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Yasmin Sooka - Apartheid policies in Palestine place Israel under spotlight of international people’s tribunal

 Street News Service 31 October 2019

Yasmin Sooka is Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights. She writes in her personal capacity. She is one of the jurors at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. (1820 Words) - By Yasmin Sooka


It is extraordinary that, well over a decade after South Africa's liberation from apartheid, Palestine has yet to experience freedom from oppressive policies and the systematic violation of the fundamental human rights of its people. For many South Africans, who equate their own struggle for liberation with that of the Palestinians, it was unthinkable that South Africa would achieve liberation before Palestine's right to self-determination would be recognised, even now, six decades after the Israel-Palestine conflict began.

The parallel between the apartheid policies of South Africa and Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories deserves some scrutiny, and a chance to examine the extent to which that policy can be seen as a violation of international human rights law, and the prohibition on apartheid. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine provides an opportunity to do so, established as an international people's tribunal in 2009 to respond to the failure of the international community to react to Israel's contravention of international law, and the legal consequences of the establishment of a wall in the occupied Palestinian territories.

My decision to serve as a juror on the Russell Tribunal's third international session in Cape Town on 5 - 7 November 2019, was based on a conviction that the Tribunal represents an important opportunity to consider issues which deserve attention, but are not likely to get any official hearing at this point because of the nature of global politics. The work of past Russell Tribunals, in particular regarding US military intervention in Vietnam in the late 1960s, and the investigation into internal repression in Latin America in the mid-1970s, has shown that this process has the potential to yield sound legal arguments that strengthen respect for the rule of law, and have a powerful impact on public opinion.

An important component of these sessions is that it is able to address varying aspects of complicity and responsibility on the part of states, organisations and corporations with the platform it provides, albeit unofficial, to examine the experiences and suffering that people experience on a daily basis. In many ways, this is akin to my own experiences on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the Commission in Sierra Leone, and a range of other commissions around the world, as well as my recent participation in a panel of experts advising the UN Secretary General on whether war crimes had been committed in Sri Lanka.

In retrospect, South Africa's TRC focussed primarily on civil and political violations, and while there was some attempt to also take account of the structural nature of apartheid and the political economy, it did not go far enough. The TRC should have focused its hearings on the structural violations caused by apartheid, i.e. land dispossession and removals, the devastating impact of apartheid education, and the denial of access to economic opportunities which caused ordinary people to rise up against the apartheid state as it negated any attempt for people to live with dignity. Democratic South Africa grapples with the legacy of apartheid and the enormous challenges it has left, which can be laid squarely at the door of apartheid law and its policies. The TRC should have grappled more with the fact that the General Assembly of the United Nations had declared Apartheid as a crime against humanity in 1966 (a determination that was endorsed by the Security Council in 1984). In reality, it was only the Legal Sector hearing which paid attention to crimes against humanity. Had the TRC grappled more with this question, it would have laid a better legal basis for holding accountable those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crime of apartheid, and for identifying those who were complicit in the crimes of apartheid including the beneficiaries. The work of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine offers an opportunity to go back to that question, not just in relation to South Africa, but with particular reference to the similarities with what is happening in Palestine.

It is imperative, in these sessions, to really examine the experiences of Palestinians, and to interrogate the way in which Israeli law and policies and their application are analogous to apartheid, how discriminatory the system is, and the extent of the violations it perpetuates against Palestinian people. Such discussion, it is hoped, will create a new basis for lobbying and advocacy, drawing in new human rights groups that are in a position to push this issue on national and international agendas, so that by the time the next session takes place in New York in 2012, UN member states will be shamed into doing the right thing.

There are some who are concerned that people are inclined to define Israel in terms of apartheid, or linked to the discriminatory and inhumane practices that the apartheid government levied on South Africans. This analogy undoubtedly serves as an eye-opener for people, and while it is true that states are complicit, it must be recognised that it is often ordinary people who are complicit in the tyranny and brutality too. I hope that for South Africans, and particularly white South Africans, this process brings home once again what apartheid was about, as the TRC did not give sufficient attention to its realities.

The Russell Tribunal is a critical initiative for galvanising other opinions in the US and beyond, through social media, civil society and human rights lobby groups, and existing campaigns that highlight the US and UN's complicity in not holding Israel accountable to the various UN resolutions and decisions. Here is a platform to create the beginnings of a new discussion on Palestine, to look at new ways of creating a broader human rights front who lobby for Palestinians to accede and obtain their rights, if we want to see peace in Palestine. The recent mobilisation of people coming out against Wall Street suggests that such a possibility does exist, although one must not under-estimate how strong the lobby is in the US.

This highlights the importance of coordinated advocacy and mobilisation concerning the question of Palestine. One of the key components of the anti-apartheid struggle was really the coherence of the solidarity movement internationally. There is no doubt that these unified groupings played an incredibly important role in making South Africa a pariah state, leveraging enormous power politically and economically. If one looks at the types of protest action on a global scale, from fruit packers in Ireland refusing to handle export fruit from South Africa, to demonstrations against Swiss banks intending to lend money to the South African government, South Africa's liberation is unquestionably a product of that international solidarity. So why do we not see the same level of solidarity regarding Palestine? One must not discount the context of the world's collective guilt for what happened in the Holocaust, and the strength of powerful lobby groups which do not acknowledge that their own freedom comes at a cost often at the expense of the Palestinians. And yet one would say to them, surely because of your own suffering, there is a recognition of and identification with the suffering of others?

A matter that greatly concerns me is the number of Palestinian youth who sit in Israeli jails, many as young as 15, bringing to mind the cases of "stone-throwing" youth in South Africa who were taken up on charges of public violence, and that is certainly a big question that needs to come to the fore. It is important that, through the Russell Tribunal, the Palestinian issue is seen as a broader human rights issue, not merely a problem that concerns only Palestinians or Muslims, but one that shames us all. It is an issue that raises questions of persecution against a particular group based on their ethnicity, and for that reason alone, there is an obligation for the UN to take up the matter more seriously. There have been countless commissions on the assault on Gaza, and yet it is unspeakable that there has been no action against Israel, no international criminal indictments, and no referrals to the international criminal court relating to what can only be described as acts of war criminals in Israel. If one compares the conflicts in Gaza, and those in Sri Lanka, for example, in both cases the world stood and watched as ordinary, innocent people were killed, and that is shocking. One begins to see how much the global political apparatus ignores what is the very essence and basis for the existence of the United Nations, and the obligation of states to ensure that those who transgress are punished.

If there is one thing that the Russell Tribunal can accomplish it is to seek ways of using its reports and findings to mobilise and create broader lines of solidarity across the world, and to allow people to hear the human stories. In my experiences in many countries in the world, we have heard the technical details of how many violations have been committed, but nothing is more powerful than hearing ordinary men and women talk about their personal experiences, and their daily navigation of the most unjust laws and policies. It is the human story that can really move people and help to shift them into a space of consciousness that prompts them to take action.

The third session of the Russell Tribunal will feature more than 20 witnesses and legal experts, including a number of eminent scholars and human rights activists who will be testifying about not only the crime of apartheid, but also the question of occupation, and individual experiences under apartheid, and in Palestine. Fellow jurists on the Tribunal represent a prestigious line-up (including Alice Walker, Mairead Maguire, Michael Mansfield, Ronnie Kasrils, Stéphane Hessel, Aminata Traore, Jose Antonio Martin Pallin and Gisèle Halimi), who will issue an opinion or recommendation at the end of the two-day proceedings.

I consider it a privilege to serve with someone like Ronnie Kasrils, who has never been afraid to speak his mind. He has consistently spoken out against apartheid and has been fairly critical of the current government when he has deemed this necessary. He has always been forthright in his denunciation of Israel's activities in Palestine. I am equally honoured to have the chance to work alongside my mentor and former university professor, John Dugard, another prominent South African who, during the TRC, provided invaluable assistance in clarifying many of the legal issues, and has always been a man who wrote out and spoke out against the violations committed by the South African government. John continued with his legal activism and made the point in his report in 2007 that "Israel's laws and practices in the OPT (occupied Palestinian territories) certainly resemble aspects of apartheid." I look forward to hearing his views before the Tribunal. His participation and that of so many other impressive human rights actors from so many different walks of life is what makes the Russell Tribunal a unique and powerful forum.

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