Unmet Potential: The UN Committee on Palestine

Al-Shabaka Policy Brief

Excluding Civil Society

Schechla places primary responsibility for the Committee’s ineffectiveness on civil society organizations that have failed to exert substantial pressure on its member states, unlike the way in which civil society lobbied member states of the UN Council for Namibia and the Special Committee on Apartheid. He adds that the African committees were a “productive outfit” and that were there a better understanding of the Committee’s potential, it would increase civil society efforts because “we have a standard that should be met.”

Wolfgang Grieger, Secretary for the Committee, comments that for the Committee to be more effective, NGOs need to make more of an effort to engage their diplomatic missions to the UN. He adds that NGOs must “…come speak, express your views, and participate.”

The Committee had existed for nearly a decade before it integrated civil society in a meaningful way. In 1983, the UN opened its doors to NGOs by affording them special consultative status to the Economic and Social Council. That same year, the Committee convened an International Peace Conference on the Question of Palestine that featured civil society organizations. It thereafter coordinated civil society participation in the form of formal regional bodies whose elections were facilitated by the UN.6This arrangement hit its first speed bump in the early 1990s when civil society actors used the space afforded by the Committee to condemn and reproach the diplomatic missions for their participation in the Oslo peace process. Consequently, in 1999, the Committee ended its formal relationship to civil society in a letter where it announced the cessation of UN-coordinated elections as well as financial support.

Grieger explains that the “regional committees took votes that contradicted the Committee mandates...so no more elections, no more meetings, you go to Geneva for human rights issues, and come to the Committee to proceed with the national rights discussions.”

Indeed, NGO participation in the Committee’s sponsored activities and conferences has been dismal since the Oslo peace process began in 1993. Grieger explains that after Oslo, civil society participation dropped by half. The reasons include a loss in financial support as well as internal Palestinian political strife, however the fundamental issue is that Oslo seemingly bifurcated Palestinian aspirations for self-determination into two tracks: a political track and a human rights one.

Bifurcating national and human rights

The divergence between civil society members and the diplomatic missions of member states falls along this divide where member states have supported the peace process and their NGO counterparts have supported mechanisms of accountability to redress human rights violations. Unlike other conflict resolution efforts, the U.S. and Israel have framed accountability and the peace process as mutually exclusive in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, thereby burying approaches that were successful in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and, to some extent, in the Balkans.

Complicating matters further is that after Hamas routed Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Washington has provided the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) with substantial diplomatic and financial support, affording it considerable influence over the official Palestinian political agenda. This has exacerbated the tension between the national and human rights tracks as well as between Palestinian civil society and the PLO at the UN.

Unfortunately, the discussion of national rights within the UN is based on the U.S.-controlled peace process and neither the Oslo Accords nor any subsequent agreements are predicated on established international law including the laws of occupation and human rights norms. Instead, the negotiations establish their own framework as the terms of reference. Moreover, the political track provides no redress for human rights violations because the PLO is beholden to the U.S., which is dismissive of a rights-based approach. Phyllis Bennis, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a consistent participant in the Committee’s international civil society meetings comments that PLO antagonism was directed at “the politics of the civil society organizations and not civil society organizations themselves, because the PLO wanted to keep its eggs in the U.S. basket.”

The Committee’s emphasis on national rights and the political track reflects its deference to the PLO, deemed the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” since 1974 when the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3236 and gave it observer status at the UN.7 “The Committee has a loyalty to the PLO position and decided to support the PLO in its signing of Oslo,” says Grieger.

However, whereas loyalty to the PLO has historically amounted to solidarity with the Palestinian people, this is no longer the case since Hamas’s legislative victory in 2006. Moreover, since the expiration of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential term in January 2009, the expiration of his one-year extension, and its indefinite extension by the PLO Central Committee in December 2009, the Ramallah-based PA which is dominated by Fatah has operated without a democratic mandate and has depended almost entirely on the U.S. for financial support and legitimacy among UN member states.8 Furthermore, neither Hamas nor Fatah represent the Palestinians outside of the OPT.

Civil society actors, both Palestinian and global, have recently accused the PLO of failing to uphold its responsibilities at the UN because some of its most critical decisions have reflected U.S. interests rather than national Palestinian aspirations. A case in point is the PLO’s handling of the Goldstone Report, the UN-sponsored investigation of Israel’s 2008-2009 winter invasion of Gaza. In late September 2009, Abbas withdrew Palestinian support for a vote in the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to send the report to the UN General Assembly where it could be underpinned by political action, including referral of the Report and its war crimes allegations to the International Criminal Court. According to media reports that emerged at the time, Abbas succumbed to intense U.S. pressure to table Goldstone in order to renew the Israel-Palestinian peace talks.9

Notwithstanding the absence of a functioning Palestinian National Council, Palestinian intellectuals, activists, advocates, grassroots organizations, and political parties, from within Israel, the OPT, the Arab world, and the global Diaspora rose in protest, even going so far as to demand Abbas’s resignation for impeding a process that could ultimately lead to war crimes tribunals and broader forms of Israeli accountability.10

The PLO worked frantically to conduct damage control and resume the process, but their resolve was short-sighted. After the Goldstone Report moved from the Human Rights Council to the General Assembly, the PLO failed to curry support for a meaningful resolution, partially in deference to U.S. preferences, and the Goldstone Report made its way back to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.11 The Council established a Committee of Independent Experts charged with assessing the adequacy of the ongoing domestic investigations in Israel and the OPT. In October 2010, the Experts issued a report finding that both Israeli and Palestinian investigations were inadequate but failed to make substantive recommendations to rectify this shortcoming, including referring the Report to the International Criminal Court for investigation.12

Instead, under the direction of the PLO, the Committee afforded Israel and the Palestinians another six months to continue and enhance their domestic investigations to be reviewed by the Human Rights Council in March 2011. However, absent guidance from the PLO and political will on the part of UN member states to achieve accountability, even the most thorough investigations will be rendered meaningless. If the PLO fails to prioritize redress for gross human rights violations committed during Operation Cast Lead over possible political gains, justice will remain an elusive goal, especially for the Palestinians residing in Gaza.13