COMMITTEE AGAINST TORTURE DISCUSSES SITUATION
IN OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORY
Calls on Follow-Up Mechanism to Give Attention to the Matter
The Committee against Torture debated this morning the situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, with members calling by a show-of-hands vote for a newly established follow-up mechanism to give attention to the matter "in the course of general activities".
The vote was 9 in favour and 1 opposed.
The Committee recently decided to create a position of Rapporteur to follow up on recommendations made by the Committee on periodic reports submitted to it by States parties to the Convention against Torture. A Rapporteur has yet to be appointed and his methods of operation have not been specified. Israel's last report to the Committee was considered in November 2001.
Committee members differed over whether special consideration of the situation in occupied Palestine was warranted this morning in the absence of presentation of a periodic country report, the absence of an Israeli Government delegation, and the absence of consideration of the Palestinian role in the conflict.
Committee member Sayed Kassem El Masry, who requested the discussion, charged in an opening statement that the Israeli military campaign recently carried out against Palestinian refugee camps had included such violations of the Convention against Torture as prolonged incommunicado detention, collective punishment of civilians, extrajudicial executions, beatings, threats, destruction of homes, and denial of medical treatment. He called for a letter to be sent to Israel reminding it of its obligations under the Convention and asking it to respond to allegations of acts amounting to torture or ill-treatment.
Committee member Felice Gaer termed the debate "sad" and said it was one-sided, as only Israel's actions were being considered and yet since September 2000 there had been 12,800 violent attacks against Israelis from the Palestinian side, with some 470 Israelis killed, 71 per cent of them civilians, and over 3,000 wounded. The Committee only treated Israel this way, she said — other States did not get special scrutiny by the panel outside their regular submission of reports, although many States were involved in armed conflicts much larger and at least as long-standing. Israeli representatives had not even been invited to the meeting, she said.
Other Committee members said variously that more information should be sought, that Israel should have a chance to participate in the debate, that other international fora already were seized of the situation, and that a discussion should not be held without considering the actions of both parties involved in the conflict.
The Committee will reconvene at 3 p.m. to continue its consideration of a third periodic report of the Russian Federation.
SAYED KASSEM EL MASRY, Committee Expert, who had called for the discussion, said in an opening statement that last year the Committee had considered a report of Israel and had made recommendations regarding what it felt were problems with application of the Convention in the occupied Palestine territory; now Israel, according to reputable non-governmental organizations, not only had failed to implement the recommendations of the Committee but had intensified its violent activities affecting civilians. The Jenin camp, for example, had essentially been reduced from a village to ruins; missiles had been fired from helicopters in apparent indiscriminate fashion, killing and wounding civilians; one elderly man had died when Israelis bulldozed his home down on top of him. Many victims of the invasion were refugees from the 1948 war; now they had twice lost their homes, and the Committee had declared that such destruction of homes was in violation of the Convention. There had been willful killings and extrajudicial executions, according to the Palestine Red Crescent association — over 1,000 had been killed.
Access of ambulances and medical personnel to the Jenin camp had been blocked for 11 days; those wounded and ill could not receive medical care; and ambulances were repeatedly fired upon by Israeli soldiers, Mr. El Masry said. Amnesty International had released a report on April 12 indicating that the Israeli Defense Forces were targetting medical personnel and that tanks were crushing empty ambulances; and that the Israeli army was firing randomly at people at the streets and in their homes. Amnesty International claimed that the main aim of the Israeli campaign was to punish Palestinian civilians in general, that the invasion was not military in its aims.
Israeli army soldiers in Jenin had forced Palestinian citizens to serve as human shields, Mr. El Masry said. Human Rights Watch had documented a number of cases of this. In one instance a father and a four-year-old boy were forced to serve as shields for three hours, and soldiers placed their rifles on the Palestinians' shoulders; in most cases where Israeli soldiers entered Palestinian homes they forced Palestinian civilians to accompany them, to open doors and peer around corners. This amounted to cruel treatment or torture; among other things, the people forced to perform these acts risked being regarded as collaborators. In an interview with The New York Times, a group of Israeli soldiers had admitted using Palestinian civilians as human shields as a form of protection against sniper fire.
Palestinians had been tortured on suspicions of cooperating with the resistance, Mr. El Masry said — they were beaten and threatened, dragged by their beards, and walked on. Under special measures, Palestinian detainees were allowed to be held in custody, incommunicado, for 18 days before the usual eight-day detention period even began; no reason even had to be given for such detention. There were many mass detentions, apparently carried out on the basis of age and gender and without individual suspicions, according to Amnesty International. Relatives were not informed of such detentions, and the locations of the holding centres were not divulged; that made matters very difficult for families who worried — reasonably enough — that their sons, brothers or fathers had been killed. This amounted to cruel treatment under the Convention.
A thorough, impartial investigation should be carried out, Mr. El Masry said; where wrongdoing was found, there should be prosecution and punishment. Israel had a responsibility to carry out these investigations; the international community had an obligation to ensure that such investigations took place.
The Committee should remind the Israeli Government of its obligations under the Convention and of the Committee's conclusions on the last Israeli report, by sending a letter asking Israel to respond to these allegations. A rapporteur appointed for follow-up should then consider the situation.
FELICE GAER, Committee Expert, said the discussion was a sad one. The situation was complicated and rooted in failed peace discussions, suicide bombings, and widespread terrorism; and it was being debated without participation of the State party thus accused, in a one-sided and unfair manner. The impression given was that on one bright day, the Israeli army had just decided to attack poor innocent refugees and civilians; the context was totally missing.
The State party report was reviewed in November, and conclusions offered; Israeli was one of 129 States parties; the Committee had reached conclusions on all of those that had submitted reports; some of them were engaged in armed conflicts; other States parties had been States parties for decades and never had even submitted reports. Since September 2000, there had been 12,800 violent attacks against Israelis from the Palestinian side. Some 470 Israelis had been killed, 71 per cent of them civilians; over 3,000 had been wounded. Israel's actions in the occupied territories constituted a response to an extraordinary threat, both to Israeli civilians and the existence of the State. The terrorist attacks against Israel had grown in scale and number in the weeks prior to the Committee's session — bombings, shootings, assaults, stabbings. The Security Council was seized with the issue; it had said there should be an immediate cease-fire, including an end to all violence, including terrorist acts; a withdrawal of forces; and a resumption of peace negotiations. There were two parties to the conflict, yet the Committee was addressing only one of them — it was conducting singular scrutiny. She wondered if such an approach contributed to the Committee's work, would help the Palestinian cause, or would help the Committee's reputation. The way forward was not by prejudging and condemning one side in such a conflict.
The "battlefield" Israel had encountered had been prepared by Palestinian militants in a way designed to cause widespread destruction, Ms. Gaer said — in Jenin bombs, booby traps and similar obstacles were arranged so as to ambush and kill the soldiers. One informant said the planning for this was extensive and began well in advance; 13 soldiers had been lured into an ambush and killed by women claiming snipers had run out of bullets. There were no distinctions between combatants and civilians, no uniforms; these civilians were placed in danger by their own fighters; children were used as scouts or to carry explosives or to lure soldiers towards suicide bombers. As for using civilians as shields, the soldiers knew or believed the houses were booby trapped and asked people to come out before they blew them up. The Israeli Supreme Court had considered the human-
shield matter and promptly had called for an end to the practice, regardless of motive, and the Israeli army immediately issued a statement forbidding absolutely the use of civilians as any kind of living shield or as hostages.
The point, Ms. Gaer said, was a simple one. All was not what it seemed. The charges of massacres had cited 300 or 400 killed, yet the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Action cited 52 people killed — tragic, yes — but the original numbers mentioned and the charges made were far overblown. Similarly, very few people in fact were missing.
The infrastructure of terror mattered, Ms. Gaer said; the situation in the Jenin camp was not accidental; suicide bombers did not come from nowhere — they were recruited, prepared and equipped. The use of children as bombers, scouts and runners was another part of the tragedy. The situation was unprecedented. The army did attempt to act in accordance with international humanitarian law, and where problems occurred an extensive apparatus existed for reviewing them and if necessary punishing those responsible.
Israel got special, biased attention from the Committee, Ms. Gaer said; Colombia did not receive this kind of attention, although it was a State party; Algeria did not, although over 100,000 had died in the conflict there as a result of terrorist attacks; riots there were going on as she spoke, but the Committee had never discussed it separately from submission of a report. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was a State party and had never submitted a report; the Committee did not pester it about the treatment of civilians in an armed conflict in which over 1 million had been killed; it did not send special letters.
Committee Expert ALEXANDER YAKOVLEV said the discussion went far beyond the framework of the Convention. The Committee must be careful to follow its own particular path of jurisdiction. In military conflicts there often were breaches of the Convention, it was true, but the Committee's mandate was being exceeded here. The State involved was not here to defend itself and no request for information had been made. A report from the State party was not before the Committee.
Committee Expert GUIBRIL CAMARA said if Israel had made a declaration under article 21 the situation would be different, but it had not made such a declaration. The Committee had always accepted that it could be seized of the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. But there were two parties involved, and this morning no one could say the Committee had heard both parties. He thought it was reasonable to follow up on whether or not a State party had followed the recommendations of the Committee; the Committee could ask for a report or information at any time from a State party, and so he thought the proposed letter was within the Committee's competence to send. But questions of substance should not be dealt with this morning without the presence or participation of the State party.
Committee Expert ANDREAS MAVROMMATIS said everyone regarded the situation in the Palestinian territories with horror, both in respect of what was happening in Jenin and in respect of the killings of innocent Israelis by suicide bombers. He thought the situation deserved some form of discussion to see whether, within the strict limits of the Convention and rules of procedure, the Committee could do anything. He thought, however, that the State party not only should be present for such a talk but that it should have the chance to investigate the charges and come before the Committee with some kind of reply. Also, other fora and countries were trying to resolve or defuse the situation, and the Committee should be very cautious as a result. The Committee perhaps should ask for another report from Israel, after having sufficient time to investigate. He regretted greatly that Israel had rejected a UN fact-finding mission to the region.
Committee Expert FERNANDO MARINO MENENDEZ said if the matter was to be dealt with it would be necessary to deal as well with the violations caused to civilian victims by terrorist acts. He also did not think much could be done without seeking more information. At this stage an explicit condemnation should be avoided; rather, follow-up should be done, and it should be remembered that two parties were involved and both appeared to have been carrying out policies in violation of the Convention.
Committee Expert YU MENGJIA said the Committee was obligated to see that torture and ill-treatment were not committed; if it was to preclude any discussion of the situation in the Middle East, that would not be appropriate. It was bound to oppose violations of the Convention committed by both sides or it would lose credibility. The discussion should not be isolated from the context of the situation; at least by considering what the Committee could or could not do it could clarify its own role and mission.
Committee Expert OLE VEDEL RASMUSSEN said he regretted very much that Israel had not allowed the Security Council's proposed investigation into what had happened in Jenin. He was worried about the situation, but he totally agreed with Ms. Gaer — why Israel and not all other countries. The Committee would indeed open itself to serious criticism. To have "special" consideration of Israel and no one else was unbalanced and the Committee would hurt its credibility.
Committee Expert ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ POBLETE said the situation was complicated and very political. In addition, the Committee had jurisdiction on only one of the two parties involved. At a minimum the Committee should not do anything or make any decision without seeking information from both parties. He thought asking for a special report from Israel to be considered at the Committee's next session perhaps might be reasonable; it would be a way for the Committee to take a stand. But there should be no condemnation or expression of concern in the meanwhile. It might be best to let Israel know that it should address what had happened specifically in its next periodic report.
Committee Expert PETER THOMAS BURNS said there were always differences of opinion about why conflicts occurred and often — as in this case — differences of opinion even about what had happened. He thought this matter was within the Committee's jurisdiction under its follow-up provisions, but such consideration should be constrained to the recommendations made by the Committee on Israel's last report; if a follow-up rapporteur was appointed, he must limit his focus to the scope of whether or not the recommendations had been followed. The Committee had the right to ask for a special report, but that right only should be exercised in truly extraordinary circumstances; the Committee in general should concentrate on regular States reports. Also, the Committee certainly would give the impression — since the only other occasion involved Israel — that it only applied such measures to Israel. In addition he was bothered by the ad hoc nature of the proceeding: it was taking up a matter because it had been proposed by one member. The occurrence had the appearance of being political, and the Committee did not want to create that impression; the "optics" were bad.
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