Challenges Facing the Human Rights Agenda in Palestine By Dr. Mamdouh Aker

Respect and protection of human rights as a paradigm has acquired an increasingly prominent role in shaping the behaviour as well as the image of countries and regimes since the adoption by the UN of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1949. This landmark document and tens of conventions, covenants, protocols, etc. have become reference documents that many countries have ratified and integrated into their local legislation.

Yet, as history and reality have shown, tight, well-versed texts and documents are not sufficient to ensure that human rights be respected and protected. What is needed is a conducive environment and a culture of human rights, as well as mechanisms to promote and safeguard such an environment. There is no doubt that, on the national level, the main guarantors of human rights are a constitution, a representative parliament, and an independent judiciary; but a vibrant civil society, including political parties and a free press, are indispensable elements in this equation.

On the international level, in the search for such mechanisms, an important specialised body was created in this context by the establishment of The Commission for Human Rights (which was later developed into the Human Rights Council in 2006). To consolidate the effectiveness of these bodies, it was necessary to create similar specialised bodies on the national level worldwide, which led to the establishment of constitutional and independent national human rights institutions (NHRIs), at the recommendation of UN General Assembly. These independent, constitutionally mandated institutions should not be confused with human rights NGOs that represent a very important component of the civil society.
When it comes to the Palestinian context, human rights have faced unique challenges.

These challenges stem from three realities: the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian National Authority, and the West Bank-Gaza (or rather the Fateh-Hamas) divide. Each of these has left its specific impact on human rights.

Naturally the Israeli occupation stands as the main violator of Palestinian human rights and national rights, whether directly, by interfering in and disrupting every single aspect of our daily lives, or indirectly, by hindering the proper functioning of the PNA and the carrying out of its responsibilities towards Palestinian citizens.
The PNA, since its very inception, was doomed to fail in its perceived role as a provisional step towards ending the Israeli occupation and achieving an independent state on one hand, and grasping a unique opportunity to build from scratch and from the bottom up a modern administration, on the other hand. Leaving aside all the other flaws, mistakes, and sins of the Oslo Agreement, its main problem is the fact that it was designed to address and satisfy the unlimited and unending Israeli security needs and considerations.

It is a universally acknowledged fact that whenever any regime gives security considerations an overriding priority, human rights will be the immediate and direct victim; and even more so when these security considerations give supremacy to "foreign" and "occupier" security rather than its national security!

To further worsen this ironic complexity of human rights in the Palestinian context, the West Bank-Gaza divide in 2007, as a result of the Fateh-Hamas power struggle, added one more major blow to the human rights cause in Palestine. As an immediate result of this divide we witnessed waves of arbitrary arrests, escalation of torture, killing, and maiming "adversaries," the trial of civilians in military courts, the purging of hundreds if not thousands of public servants, the closure of hundreds of NGOs, and a crackdown on freedom of the press and on freedom of expression and assembly in general. There is no doubt that the presence of a vibrant civil society on one hand, and the persistent interventions of The Independent Commission for Human Rights (as THE national and constitutionally mandated human rights institution in Palestine), on the other hand, played a major role in the alleviation, alas not the complete cessation, of these and other violations. No doubt the gradual readiness on the part of PNA decision makers to express sensitivity towards these persistent interventions, possibly coupled with additional interventions by some concerned parties within the donor community, played a role in achieving this limited progress.

So the immediate conclusion of this experience thus far is that the struggle for human rights is an incremental endeavour that needs perseverance and focus. Yet the human rights agenda has to face some immediate challenges. It must give "security" its proper role in the Palestinian context of a national liberation movement, a country, and an authority under direct Israeli occupation and diktat.

Three immediate tasks stem from this: 1) A national security doctrine that is based only on the above-mentioned Palestinian context must be formulated. 2) The illegal security screening must be abolished. It is, in fact, a political screening par excellence, in vetting all applications for public service and for licencing NGOs. It is sometimes enough for a regime or a state to be labelled as slipping into a "security" or "police state" the moment that the security establishment is left with the task of whom to employ and whom to dismiss from public service, or deciding which NGO should be granted or denied a license. 3) Civil oversight of the security establishment must be initiated. While this is usually a primary role for parliaments to undertake, many countries even with stable democracies (Canada, for example) establish such civil oversight bodies as an additional mechanism. Hence it is of utmost necessity to create a civil oversight body in Palestine, especially in the absence of the legislative council's role in overseeing the security establishment. Such civil oversight ensures that there is no security establishment interference in public service, let alone in the independence of the judiciary system, freedom of the press and freedom of expression and assembly, or in the academic freedom of universities.

*Dr. Mamdouh Aker is commissioner of the Independent Commission for Human Rights.