Canada Makes Palestinian Human Rights a Pawn in Mideast Peace Talks

As John Kerry’s deadline fast approaches for concluding a ‘Framework Agreement’ in the resuscitated Israel-Palestine negotiations, few are optimistic. Those disparaging the deal, or even the need for a deal, appear to have the upper hand in both camps.  The Obama administration, newly preoccupied with Russia and with mounting security challenges in Asia and elsewhere, has itself made clear its fatigue and frustration with the lack of progress. Yet even within the logic of a process seemingly designed to disappoint, recent events are deeply disturbing.

Last week, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was condemned by Israel, the U.S. and Canada for taking “unilateral steps” “unhelpful” to the negotiations, and blamed for rupturing the negotiations. The steps in question? The Palestinians signed up to several international treaties, almost all of which deal with human rights and humanitarian issues; they place additional scrutiny not on Israel, but on the degree to which the PA itself respects the rights of the population living under its control.

We can still hope that Canadians might be shocked that Baird openly and energetically opposes steps that might better protect Palestinians from the excesses of their own government.

The treaties include the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the two major UN human rights covenants, UN treaties prohibiting torture and racial discrimination, and treaties that protect women’s and children’s rights and the rights of the disabled. They also applied to join a UN treaty against government corruption, and three agreements that largely codify customary rules on treaty interpretation and diplomatic relations.

The international press reported that Israel objected because the PA was furthering its quest for international recognition and seeking membership in new international bodies. This is false. Joining these treaties does not give the PA membership in a new intergovernmental body, as joining UNESCO did.  Some of the treaties include provision for occasional meetings of the states party to them—but the only international bodies created by these treaties are various independent committees composed not of state representatives but of experts that monitor state compliance with the treaty.

Moreover, Palestine was recognized in 2012 as a permanent “non-member observer state” by the UN General Assembly, and has signed many international agreements (with other states, the World Bank, donor governments and Israel itself). Also, on the test that matters most, Palestine is recognized as a state by over 130 other countries—far more than recognize Kosovo. It is hard to see how acceding to human rights treaties marks some crucial and destabilizing benchmark. In any event, the PA has a right to join these treaties, and the UN Secretary-General announced on April 9 that he was processing the requests.

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There is no shortage of reasons for scrutinizing the PA’s human rights record. Arbitrary detention of political opponents is common in both the West Bank and Gaza, as is torture and ill-treatment of detainees. Freedom of expression and assembly rights are curtailed, and women face violence and discrimination. And, of course, armed groups launch indiscriminate attacks from Gaza against Israeli towns, often with the connivance or acquiescence of the Hamas authorities.

By signing on to these treaties, all of these abuses and others will be subject to greater international scrutiny and potential censure. International accountability mechanisms are especially important given that presidential and parliamentary elections in Palestine haven’t been held since 2005 and 2006 respectively.

So why complain?  To be fair, Kerry himself did not single out the Palestinian action but criticized both parties for acting unilaterally. (Israel reneged on an agreement to release more Palestinian prisoners.)  For Israel’s part, the Netanyahu government not only has a general aversion to Palestinian statehood but is anxious lest the PA sign up to the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would expose Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories (OT) to ICC scrutiny. The PA’s signing on to human rights treaties might be seen as a precursor to that move. Even in this eventuality, however, the ICC would be bound to investigate all alleged war crimes in the OT; hence the PA’s treatment of political detainees and Hamas’s culpability in indiscriminate attacks would also attract the ICC’s interest.

As for Canada, the episode has once more exposed as a sham Foreign Minister Baird’s stated commitment to a principled foreign policy that defends human rights and the rule of law. Baird stated that he feels “compelled to express … serious concern and opposition” to the Palestinian’s “unilateral steps”—but how can he be in principle opposed to the PA assuming internationally-monitored obligations to treat its population more fairly and to govern in a less corrupt fashion? Even if, as some will suspect, the PA’s actions were a cynical move designed to provoke the Israeli government, they nevertheless give international legal force to efforts to make the PA more accountable.

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Canadians are no longer shocked that their government actively blocks Palestinian statehood with a vehemence even the Americans cannot muster. Nor is it shocking for Baird to label as “unilateral” almost any move the PA makes that upsets the Israeli government. It is intended to suggest rogue behavior somehow removed from established norms and verging on illegality. It deliberately casts the Palestinians as the obstacle to peace.

Nor is it shocking that Baird might oppose Palestinian efforts to use international legal avenues in support of their claim to self-determination, or to draw attention to and investigate alleged Israeli violations of the laws of war by joining the ICC. These positions no longer shock because they have become entrenched policy, the new status quo.

But we can still hope that Canadians might be shocked that Baird openly and energetically opposes steps that might better protect Palestinians from the excesses of their own government. There could be no better proof that the tail of his pro-Likud policy is so completely wagging the dog of his supposed commitment to human rights in the Middle East.

It has long been clear to the Palestinians that they could not rely on Israel’s allies in the U.S. and Canada to defend their human rights in the face of Israeli occupation. Now they will understand clearly that those same allies will also gladly leave the Palestinians exposed to the arbitrariness and corruption of their own government.  Is it any wonder they show such little enthusiasm for the promised peace?

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