-General concluded that he would continue to do his utmost to support the realization of a two-State solution, and together with Mr. Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, urged the international community to support both sides in continuing their negotiations with the aim of reaching a final peace settlement.

Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People

ABDOU SALAM DIALLO, Chairperson of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, recalled that the General Assembly in resolution 68/12 declared 2014 to be the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and said the Committee welcomed the sustained diplomatic efforts of the international community, in particular those led by John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State.  He called on all parties to act responsibly to create a climate conducive to successful peace negotiations.  Despite the international community’s appeals to Israel to end its settlement activities, the expansion of settlements and demolition of Palestinian homes continued at an alarming rate in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  The construction rate doubled between 2012 and 2013, in flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

However, despite the harsh realities, the meeting in Geneva bode well, Mr. Diallo said, recalling the historic General Assembly resolution 67/19 of 29 November 2012 which recognized the State of Palestine as an official United Nations Observer State.  That recognition allowed President Abbas to sign on 1 April this year 15 letters of accession to international conventions and treaties, including a letter to the Swiss Government in its capacity as depositary of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and Optional Protocol I. 

The Geneva Conventions defined the basic rights of prisoners, both civilian and military, in wartime, and establish protections for the wounded, as well as civilians located within and adjacent to a war zone, Mr. Diallo recalled.  The Geneva Conventions also defined the rights and protections enjoyed by non-combatants.  The State of Palestine officially joined the conventions on 2 April 2014, a historic day.  Over the next two days, the Committee, together with its Palestinian colleagues and the team of legal experts in attendance, would learn more about how the Geneva Conventions applied to prisoners held by the occupying Power and the relevant international mechanisms.  It would also look at the legal aspects of the accession of Palestine to the international conventions and treaties, which was essential because if the current round of negotiations failed, it was critical that Palestine had other legal options available to it. 

Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, representing the High Commissioner for Human Rights

ANDERS KOMPASS, Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, representing the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the High Commissioner and her predecessors, and many United Nations human rights mechanisms had consistently called for the right of self-determination of Palestinians to be respected and fulfilled, and its granting of United Nations Observer status by the General Assembly was a significant step towards that realization.  Many key human rights violations concerned relating to the occupation of Palestinian territories were highlighted in the reports of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General to the recent twenty-fifth session of the Human Rights Council, and needed to be addressed urgently.  Regarding the West Bank including East Jerusalem, Mr. Kompass spoke about the excessive use of force by Israeli Security Forces, violations of Palestinians denied their right to liberty, the ongoing construction of settlements and related activities.

Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which constituted a form of collective punishment under international law, coupled with its recent destruction of most of the tunnel network with Egypt, had resulted in a significant deterioration of economic and social rights in Gaza, while renewed hostilities in recent months were troubling.  The overarching theme was a lack of accountability on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.  There was an urgent need for impartial investigations into allegations of unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, and for the prosecution of individuals responsible and provision of effective remedies to victims.  Ten years after the unequivocal Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, it was past time that human rights of Palestinians and Israelis alike be respected and international obligations be observed. 

Palestinian Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs

ISSA QARAQE, Palestinian Authority Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, spoke about the question of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention facilities and legal and political implications, saying that in the light of the United Nations declaring 2014 the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People he was hopeful their situation could be improved.  Outlining the most recent statistics, Mr. Qaraqe said there were still 5,000 men and women Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, distributed over 22 prisons, camps and arrest centres in Israel.  They included 476 detainees serving one or more life sentences.  There were 19 women prisoners and 200 children prisoners.  There were 185 people under administrative detention, including 11 elected members of the Legislative Council as well as a number of political leaders.  More than 30 people had been in jail for over 20 years, including one Palestinian who had been in prison for 32 years.  Since the beginning of Israeli occupation in 1967, approximately 850,000 Palestinians of all ages and from all sections of society had been detained.  Arrests were conducted daily, a routine practice of the occupying force.   On average 323 cases of detention were registered each month, about 11 daily. 

Mr. Qaraqe spoke about children and said the youngest child to be detained was eight years old.  In 2013, children under the age of 18 years made up 75 per cent of detentions, and 95 per cent of children detained were subjected to cruel and difficult treatment and conditions.  They were tried as adults.  A report by a group of British lawyers released on 26 June 2012 said children were detained in conditions which could be tantamount to torture.  Mr. Qaraqe also spoke about the lack of fair trial for Palestinians in Israeli courts; about Israel’s lack of respect for international law in terms of dealing with prisoners.  He highlighted the lack of medical treatment for prisoners and claimed that Israeli pharmaceutical companies conducted experiments on over 1,000 Palestinian detainees.  Israel continued to practice administrative detention on an arbitrary basis, issuing 23,000 administrative detention orders since 2000.  Not a single Israeli individual had been prosecuted for interrogation crimes against Palestinian people.  The Israeli courts refused to open cases on allegations and complaints by prisoners and human rights organizations. 

Mr. Qaraqe hoped that the roundtable would consider a number of legal parameters, including Palestine’s status as an Observer State of the United Nations and its status in international law, which confirmed all United Nations resolutions stating that it was an occupied territory.  The occupying Power was contravening the Geneva Conventions, including by its systematic use of torture and humiliating treatment of Palestinian prisoners and it must be established that the Geneva Conventions applied to the occupying Power; the roundtable should consider the legal means by which Israel could be bound to its responsibilities under them.  Mr. Qaraqe made several recommendations, including that the General Assembly consider setting up a special court in accordance with the United Nations Charter to examine crimes by Israel against Palestinian prisoners;  that the legal opinion of the International Court of Justice be sought on the status of Palestinian prisoners in international law; and the establishment of a fact-finding mission composed of 15 members of the Geneva Conventions to investigate the situation of Palestinian prisoners.  Palestine’s possible succession to the Rome Statute should further be considered as a step towards prosecuting Israel for crimes against Palestinian prisoners, he also recommended. 


Notes for journalists and participants

Committee Members and Observers are requested to register with the Secretariat either at its Office or prior to entering the conference room. The main Secretariat is located in Office 1014/16 on the first floor of Building E. The telephone numbers of the Secretariat at the Palais des Nations are (41-22) 917-7124, 917-7128; the fax number is 917-0327. The e-mail is:
dpr-meeting@un.org.


For use of the information media; not an official record

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