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Palestine: Newest ‘Observer State’ Should Act on Rights Treaties

States Should Stop Pressing Palestinians to Forgo International Criminal Court

(New York) – Palestinian leaders should pursue ratification of core international human rights treaties and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Governments that have pressed Palestine to forgo membership in the ICC, including the United Kingdom, or have said that they will impose sanctions on Palestine if it seeks ICC membership, namely Israel, should end such pressure and support universal ratification of the ICC treaty.

On November 29, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly voted to admit Palestine as a “non-member observer state” by a vote of 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions. The US, Israel, Czech Republic, Canada, and Palau were among the countries that voted against. The United Kingdom and Germany abstained.

“The UN General Assembly vote on the status of Palestine may open the door for ratification of core human rights treaties and the ICC statute,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This could help Palestinian and Israeli victims of human rights abuses and war crimes obtain a measure of justice, something other governments should not try to block.”

Prior to the General Assembly vote, Palestinian officials repeatedly pledged to uphold human rights. An internal report by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, issued on October 29, stated that “joining the [nine core] human rights conventions provides an opportunity for greater diplomatic interaction but entails, at the same time, a higher level of accountability,” and therefore recommended “an in-depth study to determine whether any convention shall be ratified by Palestine.”

“It’s good that Palestinian officials say they want to study the human rights treaties before ratifying them, but study should not be an excuse for delaying action that can help ensure compliance with international law,” Whitson said.

Palestinian ratification of core human rights treaties would be an important step toward protecting and promoting the rights of the residents of the West Bank and Gaza, who have long suffered abuses by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. Human Rights Watch has documented laws-of-war violations by Israel and Hamas, including unlawful attacks against civilians and illegal settlements in occupied territories, and human rights abuses such as torture, arbitrary arrest, and incommunicado detention by Hamas and Palestinian Authority security forces. Human rights treaty-monitoring and reporting mechanisms could help pressure the Palestinian authorities to end such abuses.

Palestinian ratification of the ICC statute would diminish the accountability gap for serious international crimes, including war crimes, and contribute to justice for victims of abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Neither Israel nor Hamas has taken meaningful measures to hold anyone to account for serious violations of the laws of war during the December 2008 to January 2009 Gaza conflict. That lack of action heightens concerns over accountability for the recent fighting in Gaza, which a Human Rights Watch team on the ground is currently investigating.

The UK has pressured Palestinian authorities to pledge not to seek ratification of the ICC statute. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, stated on November 28 that “we judge that if the Palestinians were to build on this resolution by pursuing ICC jurisdiction over the occupied territories at this stage it could make a return to negotiations [with Israel] impossible.”

In September, the US State Department circulated a letter to European governments that described the Palestinian statehood bid as a “provocative one-sided action that could undermine trust or otherwise distract from the pursuit of peace,” because it could, among other things, lead to “Palestinian participation as a state” at the International Criminal Court and “a host of UN Specialized Agencies.”

US Senators have introduced a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to cut off aid to the Palestine Authority if they use their new status to pursue criminal charges against Israel at the ICC.

“Countries that rightly advocate for justice for international crimes in Syria and elsewhere should not insist on Palestine as an accountability-free zone,” Whitson said.

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