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To abstain is to deny Palestinians their rights

May 4, 2014 at 3:56 pm

The Palestinian Authority’s failure to get the required support in the Security Council for admission to the UN is not surprising. The perfidious US veto was always going to be hanging over the proceedings, even if support from the minimum of nine states was achieved. What is regretful, however, is the cowardly position adopted by the British government not once, but twice.

Evidently lacking the courage to oppose its historic protégé Israel, the British government abstained in the vote on Palestinian membership of UNESCO; 107 countries including Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa and France voted in favour. Content to remain in a lowly and discredited league, Foreign Secretary William Hague, announced this week that Britain will also abstain in a Security Council vote on Palestine’s application for full membership of the UN.

The days when governments could hide behind the façade of abstention on Palestine are surely over. After more than six decades of denial, it is a case of justice against injustice; self-determination against colonial domination. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Silence in the face of oppression is to take the side of the oppressor.” There is no room for neutrality.

The UN General Assembly ordered colonial states in 1960 “…to transfer all powers to the people of those territories, without any conditions or reservations, in accordance with their freely expressed will and desire, without any distinction as to race, creed, or colour, in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom.”[Res 1514, XV] This resolution which affirms Palestinian aspirations remains unfulfilled to this day. The denial of self-determination is unlawful and contrary to the UN Charter. As a member of the Security Council, Britain should feel a special responsibility to uphold its principles and ideals. Indeed, it should lead by example to ensure respect for and adherence to international norms, not look for ways to circumvent them.

The government’s position veers towards the scandalous, not only because of its abstention, but also for the reason given. Mr Hague told parliament that while Britain was supportive of the Palestine quest for statehood it had to be pursued through negotiations with Israel rather than via the UN. He gave no reason or explanation as to why the existence of a Palestinian state would impede negotiations with Israel. The fact is that negotiations would have much a better chance when conducted between two entities of equal status as independent states, especially as the primary mediator – the US – has proven itself to be utterly partisan and anything but an honest broker.

By insisting that Palestinian statehood should only come about through negotiations with Israel, Hague was in effect confirming what Palestinians have always maintained: Israel is a colonial entity.

Paradoxically, one may argue that Hague was right to eschew the UN. It never had any legal right to partition Palestine and create the State of Israel in the first place. Its predecessor, the League of Nations had, in its Covenant (Article 22), declared that the countries detached from the former Ottoman Empire, Palestine included, should be recognised as independent.

With this in mind it would be more beneficial for parliament to have a genuine debate about the issue, with no holds barred. Instead of theatrical shouting matches parliament needs to be reminded that Israel is the only state to be granted conditional membership of the UN. Under General Assembly Resolution 273, Israel was admitted on the condition that it allows all Palestinians the right to return to their homes. This provision is embodied in General Assembly Resolution 194. Since Israel is in serial breach of its terms of admission, the General Assembly should declare Resolution 273 null and void, and cancel Israel’s membership.

No self-respecting country could repudiate the fact that the right to self-determination is an essential principle of contemporary international law. Whenever this right is breached, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) insists that a clear obligation falls upon third-party States to remedy the situation, not prolong it. This was specifically articulated by the ICJ in July 2004 when it issued its advisory opinion on Israel’s construction of its wall across the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem included. It said: “It is also for all States, while respecting the United Nations Charter and international law, to see to it that any impediment, resulting from the construction of the wall, to the exercise by the Palestinian people of its right to self determination is brought to an end.”

The obligation of third-party States to address breaches of international law is also codified in the International Law Commission’s 2001 Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts. Under article 41, paragraph 2, all States are legally obliged not to recognise as lawful, aid or assist unlawful situations arising out of serious breaches of international law. They are duty bound to take action to bring such breaches to an end. Article 16 explicitly states that any State which knowingly aids or assists another State in the commission of a breach of international law is itself complicit in and responsible for the commission of the breach.

If Israel’s response to the admission of Palestine to UNESCO was not enough to bring about a new thinking in British policy nothing will be. When the Netanyahu government announced that it would build 60,000 housing units in occupied east Jerusalem because of the UNESCO vote, Britain could have done the morally decent thing, but it didn’t. The British government’s abstention is not an act of neutrality. It can only be seen as an act of support for Israel in its denial of Palestinian rights. The decision by UNESCO to admit Palestine is evidence of how much Britain has become isolated in the world. Hague’s talk of negotiations is hollow and farcical, confirming a stubborn determination to stand alone with Israel, devoid of credibility and respect among nations.

For this reason Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should stand firm and reject any call to negotiate while illegal settlement activity continues, especially in Jerusalem. More contorted negotiations would only buy time for the Israeli colonisers to erase the Arab presence and create a Jewish majority in the city, thereby pre-empting any possibility of it becoming the capital of a Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, we continue to look for a British government which has the courage, honesty and willingness to recognise the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and vote in international forums accordingly. To abstain is to deny the Palestinians their rights.