Last year the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) voted to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate killings on the Gaza border. The UK government, regrettably, abstained on that vote.
After months of careful investigation, the inquiry’s report is now published and contains alarming findings. Chief among them is the finding that there are “grounds to believe Israeli forces committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”, and that “these may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity”.
This week, the HRC will be voting on a resolution to endorse the report and urge the implementation of its recommendations. With its vote, the UK will show whether it protects human rights, shrugs its shoulders and abstains, or completely turns its back on international law. In making that decision, UK ministers should remind themselves of some context.
Weekly demonstrations began in Gaza early last year. While they were civilian in nature, Hamas encouraged the use of incendiary kites and balloons, which caused damage and fear in southern Israel. As the report shows, these incidents were by far the exception rather than the norm.
It is important to note why the protests happened in the first place. Though Israel withdrew its forces from the strip some years ago, in terms of international law, it remains the occupying power due to its continued effective control over the territory, blocking the movement of people and essential goods. This blockade condemns millions of civilians in Gaza to poverty, chronic unemployment, daily power cuts and water supplies unfit for human consumption. The blockade is now entering its twelfth year and the humanitarian crisis there continues to worsen.
Last week, UK MPs met with two doctors who were on duty at the peak of the protests on 14 May last year. Their accounts were chilling. One of them was shot in both legs by Israeli forces while evacuating casualties. His rescuer, another medic, was fatally shot in the chest while wearing a paramedic vest. Working at Gaza’s biggest hospital, the second doctor we spoke to said he triaged hundreds of patients in a single hour and that, by the end of his shift, he was soaked in the blood of his patients. He also said that, with the blockade causing shortages of critical medical supplies, all too often the only pain relief that could be given to patients was standard headache pills.
In just a few hours that day, more than 60 Palestinians were killed, over 1,300 injured by live fire, and thousands more suffered other injuries. The doctor we met last week, and his rescuer who died, were not the only medics shot despite wearing clothes that clearly marked them as non-combatants. Several journalists suffered similar fates despite wearing press vests. It was in response to such events that the HRC set up their inquiry.
This makes the UK’s abstention on the vote last year even more shocking. Instead of joining 29 countries who voted for the inquiry, the UK called on Israel to conduct its own investigation, despite warnings from human rights experts about Israel’s poor record of doing so. It was also in spite of Israeli officials reportedly saying conducting their own investigation would let them avoid scrutiny by international bodies. True to form, Israel refused to participate in the inquiry. The UK said it would instead ensure that Israel’s investigation was impartial and had “an international element”. No progress on that front either.
The report is clear that without accountability, violations will continue. The UK government must take that warning extremely seriously. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of our duty to international law.
Equally as grave is the precedent it would set if the UK were to ignore the inquiry’s findings, contributing to a culture of impunity that Israel has displayed for years. It is clear in the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, which the UK government does nothing to halt. It is clear in the detention of Palestinian children, with their fundamental rights trampled over with no consequence. And it is clear in the regular use of excessive force against Palestinian civilians.
If the UK gives licence to violate international law with impunity, how does that reflect our promotion of human rights? What of other regimes that abuse civilians and disregard international norms? Now, more than ever, the UK has a role to play in strengthening multilateralism and the rule of law. We cannot pick and choose where we want international law to be applied and to whom. These rights must be universal, otherwise they become hollow.
That’s why this vote has such heavy implications, reaching beyond this issue, and why the UK government must act in line with its stated values by supporting the Report at the Human Rights Council.
Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan and chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and chair of the APPG on Palestine.