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UNICEF's translation of torture to 'ill-treatment'

January 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

UNICEF’s report, Children in Israeli Military Detention, Observations and Recommendations, detailing the condition of Palestinian children detained in Israel’s military jails fails to address torture as a modus operandi, relying instead on euphemisms such as “ill treatment” or “duress” to describe solitary confinement, beatings and threats of sexual violence. While admitting the “widespread, systematic and institutionalised process,” the report malfunctions on several issues. It refuses to acknowledge the correct term for torture. There is also the expectation of adherence to applicable international law in the case of Israel. The recommendations “to improve the protection of children within the system” can be interpreted as a safeguard for Israel as opposed to protection for minors whose rights have been violated relentlessly by the occupation.

The press release regarding this report was also mired in inconsistencies, according to a report in The Australian, reproduced in part by Mondoweiss. Journalists were not allowed to film the press conference with the exception of the initial five minutes, during which UNICEF’s Jerusalem chief Jean Gough uttered words of praise for Israel’s “dialogue about the system under which Palestinian children from the age of 12 are tried by Israeli soldiers, while Jewish children in the neighbouring settlements are tried before civilian courts.” Journalists reported that once the filmed introductory phase was over a different scenario unfolded during which UNICEF officials admitted to Israeli human rights abuse against Palestinian children in detention. However, it seems as if self-censorship or pressure from Israel – in order for the occupation to garner a favourable image in the media – might have been pivotal factors that were not limited to the conference, considering the manner in which the actual reference to torture was eliminated from the report.

The report gives an overview of the rights of the child in accordance with international law, correctly deeming the prohibition against torture as absolute. However, one must question the motive behind downplaying these atrocities to a statement of “ill treatment.” UNICEF’s report documents the human rights violations happening throughout the years, including the arrests occurring between midnight and dawn, the blindfolds and plastic ties to restrain children’s movement, deprivation of food, water, toilet facilities and medical care, physical violence and threats to obtain coerced confessions and eliminating the right to defence by prohibiting legal advice, denying family visits and transferring detained children to jails beyond the occupied territories. In view of this dehumanisation, the report further isolates the Palestinian narrative by asserting a generalisation of torture with regard to specific legal framework and failing to apply a rigid stance when faced with actual torture practices. This misrepresentation is aided by international organisations and governments whose collaboration with Israel runs deeper than their alleged commitment to safeguarding human rights.

Israel may boast of attributions which serve to conceal the true nature of the colonial occupation, bolstered by the fact that human rights have become a constant chant in Israeli and international rhetoric, albeit misplaced. Despite knowledge of torture practices and the incorporation of torture under Israeli law on the pretext of dealing with ‘terrorists,’ Israel represents itself as dedicated to safeguarding human rights by manipulating rhetoric. Israel’s constant emphasis on security has become one exhausted metaphor, yet it still serves to align international official discourse with its actions. A discussion of how Israel has mangled the concept of universal human rights and manipulated its definition to suit the purposes of the occupier population should be necessary in order to dispel unfounded sympathy with Israel. By failing to address this discrepancy, international organisations, including the UN and its affiliates, have splintered Palestinian memory and isolated the collective experience from legal measures which have made it possible for Israel to persist in its illegal occupation. Thus the expectation of Israel adhering to international law is merged into the misleading, constructed stereotype of a country which violates human rights only as a last resort, making the consequences sound trivial as opposed to methodical oppression.

UNICEF’s recommendations are detached from the ramifications of colonial occupation. Primarily, the recommendations are not a condemnation resulting in consequences for Israel. Rather, they are “intended to assist Israeli officials to adopt a series of practical safeguards that would improve the protection of children under military detention and prevent practices that breach the absolute prohibition against torture and cruelty, inhuman or degrading treatment. Some of these safeguards would also assist the authorities in dispelling any false allegations of wrongdoing.” Israel is also described as having “legitimate security concerns and its duty to protect from violence its citizens and other persons under its jurisdiction or de facto control.” By regurgitating Israel’s own discourse regarding security, UNICEF has distanced itself from the nature of Palestinian resistance against colonial and racist domination, which is deemed legitimate according to international law. The right to self-determination is enshrined within international law, yet UNICEF’s slant in the report favours Israel’s security concerns over the tangible security concerns of Palestinians who have endured decades of dispossession, exile, war and massacres in the name of Zionist ideology.

The essence of Israeli dominance is supported by apartheid practices, therefore any recommendations which would result in the disruption and weakening of the power structure would be disregarded. It is difficult to comprehend how these recommendations are expected to change the lives of Palestinian children in Israeli jails when not even UN resolutions are binding, let alone reports written in a manner which inadvertently exhibits solidarity with soldiers involved in torture and interrogation. It is evident that diplomacy fails to further the cause of the oppressed, yet the use of language by a human rights organisation which fragments resistance into an isolated trait epitomised by the detention of Palestinian children for “throwing stones” at vehicles creates a reverberation of indignation. Faced with such distorted concern, it seems as if the threat of solitary confinement for Palestinians looms further than the borders of physical incarceration in Israeli jails.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.