Arab diplomats tell Israel to respect human rights in Gaza

UN council in Geneva is latest venue to hear pleas for Israel to rein in its offensive

Israel is being urged to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza and refrain from attacking Rafah at its southern tip. Reuters
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The UN’s Human Rights Council heard pleas from the Arab world for Israel to rein in its offensive in Gaza on Monday, in the latest diplomatic push to ease the Middle East crisis.

Regional diplomats, senior UN officials and European ministers bemoaned what inspectors called the “appalling humanitarian crisis” in Gaza in speeches to the council in Geneva.

Diplomats urged Israel to abide by human rights norms as they pile pressure on its government to lessen civilian casualties, allow more aid into Gaza and refrain from attacking the besieged city of Rafah.

“Around the world, warring parties claim exemptions, asserting that certain people or situations are uniquely dangerous,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who spoke of collective punishment being inflicted in Gaza.

“But flouting international law only feeds insecurity and results in more bloodshed.”

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan urged countries to work on a “clear-cut, legitimate peace process” to stop Palestinians being “subjected to the worst violations of human rights”.

“We should dissipate doubts about the right of Palestinians to live in security and their right to self-determination through a legitimate process that is irreversible for them to have their independent state,” he said.

“We call upon all countries to adhere to the principles of peace and justice and to work together to end what we can call collective punishment and its serious ramifications.”

With Israel’s conduct already being closely watched in The Hague, it faces further scrutiny in Geneva as the human rights body begins a packed month-long session dominated by the war.

Israel denies allegations of genocide and war crimes, saying it is carrying out an anti-Hamas campaign after the violent attack by Gaza’s ruling militants on October 7 last year.

But concern is growing, even among Israel’s allies, at the fallout from its offensive, with a new UN report saying the human rights situation had “drastically worsened” in Palestinian territory.

“This session is taking place at a time where the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Palestine, namely in Gaza, goes from bad to worse,” Libya’s acting Foreign Minister Eltaher Salem Elbaour told the meeting’s opening session.

Israel “pays no heed the insistence of the international community and continues to act above the law”, he said.

International pressure

Middle East ministers called on the international community to use its influence to push Israel into a ceasefire and pave the way for a long-term peace process.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said security could not prevail in the Middle East “until all rights of the Palestinian people are restored”. He said these rights were currently being “trampled on” by Israel.

“We must condemn the occupation and bring to bear international law against the government that denies the Palestinian people the right to freedom,” Mr Safadi said.

Judges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague last month ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent a genocide in Gaza. While that ruling is legally binding, the court has no way of forcing Israel to change course.

The political pressure on Israel is coming from allies as well as long-standing critics, with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock telling the council Gaza’s humanitarian plight was “simply catastrophic”.

“Civilians must be protected, more aid must get through to the people of Gaza … because human rights are universal, because a life is a life, in Tel Aviv, in Rafah,” she said.

Ms Baerbock also urged Hamas to release hostages.

A UN motion calling for a ceasefire was vetoed by the US last week, with differences in the Security Council once again hobbling its ability to act after Russia had similarly blocked resolutions on Ukraine.

The council’s lack of unity on Gaza and Ukraine “has severely, perhaps fatally undermined its authority”, said Mr Guterres, who invoked a rarely used power known as Article 99 in a failed bid to spur the world body into action.

He said “nothing can justify” either Hamas’s actions in killing and kidnapping civilians and firing rockets on October 7, or what he called the “collective punishment of the Palestinian people” in response.

Any offensive in Rafah would “not only be terrifying for more than 1 million Palestinian civilians sheltering there, it would put the final nail in the coffin of our aid programmes”, he said.

Iran, meanwhile, used its speech to the council to allege double standards at the UN, claiming the plight of Palestinian women and girls was garnering less attention than a young woman’s death in police custody in Tehran in 2022.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Iran "would not forget what cries were raised in this place" after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, led to protests, a crackdown on dissent and a UN fact-finding mission.

"Today, no meaningful action is taken by the UN system in response to the mass killing of thousands of women and girls in Gaza," Mr Amirabdollahian claimed.

"It is only another instance of instrumentalisation of human rights mechanisms for political purposes."

Updated: February 26, 2024, 2:47 PM