Let’s Talk About Genocide: Palestine and United Nations Realpolitik

For other articles in this series 123, 4, 5678, 9, 10, 11

On the 7th of April 2004, then United Nations Secretary General to the Commission on Human Rights, Kofi Annan, launched his Action Plan to Prevent Genocide:

We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenceless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda 10 years ago. Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So what can we do?

In my series of articles about Israel’s ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people, I tackle this assertion through different aspects of prevention mechanisms that have been put forth by the United Nations, such as The Convention of Prevention of Genocide, the UN Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide statements, and other reports and documents. In this article, I’d like to discuss Annan’s plan, which is an overarching document and a promise of the UN to endangered communities that asses the dangers as they happen, and to bring it to task about its inaction to prevent Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian People.

Preventing Armed Conflict

When Israel is concerned, the world has failed Palestinians in preventing armed conflict, in over 66 years. The British mandate failed to stop the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias, failed to stop and indeed encouraged their colonisation of Palestinian land and the subsequent “legalising” of the colony of Israel by the United Nations, declaring it a state.

Since then, successive colony governments have designated Palestinians “as the enemy, and their lives held to be of no account. And from there, it is only one more step to the actual and deliberate elimination of these communities:  one more step, in other words, to genocide.” In Annan’s words, under this particular section of his plan. He goes on to say that “the best ways to reduce the chances of genocide is to address the causes of conflict” and enumerates these possible causes (I won’t touch on the main and obvious issue of colonisation here, as Annan doesn’t mention it, and this could be due to the very cautious wording of UN documents such as The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which say nothing of decolonisation of indigenous lands):

  • We must help countries strengthen their capacity to prevent conflict, at local and national levels.
  • We must do more at the regional level, to prevent conflict spilling over from one country to another.
  • We must give greater attention to environmental problems and tensions related to competition over natural resources.
  • We must work together with the international financial institutions, with civil society, and with the private sector, to ensure that young people get the chance to better themselves through education and peaceful employment, so that they are less easily recruited into predatory gangs and militias.
  • We must protect the rights of minorities, since they are genocide’s most frequent targets.
  • By all these means, and more, we must attack the roots of violence and genocide:  hatred, intolerance, racism, tyranny, and the dehumanizing public discourse that denies whole groups of people their dignity and their rights.

By all counts, since 2004 and before, the United Nations has failed, and I hope that in continuing to examine Annan’s plan, we may find out why.

Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict

Annan takes a stance of UN military intervention in the case of genocide, or early warning signs, stating basically that when genocide, or even “just” potential genocide, is the case, the United Nations must deploy the strictest of protection mechanisms:

Wherever civilians are deliberately targeted because they belong to a particular community, we are in the presence of potential, if not actual, genocide.

We can no longer afford to be blind to this grim dynamic. Nor should we imagine that appeals to morality, or compassion, will have much effect on people who have adopted a deliberate strategy of killing and forcible expulsion.

That is why many of our United Nations peacekeepers, today, are no longer restricted to using force only in self-defence. They are also empowered to do so in defence of their mandate, and that mandate often explicitly includes the protection of local civilians threatened with imminent violence.

So while Israel routinely, and deliberately targets Palestinian civilians because they belong to a particular community, wether in the West Bank, or the Gaza strip, the UN has never intervened militarily, nor has it done more than “constantly remind [the parties to the conflict] of their responsibility, under international humanitarian law, to protect civilians from violence” (which is the softest measure Annan mentions in this section), and send in its observers to write reports and recommendations.

In such an asymmetrical case of firepower and civilian casualty count, one must ask why the UN has not acted to protect civilians in this particular “armed conflict”, since 2004, at least? Especially since more and more voices- professional, or laypersons- are of the opinion that Israel is already committing genocide against the Palestinian people.

On a side note, there’s also the glaring question of why the Kofi Annan Action Plan to Prevent Genocide doesn’t include diplomatic action for the UN. The Palestinian people have, for a decade now, been asking the UN to take sanctions against Israel’s illegal economic activities in the form of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but I’ll get to sanctions a bit later.

Ending Impunity

We have little hope of preventing genocide, or reassuring those who live in fear of its recurrence, if people who have committed this most heinous of crimes are left at large, and not held to account.  It is therefore vital that we build and maintain robust judicial systems, both national and international, so that, over time, people will see there is no impunity for such crimes.

Working in parallel with a Rwandan justice system that has prosecuted many people who committed acts of genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has handed down landmark verdicts, which send a message to those who may be contemplating genocide in other countries. ~ Kofi Annan, Action Plan to Prevent Genocide

Meanwhile, two years ago in Malaysia, The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission (KLWCT) convicted the State of Israel guilty of genocide of the Palestinian people and convicted former Israeli general Amos Yaron for crimes against humanity and genocide for his involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacres. This, as journalist Nadezhda Kevorkova states, sets a much needed precedent:

The International Tribunal is part of the Kuala Lumpur Commission on War Crimes; however, these two institutions are not part of Malaysia’s judicial system, even though they employ judges and prosecutors of Malaysian background. Israel has no agreements signed with this or any other international court. Yet the Tribunal acts on the basis of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, which was signed and ratified by Israel. And this very signature, Israel’s membership in the UN and the fact that Israel owes its very existence to the UN and to the condemnation of genocide against Jews in the course of the World War II – all this at the very least gives us the right to challenge and discuss whether Israel’s own actions could fall into the category of genocide.

Another tribunal was held in Brussels in 2014- The Russell Tribunal Extraordinary Session on Gaza: Summary of findings. While it concluded that “Israel’s occupation policies appeared to be aimed at the control and subjugation of the Palestinian people, rather than their physical destruction”, the tribunal also concludes that Israel has committed Acts of Genocide:

It is clear that the Palestinians constitute a national group under the definition of genocide. It has been established that Israeli military activities considered under the heads of war crimes and crimes against humanity meet the acts set forth in sub-paragraphs (a) to (c) above.

But before all this and over a decade ago, in 2003, the Belgium supreme court ruled Ariel Sharon should be tried for genocide. Unfortunately, as Kevorkova straightforwardly describes the political situation in the above mentioned article:

Right now, Israel’s supporters are acting as though the Kuala Lumpur verdict can be neglected. But it won’t be long before they realize how dramatic the situation actually is: were the court to be situated in Europe, Israel would have lobbied its way out of the trial.

Which brings into question Koffi Annan’s statement in the Action Plan to Prevent Genocide:

The plan calls for a review of the work of this tribunal and others, both national and international, in punishing and suppressing genocide, so that we can learn lessons for the future.  It calls for special attention to countries that have experienced conflict or are at risk from it.  And it calls for greater efforts to achieve wide ratification of the Rome Statute, so that the new International Criminal Court can deal effectively with crimes against humanity, whenever national courts are unable or unwilling to do so.

In the latest inclusion of Palestine in the International Criminal Court we see that not only is Israel lobbying its way out of a trial, but it is in fact belligerent towards the ICC institution:

In withholding $127 million in Palestinian Authority (PA) customs revenues from the authority, as retaliation for its application to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Israeli government has once again dangerously escalated tensions…

Israel supported the establishment of the ICC in 2002 – with its mandate to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – but has refused to ratify it, insisting that it and most UN institutions are inherently hostile. It will never get a fair hearing, Israel argues, and an adjudication on its role in the West Bank and Gaza represents a dangerous internationalisation of the conflict, prejudging issues to be resolved in the course of negotiations.

This hostility in itself is a violation of Israel’s obligation towards the people under its military occupation, and the ICC’s hesitancy in the case of Israel is, in fact, perpetuating its impunity to commit genocide.

Update: On Januray 18th, Israel began calling member states to divest from the International Criminal Court.

Early and Clear Warning

One of the reasons for our failure in Rwanda was that beforehand we did not face the fact that genocide was a real possibility.  And once it started, for too long we could not bring ourselves to recognize it, or call it by its name.

If we are serious about preventing or stopping genocide in future, we must not be held back by legalistic arguments about whether a particular atrocity meets the definition of genocide or not.  By the time we are certain, it may often be too late to act.  We must recognize the signs of approaching or possible genocide, so that we can act in time to avert it.

For Annan, it simply isn’t relevant if Acts of Genocide are met with the qualifying intent-to-commit-genocide. He believes that the United Nations should take timely action as soon as “civilians are deliberately targeted because they belong to a particular community”. He sees early warning mechanisms as vital to the identifying of a potential genocidal situation:

Here, civil society groups can play a vital role.  Often it is their reports that first draw attention to an impending catastrophe — and far too often, they are ignored. The United Nations human rights system, too, has a special responsibility.  This Commission, through the work of its Special Rapporteurs, independent experts and working groups, as well as the treaty bodies and the Office of the High Commissioner, should be well placed to sound the alarm.

I’ve once heard that Palestine has the most NGO’s per square meter. While I have no source for this statement, it’s definitely got its fair share. With the endless reports, fact-finding missions, special rapporteurs and volenteers, once again, we must then question: Can the United Nations claim it didn’t know?

But Annan asserted in 2004 that “The challenge is to bring all this information together in a focused way, so as to better understand complex situations”. And this is why he created the post of Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.

Over a decade later, we find that when it comes to Palestine, not only is the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide unwilling to bring all this information together in a focused way, but he’s also directly engaged in blaming the victims of genocide for exercising their legal right to resist genocide:

Answering a question on Gaza, [Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng] said he was not here to make a legal determination of genocide but analyse the risk of genocide. Last summer’s conflict may have led to crimes against humanity or war crimes. He was aware of Israel’s disproportionate military response. But when you send rockets from a civilian area, like Hamas did, that is a crime as well.

Swift and Decisive Action

Shrewdly, Annan foresaw the political hurdles which create the current UN impotence in the face of Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people:

Too often, even when there is abundant warning, we lack the political will to act. 

And while he still emphasises United Nations military intervention, he regulates it to “extreme cases”, while unsurprisingly still having trouble differentiating between “extreme” threats of genocide and possibly less extreme (?!) threats of genocide.

We badly need clear guidelines on how to identify such extreme cases and how to react to them.  Such guidelines would ensure that we have no excuse to ignore a real danger of genocide when it does arise.  They would also provide greater clarity, and thus help to reduce the suspicion that allegations of genocide might be used as a pretext for aggression.

On another side note, I find that last sentence about genocide being used as pretext for aggression bitterly ironic, seeing as Israel has been using it for the past 66 years. But to our issue, Annan points out the efforts to create such guidelines by International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in their document A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility. The report is comprehensive far beyond this article’s specific scope, but several recommendations caught my eye. But before I delve into them, I’d like to note that even though the 20th century has been dubbed by many genocide scholars “the century of genocide”, and the UN Secretary General saw fit to create the post of Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, genocide isn’t a separate issue in this report, but a subcategory of “internal conflict”, under the umbrella topic of when breaking the holiness of state sovereignty is permissible.

That said, the obvious civil society tools aren’t lost on the United Nations. In fact, the UN sees civil society action as key:

91. in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, civil society organizations and the Security Council have turned to the “naming and shaming” of, and the imposition of sanctions against, individuals and corporations involved in illicit trade, and States have made a particular attempt to restrict the sale of “conflict diamonds”. Evidence from Sierra Leone and Angola suggests that such efforts contributed to ending those civil wars.

94. The United Nations should seek to work closely with regional organizations that have taken the lead in building frameworks for prevention. The United Nations can benefit from sharing information and analysis with regional early-warning systems, but more importantly regional organizations have gone farther than the United Nations in setting normative standards that can guide preventive efforts. For example, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the African Union (AU) agree on the need to protect elected Governments from coups. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has developed operational norms on minority rights. The United Nations should build on the experience of regional organizations in developing frameworks for minority rights and the protection of democratically elected Governments from unconstitutional overthrow.

99. Although some field-based agencies participate in early-warning mechanisms and international non-governmental organizations have played a major role in recent years in providing timely information, analysis and advocacy, the Secretary-General’s access to local analysis of conflict is sharply limited. Greater interaction by United Nations political, peacekeeping and humanitarian departments with outside sources of early-warning information and of local knowledge of conflicts would enhance United Nations conflict management. Also, in the past few years, research institutions (in academia and in other international organizations) have begun to compile both the necessary data and sophisticated analysis of various causes and accelerators of different kinds of conflict. United Nations policy sections should engage more actively with local sources of knowledge and outside sources of research.

In the Palestinian context, we actually already know that the UN makes use of local organisations such as B’tselem to document and address Israel’s systematic human rights violations, or Who Profits, who essentially “name and shame” individuals and corporations involved in illicit trade. One can only hope they start making use of other BDS groups and organisations, and groups that compile both the necessary data and “sophisticated analysis of various causes and accelerators” to Israel’s genocide.

90. In the area of legal mechanisms, there have been few more important recent developments than the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court. In cases of mounting conflict, early indication by the Security Council that it is carefully monitoring the conflict in question and that it is willing to use its powers under the Rome Statute might deter parties from committing crimes against humanity and violating the laws of war. The Security Council should stand ready to use the authority it has under the Rome Statute to refer cases to the International Criminal Court.

I shortly referred to Israel’s hostility towards the ICC earlier in this article, but unfortunately, up until recently it wasn’t the only unwilling party. The Palestinian Authority’s “strategic” procrastinations over bringing Israel to the ICC aside, The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) asserts that the International Criminal Court can exercise jurisdiction due to the magnitude of the crimes, despite ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensoud’s claims otherwise. It’s exactly this kind of hiding behind technicalities, which has enabled Israel to continue it’s genocide unabated since 1947. As The NLG assess in it’s letter to Bensoud:

It is unlikely that the ICC could take jurisdiction pursuant to a UN Security Council referral in light of the fact that the United States has veto power in the Council. 

To wrap up this analysis of the political hurdles to recognising that Israel’s systematic human rights violations of the Palestinian people amounts to genocide, let’s talk about sanctions:

179. Targeted sanctions (financial, travel, aviation or arms embargoes) are useful for putting pressure on leaders and elites with minimal humanitarian consequences, provide a less costly alternative to other options and can be tailored to specific circumstances. By isolating violators of international standards and laws, even modest sanctions measures (including sports embargoes) can serve an important symbolic purpose. The threat of sanctions can be a powerful means of deterrence and prevention.

Unfortunately, most of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s report’s treatment of the issue of sanctions has to do with the so-called “War on Terror” rather than the root causes of the formation of militant groups, mirroring the political priorities of the UN Security council. However, as we can see from the above quote, the commission firmly recommends to make use, not only of sanctions, but also of boycotts and divestment, specifically for “leaders and elites”. Not only that:

180. (e) The Security Council should, in instances of verified, chronic violations, impose secondary sanctions against those involved in sanctions-busting;

Meaning that any aiders and abetters to Israel’s genocide must also be sanctioned.

And if any anti-BDS folks out there are still worried about the consequences for Israel:

181. Sanctions committees should improve procedures for providing humanitarian exemptions and routinely conduct assessments of the humanitarian impact of sanctions. The Security Council should continue to strive to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of sanctions.

As a BDS activist, what amazes me is that an organisation of the UN’s magnitude and organisational capacities can’t wrap its head around what tens of thousands of people are already doing at a non-hierarchal, worldwide grassroots level. Though the guidelines have been clearly delineated way back in 2004, the UN’s “national security” politics seem to make it hard for it to identify the crimes that it itself defines, and to take “swift and decisive” action to prevent it, let alone to make it stop. In the case of Palestinians, this means genocide. And I end with the words of Kofi Annan, as he summed up his Action Plan to Prevent Genocide:

But let us not wait until the worst has happened, or is already happening. Let us not wait until the only alternatives to military action are futile hand-wringing or callous indifference. Let us, Mr. Chairman, be serious about preventing genocide. Only so can we honour the victims whom we remember today. Only so can we save those who might be victims tomorrow. 

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