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Director's message 2014

This year marks the 100th anniversary since the start of the First World War. Two world wars later, and nearly 80 million dead, world leaders attempted to prevent such carnage from occurring again by implementing a legal framework that exists to this day. The post-war generation of leaders acknowledged that it was the “disregard and contempt for human rights” that had to be addressed if further suffering was to be avoided. Key elements of the framework they developed include the UN Charter (1945), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the Geneva Conventions (1949). In turn, the Declaration of Human Rights provided a foundation for the multiple human rights treaties that were to follow.[i]

One of the objectives of this legal framework was to identify some of the main causes of conflict and to devise ways to minimise or prevent them. So, for example, territorial expansion was out, as was settlement in occupied territory, unlawful discrimination and arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. In came self-determination, equality before the law, freedom of expression and movement, as well as the idea of democratic principles for all.
As a Palestinian I cannot but feel hopeful on reading the principles contained in these legal instruments, but somewhat baffled at the gulf between the written word and what I see on the ground. This gulf is never more apparent than during the various peace processes that periodically come to our shores. The latest efforts by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, are no different. Like every peace process before, the discussions assiduously avoid holding the occupying power to its legal obligations under international law. So, for example, instead of calling for the immediate removal of Israeli settlements in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention, short-term political expediency dictates that this is just another agenda item that needs to be negotiated between the parties when the time is right. And by dealing with the issue in this way one of the most basic of all legal principles is violated – namely, that unlawful activity should never be rewarded – because as we all know appeasement never works.
Although one of the main driving forces behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, the current push for peace, like those before, is largely being driven by men, even though the UN Security Council has acknowledged the importance of women’s “equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security.” [ii] This makes me wonder what the post-war generation of leaders would make of the current talks where there is little participation of women, and almost no regard for the legal principles that emerged from the rubble in 1945.

After 20 years in the business of providing legal aid and counseling services to Palestinian women I am struck by the similarities between the domestic and international legal order and their limitations if not supported with integrity. In the domestic legal context we are finding ourselves more often than before in situations where women are falling through the cracks of existing legal and protective systems due to the physical fragmentation of Palestinian society. Consequently, women are increasingly forced to resort to tribal and family networks for dispute resolution, which if available, generally prioritise family and community harmony, over justice to the individual. This trend frequently puts women in compromising and vulnerable positions. However, in my experience the pursuit of harmonious fixes outside established legal networks rarely produces lasting solutions.
There is one thing I am quite certain of, and that is, those who believe that peace with justice can be achieved without regard to well established legal principles or representative participation in the process, are deluding themselves. It may be that due to the unequal bargaining power between the parties a temporary arrangement may be imposed, but under well-established legal principles such a deal can be rendered null and void.[iii]

[i]For example: Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951); International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) (1965); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966); Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (1979); Convention Against Torture (1984); and Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
[ii]UN Security Council Resolution 1325 of 2000.
[iii]Article 8 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that “Protected persons may in no circumstances renounce in part or in entirety the rights secured to them by the present Convention.”