Last week, more than 100 international legal experts and human rights defenders from around the world, among them former UN independent experts and leading law professors, issued a joint declaration denouncing the grave violations and “disrespect of the most basic principles of the laws of armed conflict and of the fundamental rights of the entire Palestinian population” during the ongoing Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, and calling for the international community, including the UN, Arab League, EU and the US, to establish clear mechanisms for accountability for international law violations. “Accountability cannot again be sidelined and stigmatized to serve political interests, our interests must be the protection of civilians and peace”, says Professor John Dugard, former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.
“Once again it is the unarmed civilian population, the ‘protected persons’ under International humanitarian law (IHL), which is in the eye of the storm, victimized in the name of a falsely construed right to self-defence, invoked after an escalation of violence provoked in the face of the entire international community,” says the Joint Declaration.
The declaration denounces the flouting of basic tenets of IHL, including the principle of distinction by which only combatants and military objectives can be targeted, and the principle of proportionality. Indiscriminate attacks against civilians, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators, are not only illegal under international law but also morally intolerable.
The Joint Declaration condemns the attacks on civilians. “Entire families have been murdered. Hospitals, clinics, as well as a rehabilitation centre for disabled persons have been targeted and severely damaged.” More than 100,000 civilians have been displaced.
It further rejects Israel’s claims of taking adequate measures to avoid civilian casualties in densely populated Gaza: “Issuing a ‘warning’ – as the roof knocking technique, or sending an SMS five minutes before the attack – does not change this fact: it remains illegal to wilfully attack a civilian home without a demonstration of military necessity and in disregard of the principle of proportionality.”
The Joint Declaration recalls the finding of the 2009 United Nations Fact-Finding Mission established after the Israeli offensive “Cast Lead,” which resulted in the death of more than 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians including over 300 children: “’While the Israeli Government has sought to portray its operations as essentially a response to rocket attacks in the exercise of its right to self defence, the Mission considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: The people of Gaza as a whole.’ (A/HRC/12/48, par. 1680). The same can be said for the current Israeli offensive.” Professor Richard Falk says “It is unacceptable that the international community takes no action while the civilian population of Gaza is trapped in an overcrowded war zone with no shelters and no exit from terrifying danger.”
The Joint Declaration places the ongoing Israeli offensive in the larger context of the suffering facing Palestinians of Gaza, recalling that “the entire population of the Gaza Strip, for over seven years, has been virtually imprisoned by the regime of closures imposed by Israel.” Impunity, the declaration says, must end.
Finally, the Joint Declaration calls on Palestine to join the International Criminal Court “in order to investigate and prosecute the serious international crimes committed on the Palestinian territory by all parties to the conflict” and denounces “the shameful political pressures exerted by several States and the UN on President Mahmoud Abbas, to discourage recourse to the ICC.”