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Standing in the small room at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, Irene Khan, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, listened as Yitzhak Rafael Snir explained how he came to be there. Snir, 17, had been in Barzilai for three weeks, recovering from abdominal wounds caused by a Kassam rocket. He told The Jerusalem Post that it helped to have someone of her stature care enough to listen to him.
During a weeklong visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories, which ended Monday, Khan spoke with the wounded from Kassam attacks like Snir, with those wounded by IDF shelling in Beit Hanun, and with Israeli and Hamas politicians.
As someone who was born in Bangladesh and witnessed first-hand the civil war that led to that nation's independence from Pakistan, Khan, who turns 50 this month, knows what it is like to live in a conflict zone. Educated at the University of Manchester in England and Harvard Law School, she quickly realized that she was not drawn to the corporate world. She worked for 20 years with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees before becoming the first woman, first Asian and first Muslim to head London-based Amnesty International, the largest non-governmental human rights organization, in 2001.
Since then she has not hesitated to go into the field to see for herself the impact of alleged human rights abuses, whether it was to visit Pakistan during the bombing of Afghanistan or Colombia before the presidential elections in May 2003. She came here in 2002, immediately after the IDF had finished its operation in Jenin.
When European Union heads of state meet in Brussels at the end of this week, Khan plans to call for the establishment of a human rights monitoring mechanism for this area, the prosecution of human rights abuses under international law, the removal of Israeli settlements, an end to closures in the territories and a long-term solution to the question of Palestinian refugees. The existing road map peace framework, she says, is "inadequate," in that it fails to address "fundamental human rights issues."
Khan condemned both sides for attacking civilians and urged leaders on both sides to "rise above the fears" and offer hope to their peoples. She also expressed a firm conviction that settlements lead to human rights abuses for which the only remedy is full withdrawal to the 1967 border.
When were you last in Israel?
I was last here in April 2002, just after a few weeks after the Israel incursion in Jenin. At that time security was very bad. This time, although the security on the ground is much better, there is a greater sense of despair. The sense of hopelessness is much deeper, both on the Israeli and the Palestinian side. It is a despair that probably has pretty well permeated internationally.
There has not been any major initiative at the international level to try to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict toward a solution for a number of years now. That is one of the reasons why I am here.
We at Amnesty feel that we have to draw some attention to this conflict. It is not a hidden conflict, but it is a conflict to which the international community has become immune. It watches, it sees but it doesn't act.
We at Amnesty would like to expose it, to give a higher profile to the suffering and despair that is taking place here now and to press upon international leaders to show some leadership on this issue.
The cease-fire that is now on going in Gaza is an interesting development. It is fragile, but it is holding. That indicates perhaps a desire on both sides to try something different.
What would be an initiative that could make a difference here?
We would like to see an opening for a political process in which there is discussion about human rights. We would like to see an end to this attack on civilians that is taking place on both sides again. Very closely linked to this is the issue of settlement and closures. That is why my visit to Hebron was so important. You see so clearly how the impact of a few hundred settlers living in the midst of Hebron has on the lives of the Palestinians. The whole city seems to have turned itself around to provide security that the settlers need.
Everyone knows that under international law, settlements are unlawful. [Khan evidently bases this position on the ruling of the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 2004. -T.L.] They have to be dismantled. The closures need to stop. The parts of the wall that violate the Green Line need to be removed. People need to be given some hope in terms of economic prospects.
So some major actions have to be taken in terms of ending the attacks, particularly investigating the indiscriminate use of violence by the Israeli forces. There has never been a proper investigation of these things. Investigations have taken place but they were not transparent and clear. Beit Hanun, for example, was a mistake, but what happened and what steps were taken to make sure that there wouldn't be another mistake? That needs to be clarified.
All this discussion obviously will need to take place in the
context of some kind of an international process where the political issues can be resolved.
Three governments - France Italy and Spain - have announced an initiative that they would like to discuss on December 15 at the EU summit. We hope very much that the European Union will come together as a whole on this issue.
We are trying to put together a proposal for this European Union meeting, in which we are proposing four key points.
The first one is about immediately stopping ongoing abuses by armed groups, such as suicide bombings and those kinds of attacks on Israeli civilians as well as attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces.
The second is insuring accountability for abuses. There should be proper investigation.
Thirdly, we are proposing that both sides agree to the deployment of some international monitors to look at the human rights situation.
Fourthly, putting human rights issues into the peace process from the perspective of the fence or the wall and the settlements and so on.
Although human rights are not the entire answer to the Palestinian conflict, without taking into consideration those human rights issues it will be very difficult to obtain a sustainable solution.
There is a political process, the road map, that Israel and the Palestinians have signed onto but which is being held up in part by the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel. Why would we need a new initiative when we already have an existing one?
For us the issue is not the road map or a new initiative, but the political process. Even the road map has to be revived. The deadlines are all gone.
What we are looking at is a political process. The road map in many ways was inadequate in the sense that it did not address fundamental human rights issues. In reviving the road map, a lot of those other issues would have to be brought onto the table.
Does Amnesty International have a position vis a vis the Green Line? Where does it stand on the position, which Israel asserts and the US government appears to have accepted, that the final border should be redrawn to include major settlement blocs?
This is where the human rights perspective does not entirely match with the road map. We are not looking at a pragmatic political approach to the issue.
Under international law, an occupying power cannot settle its people in occupied land. That means the Green Line. Settlements on the other side of the Green Line need to be removed. Our position on their removal is not necessarily an ideological position. That is where we would probably differ from many Palestinian groups.
Settlements in those areas are creating major problems for the surrounding population. It is disrupting people's normal economic and social life.
In Hebron I saw this house, which is right next to the settlement. The family cannot use the road that goes through the settlement, so they have to go right around it. But there is no road that does so, so they have to walk across the field. The old mother cannot go to the hospital and so on. It is a total disruption of their lives, which then leads to lots of grievances.
Settlements will remain as a big issue on the Palestinian side unless any peace settlement takes into account the right of the people to have their homes.
What if you redrew the line in such a way that these issues are addressed?
Whose human rights would you look at if you redrew the line?
Ideally both, don't you think?
What is the human right of the settler? The right of the settler is to be safe in his own home, not to occupy someone else's land. If this was domestic law, and you were looking at squatters you would apply a different set of rules.
But the Green Line is an arbitrary marking that relates to the cease-fire line of 1949 and has little to do with the actual ownership of the land. I'm curious if you are talking about squatters and rights, why stick with such a strict definition when the issue of ownership is so contested? Why not take a more holistic approach?
The International Court of Justice at The Hague has used the Green Line to determine the [legal route] of the wall, so there is an acceptance under international law of the Green Line as the area delineating Israel from occupied land.
The issue is not so much the legal technicalities of it, the lawyers will sort that out, but there is a real sense of grievance and injustice that has to be tackled. Day-to-day human rights violations occur because of the indiscriminate use, or the disproportionate use of force by the Israeli Defense Forces. [Israel has consistently rejected allegations of indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force. -T.L.]
What is your stance on the Palestinian right of return into areas within the Green Line?
There is a legal position on the right to return, which is for all refugees, not just the Palestinians. People have the right to return to their homeland. The question is what is their home and what is their country. I am sure there is going to be a political discussion around that to resolve it.
The reason I am differentiating between the settlements and the
right of return is because the settlements have a direct impact on the lives of people today. The right of return is an issue of those who are not here now but who are somewhere else. It looks at questions such as how do you deal with their property. But right now if you are going to restart the international process, you need a minimum condition of security and confidence to begin the discussion.
Israel argues that the barrier is a security measure, so why not call for a stop to suicide bombings. Then you wouldn't need a "wall."
When I said earlier they have to stop attacking civilians on both sides, I obviously meant also suicide bombings or the launching of Kassam rockets. Both sides have to stop that. Israel can build a wall, but it should do it in the right place. The wall has becomes a way of making the settlements permanent.
Some Israelis would say 'Why should we give up more settlements? We were in Gaza, we withdrew and the rockets still kept coming.' What could you tell Israelis to bolster their sense of security?
Security is a two-way thing. Israelis want to feel secure, so do the Palestinians. You hear exactly the same thing coming from the Palestinians. In the minds of the Israeli leaders they see Gaza as something that is different from the West Bank. So they withdraw from Gaza and they wonder why the rockets are still coming.
In the Palestinian minds, the West Bank and Gaza are one entity. Withdrawal from Gaza makes no difference if there is no withdrawal from the West Bank.
There is a fundamental difference in perception there between how the Israeli leaders are seeing this and how the Palestinians are seeing it.
You need to define security comprehensively for both sides. The Palestinians still feel deeply insecure. They are there in Gaza totally closed off. The fact that there are no settlements makes no difference to the other threats and risks they have faced and are facing.
The approach here has been one that focused very much on the hard security issues without looking at the softer security issues of the whole economic situation in Gaza.
The economy is in a downward slide. The situation is so desperate that young people have no hope.
People on both sides are afraid. The responsibility lies with the leaders to rise above the fears and the concerns of people.
You arrived here from Lebanon.
Yes. We saw still an enormous amount of destruction. There were bridges and roads and homes that are still destroyed some four or five months later. What was more striking than the destruction was how traumatized the people had been by the war.
The interesting thing was that they did not see the responsibility for the loss with Hizbullah, they saw the responsibility with the Israelis.
If anything, what the war has done is that it has made the people more determined then ever in their conviction that Hizbullah is protecting their rights and interests. They feel they need Hizbullah to defend them against the Israelis. It was very clear the war had only reinforced Hizbullah's hold in the south.
In Kafr Kana they showed me the UN compound, which the Israelis shelled in 1996 and where 123 civilians had taken shelter; all of them were killed by the shelling. [Many reports put the death toll at 106 -T.L.]
And then they said, "Look 10 years later, no investigation, no compensation. The Israelis said it was a mistake and that was it." They didn't feel that they got any justice. Ten years later the same town was hit again in the same kind of indiscriminate attack on civilians.
When we from Amnesty talked about investigation to establish the truth, they said to us, "We are very cynical about it. The international community has done nothing for us. There has never been any international investigation for the attacks in the south. Why should we now believe that the international community would do anything different?"
You see the deep sense of cynicism, which is driving them into a more radical position.
It seems to be in the whole region that human rights abuses take place with no perpetrators, and victims exist with no justice. No one ever admits or takes responsibility or is held accountable
Whom would you hold accountable?
We have published reports, which show that here have been serious humanitarian abuses on both sides. That is why we have called for mission of inquiry to investigate both sides.
The UN also established a commission, but the commission only looked at what the Israeli forces are doing. We don't think that is right.
We think both sides should have been investigated. Although in terms of sheer damage there is no doubt that what happened in southern Lebanon was far more [serious] than what happened in northern Israel. There were more than 1,000 Lebanese killed and 43 Israeli [civilians], but in terms of the responsibility under international law, Hizbullah should not have attacked civilians any more then the Israeli army should have.
We have raised that point with Hizbullah when we met with them.
You don't have a problem meeting with Hizbullah or Hamas?
We had an opportunity. We were not seeking contact but in some cases they were seeking contact with us.
I suppose because the armed groups also want to be seen to be behaving well; everyone's reputation matters. We met with Hamas before they were elected and we said, "Suicide bombing are illegal and unlawful. They are human rights abuses and should not be perpetuated against Israel."
We have a lot of contact with armed groups. For us they are actors that have an impact on the human rights situation. We are not looking at it from the political perspective as to whether they are illegitimate or unlawful. We are looking at them from the perspective of these are people who can make a difference. They know that our reports are published. They meet us because they want to defend themselves and say that we got it wrong.
With Hamas, we are not meeting with them to give them legitimacy, but because we see them as being in a position where they can influence human rights issues. In that same way we met with Hizbullah.
We are not recognizing them. We need to talk with them in order to influence their behavior on human rights.
If you were to look at the world in general what are the top areas Amnesty should be focused on?
There are some geographical areas that are very disturbing. I would put the Middle East and Darfur on top of that list. By the Middle East I also mean Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because of the impact they have on human rights abuses, but there is also a huge security risk. In Darfur there is a risk of the conflict spreading to Chad. There has been an enormous number of people... 2 million displaced, 700,000 killed, and so on. The figures are terrible.
In the Middle East this is a conflict that goes back decades and it is souring everything else. It has been used and misused to justify all kinds of causes.
Darfur and the Middle East are geographical, but there are also thematic human rights issues. I would prioritize two. The first would be violence against women. I find it absolutely incredible in the 21st century, according to researchers, that one in three women face at least one serious act of sexual violence in their life. The second big thematic issue in terms of human rights would be poverty and the consequences of poverty.
The Middle East is very [problematic] in terms of both of those issues... They are the kinds of issues that get sidelined and diverted by the focus on the political conflicts.
Look at Saudi Arabia, which I describe as gender apartheid. No one talks about what is happening in Saudi Arabia. The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict gives an excuse to other leaders to say, "Look there is something worse happening." Until you solve the [Israeli-Palestinian conflict], you will always find an excuse.
Why do you do this work?
So you feel that you are making a difference. I am an incorrigible optimist. I believe if you try hard enough, things will really change.