The closing weeks of 2014 spelled disaster for US leadership and the rule of law.
During the last two weeks of December, the US countered three different efforts designed to affirm Palestinian rights. It was unfortunate since in doing so the US undercut its stated commitments to uphold the rule of law in international relations and to support a non-violent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On December 17, 2014, representatives of 126 countries who had endorsed the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Convention) met at the invitation of the Swiss government and, by consensus, passed a 10 point Declaration reaffirming the applicability of the Convention to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. After working behind the scenes for months pressuring the Swiss to cancel the session, the US was one of a small number of countries that declined to attend the meeting.
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The Fourth Geneva Convention was written and ratified by the international community at the end of World War II and was designed to insure that the abuses that occurred during that war would not be repeated or tolerated in future conflicts. Among the Convention’s provisions are prohibitions against: the annexation of occupied territory; the transfer by the Occupying Power of its population into the territory; and the individual or mass forcible transfers and deportations of the territory’s indigenous population. It also prohibits: altering the status of the occupied people’s public officials; destruction of public property; all forms of collective punishment; administrative detention; violence, insults and intimidation of the occupied population; and the use of physical coercion and torture. Further the Convention obligates the Occupying Power to humanely treat the population under their control and to respect their human and legal rights to due process under the law.
The consensus declaration issued at the meeting’s end called on the Occupying Power (Israel) to “fully and effectively respect the Fourth Geneva Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”.
Since the US has, in the past, affirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the occupied territories and since there is indisputable evidence that in the past four and a half decades Israel has repeatedly violated each of the Convention’s provisions, US effort to block the meeting and then its refusal to attend the session calls into question its commitment to the Convention and reinforces Israel’s sense that it can act, with impunity, against the Palestinians.
Also on December 17, 2014, the Royal Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan submitted an Arab League endorsed resolution to the United Nations Security Council reaffirming the right of Palestinians to self-determination, calling for renewed negotiations to conclude with a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and “affirming the need to attain, no later than 12 months …a just, lasting, and comprehensive peaceful solution that brings an end to the Israeli occupation since 1967 and fulfills the vision of two independent, democratic and prosperous states, Israel and a sovereign, contiguous and viable State of Palestine living side by side in peace and security”.
As expected, the US objected to the resolution calling it “deeply unbalanced” and “unconstructive” since it included “deadlines that take no account of Israel’s legitimate security concerns”. The US lobbied the Arabs not to submit the resolution and then pressed other countries to oppose it or to abstain. Then, on December 30th, the US voted against the resolution.
In acting as it did, the US ignored the fact that much of the language of the resolution comes from positions they have previously endorsed. Far from being unbalanced, it included language condemning terrorism against civilians and acts of incitement, and included a call for the implementation of security arrangements to guarantee peace.
What the US also ignored in opposing the resolution was that it was the Palestinian’s frustration with the US-led peace-making effort that prompted their leadership to submit it in the first place. In the 21 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the US has shown itself to be incapable of acting as an “honest broker” in the peace process. Successive Administrations have turned a blind eye to Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights, allowing Israel to have its way with the people whose lives they control—dictating terms and imposing conditions, frustrating not only the chances for peace, but also humiliating the moderate Palestinian leadership with whom they were supposed to be negotiating in good faith. The result is that 21 years after Oslo, all we see is “all process and no peace”, while the number of Israeli settlers in occupied territories has tripled and the Palestinian Authority has become a dependency, lacking authority and legitimacy. It was in a last ditch effort to assert themselves and demonstrate that their non-violent political approach to a solution could bear fruit, that led the Palestinian leadership to advance this resolution at the UN. By slapping it down, the US reinforced the intransigence of the Israelis and sent Palestinians the wrong message, at the wrong time.
Reeling from this blow, the Palestinian Authority made the decision on December 30th to sign onto the Rome Statute (paving the way for their application to join the International Criminal Court) and 19 other international agreements. In response, Israel threatened to withhold tax transfers, it is obliged to send to the PA, and to deny PA officials the right to travel—demonstrating, ever so clearly, their complete control over the lives of the people they hold subject. The US reaction was predictable, with the State Department calling the move “counterproductive”. As predictable were calls by some members of Congress to suspend US assistance to the Palestinians.
There are several concerns that emerge from these recent US actions. The first is that the diplomatic approach taken by the Palestinian leadership has run into a dead end. US behavior over the past several decades have made it clear that the US simply cannot fairly manage the “peace process” portfolio and will attempt to block any initiative to involve anyone else in the effort. The imbalance about which we should be concerned is not in the language of a UN resolution. Rather it is in the unfettered control that Israel has over all aspects of Palestinian life. The virtual rape of the occupied territories and the humiliation of the Palestinian people and their leadership has produced a frightful situation in which the US stands unwilling to act. The result is a dangerous brew of Israeli impunity and Palestinian humiliation.
Also of concern is the inability of the US to affirm the very framework of international law it claims to uphold. Far from the Arabs “singling out Israel for criticism”, as Israel’s supporters are quick to charge, US actions end up singling out Israel as the one country that escapes criticism for its illegal behavior. By making this Israel exception, the US undercuts not only its stated commitment to the rule of law, it makes a mockery of the law itself.