by Leona Lortie
In early September, instead of enjoying one of the few warm Winnipeg fall weekends, I spent my time knee-deep in legal conversations relating to Israel, Palestine and international law. It was an interesting, challenging, albeit at times despairing, weekend.
Experts from Canada, the U.S. and the Middle East came together to discuss the complex issues surrounding Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Sessions were broken up in topics relating to human rights law, solutions for the conflict, the role of Western governments, recent events in the region, and of course the role of international law.
One presenter who stood out for me was Michael Lynk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights in the Palestinian territory, who also opened the symposium with the keynote speech. Throughout the weekend he skillfully walked participants through the legal status and responsibilities of Israel as an occupying power over the Palestinian territories and introducing the four corners of the law of occupation.
Lynk argued that Israel has breached each one of the fundamental tenets of this international law. The occupying power, according to the law of occupation, must acquire no right or title of the occupied territory, return the occupied territory to its people within a reasonable period of time, rule in the best interest of the protected people living in the occupied territory, and act in good faith.
If we accept that Israel has breached the law of occupation, does this mean that it is violating international law? If so, has Israel then moved from a legal prolonged occupation to an illegal occupation?
I was particularly interested to hear discussions about Canada’s human rights record and our country’s rights and obligations within the international humanitarian rights framework. Canada does not have a great human rights record in general terms and economic relations with foreign governments seem to frequently impact our efforts in defending human rights internationally.
In the context of Canada’s rights and obligations under the Common Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, our country’s legal obligation is to take measures to put an end to on-going violations against international humanitarian law. It would be tough to argue that Canada has taken any significant measures when considering the on-going human rights violations against Palestinians.
The role of civil society was especially highlighted during the final sessions and question periods. When our governments do not take measures to put an end to human rights violations, or the occupation of the Palestinian territory, we, the civil society, are the only ones left to act.
This left me reflecting on my role, as the average person in Canada. What options do I have to defend the human rights of Palestinians? I was inspired by closing words of the conference organizers who called upon us to find ways to fill the void of government action. Dr. Dean Peachy, a human rights professor at the University of Winnipeg, concluded, “It is not my place to suggest a solution, but it is my place to stand up for human rights. I am not neutral, I am for justice, I am for human rights, and I am for non-violent peacebuilding.”
If you are, like me, looking for ways to fill the void, one option would be to write a letter to your MP here or to learn more about the challenges Palestinians are facing living under occupation here.
Leona Lortie is the Public Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for MCC Ottawa