Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | January 18, 2016
The ‘United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967’, Dr Makarim Wibisono, submitted his resignation to the president of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on January 4, and it will be effective from March 31. Wibisono cited the non-cooperation of Israel for his resignation. He stated he had deep regrets that throughout his mandate despite repeated requests Israel did not give him access to the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT) to enable him to directly interview victims of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law by the Israeli forces.
The mandate of the special rapporteur includes documenting and reporting on “human rights violations perpetrated by all duty bearers in the oPt, with a view to ensuring accountability for human rights violations. This includes a specific focus on the right to life and security, freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, arrest and detention of children, human rights defenders, and accountability for settler violence”.
The special rapporteur for oPT was a title established in 1993 under the UN Commission on Human Rights. Wibisono is the sixth such Special Rapporteur.
“It is my sincere hope that whoever succeeds me will manage to resolve the current impasse, and so reassure the Palestinian people that after nearly half a century of occupation the world has not forgotten their plight and that universal human rights are indeed universal,” he said after submitting his resignation.
Wibisono’s career spans over 40 years in the UN, the Indonesian government and in academia. He is a former Indonesian ambassador and permanent representative to the UN in New York and Geneva apart from holding other diplomatic positions. In the UN, Wibisono held senior level positions, including as the chairman of the 61st UN Commission on Human Rights, president of the UN Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). He was also the advisor to the National Commission of Human Rights in Indonesia.
The Palestine question has been one of the most volatile agenda items in the UN Commission on Human Rights and now in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The Palestinian territories have been simmering with human rights violations for almost 50 years now. On January 6, the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) demolished five residential structures in the vulnerable community of Abu Nwar, in Area C near East Jerusalem in the midst of the winter leaving 26 refugees, including 17 children, displaced and without a home. Abu Nwar is one of 50 Palestinian Bedouin communities in Area C that have been slated for transfer to three proposed “relocation” sites by the Israeli authorities. Forcible transfer is a grave breach under the Fourth Geneva Convention. UNRWA, a UN agency mandated to provide assistance and protection to some 5 million registered Palestine refugees, stated: “Israel, as the Occupying Power, has strict obligations under international law regarding the prohibition of the destruction of private property and of forcible transfer, including as a result of policies creating a coercive environment.”
Wibisono spoke to Shreerupa Mitra-Jha about the reasons for his resignation, Israel’s accusations of bias against it by the HRC and his hopes for the Palestinian people.
Your predecessor, Dr Richard Falk, who was also denied access to West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel, had said “Barring my entry complicates my task but doesn’t make it undoable”. Was it not possible to deliver on your mandate without access to the area?
Everyone has their own perspective, their own judgement. For example, the advisor of the National Commission on Human Rights here, in Indonesia... what my advice to them is that if there is a problem of human rights violations to go and see for themselves. This is my advice to my commissioner. And they do it. For me, a better role of the special rapporteur is in situ where the problem of violation has taken place.
The work of the special rapporteur for human rights in Palestinian territories has always been particularly politically contentious. Your predecessor and you both have had controversial terms albeit for different reasons. Why did you accept this particular appointment? Did you not foresee the lack of cooperation from Israel?
I have developed a communication with the government of Israel while my predecessor didn’t have communication [with the government of Israel]. I also explained to them that I am trying my best to be an objective and impartial rapporteur. I also focused – as you compared my [tenure] with Falk, my predecessor – on trying to help the victims of human rights violations. I didn’t touch on the other issues – I didn’t touch on the political aspects. The victims explained to me that the situation is worsening. So if I reach to them and I don’t visit the places then it is difficult for me to make good recommendations and fulfil my responsibilities as a special rapporteur as mandated by the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Council resolutions.
It is almost nine years of land, air and sea blockade of the Gaza strip by Israel. You mentioned in your last report to the HRC that Israel deliberately targeted civilian homes during the 51-day military operation in 2014. Can you give us a sense of human rights violations in these inaccessible territories based on your interviews with Palestinian victims in Amman and Cairo?
The [complaints of] human rights violations in Gaza [that] I got are many cases … there are many [cases of] detention without reason, many houses have been demolished. There is one case where by an attack a whole apartment was demolished. It was like a collective punishment to someone and making the others suffer. This is again [violation] of international humanitarian law. There is also the case of the Bedouins in Jerusalem who were force-transferred to other areas outside East Jerusalem. This is against the right to their own culture, because they are nomadic and have to move to other places. There are so many reports that I got.
In order to give good recommendations I need to have good facts.
Member-states who have been traditional supporters of the Palestinian state, like India, and who usually vote in favour of Palestine, abstained in voting in the 29th session on a resolution on Palestine. Do you think there is a certain level of desensitisation that has crept in around the issue? Is it that, coupled with this desensitisation, more immediate concerns like the migration crisis have taken over global attention?
Yes, I think so because there are competing conflicts. There are issues of ISIS, Yemen, migration. This has made the Palestinian issue like of secondary importance. This is being unfair to the sufferings of the Palestinian people.
Israel and the US have consistently accused the HRC and special rapporteurs of being biased against the Jewish state. How fair or unfair is this accusation?
In my communication with the Mission of Israel in Geneva, they are disappointed with the nature of the mandate which is focused on the Israeli violations in the occupied Palestinian territories. They want a broad mandate which includes all parties to the conflict. [But] this is not my responsibility, because to me the mandate is a given. So if they feel that it [mandate of the special rapporteur] is not fair then they can fight it in the Council to change the mandate.
We have a permanent agenda on the HRC on the issue of the occupation of Palestine and other Arab territories. Apart from that Israel is the only country to have a special rapporteur specially assigned to investigate its human rights violations and breach of international humanitarian law in occupied territories. But still Palestine has been occupied since 1967. How do you see the future?
It [the situation] is difficult. There is a need for international community support to address the issue because I still remember when we had the problem of apartheid. When international support mobilised and crystalised, eventually all the former supporters of apartheid were undermined. But it is important to mobilise international support. Right now, there are many, many issues in the Middle East; therefore, there is a deflection from other essential issues. So I hope [when] the situation in the Middle East is stabilised, the remaining issues will be brought to the limelight. So it will create a conducive environment for peace-making process.
I am worried that these areas will become places for extremism. So it is essential to draw the attention of the international community to at least, at the least, provide protection [to the Palestinian people].
What can we expect to see in your last report that you will present in the 31st session of the HRC? What is your hope for the Palestinian people?
I still believe that the situation can be solved with the support of the international community. I still have hope that one day international community will come to see and stem the human rights violations of Palestinian victims.
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