Geneva - A seminar was organized on the sidelines of the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council by the Global Institute for Water, Environment and Health (GIWEH) and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. The seminar featured presentations and discussions on the human rights situation in the Middle East, while also addressing claims by governments that human rights cannot be preserved under security situations and instability facing the region.
The humanitarian impact on civilians in the Gulf region a year since the crisis kicked off was reviewed during the seminar. It also addressed the Jordanian authorities' handling of recent demonstrations in the country as an example of the possibility of overcoming crises without violating the rights of demonstrators.
The seminar also discussed field testimonies on the situation of Palestinian refugees from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. It also highlighted the ongoing violations by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in particular the use of exploding bullets against protesters at the Gaza-Israel fence.
Sarah Pritchett, Euro-Med’s spokeswoman, initiated the seminar by addressing the legal situation in the Gulf region a year after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut off ties with Qatar.
The measures taken failed to comply with international standards with regard to unilateral coercive measures and severely affected the interests and rights of citizens in the States party to the crisis. The impact includes separating families, obstruction of access to medical and food supplies in Qatar, in addition to travel restrictions, which also affected the freedom of worship for those intending to travel to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah or Hajj.
One year after the crisis, the boycotting countries continue to impose severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, and still punish those who sympathize with Qatar with a 15-year jail sentence, in addition to large sums of money paid as fines, said Pritchett. She also reviewed examples of the impact of the immediate crisis on the rights of civilians, including denying many students access to their universities in countries that have decided to sever relations with Qatar.
Pritchett called for effective measures to be taken to ensure respect for human rights when making political decisions, sparing civilians of all nationalities the repercussions of these measures, which cannot be justified.
In her presentation, Aroub Sobh, Euro-Med’s Women's Affairs Advisor, praised the Jordanian authorities' handling of the protests that broke out last June against the backdrop of a revised income tax bill. She said that governments in the Middle East could consider this a successful example of overcoming security threats and instability by ensuring respect of the rights of demonstrators rather than resorting to excessive force and dragging the state into a cycle of violence and terrorism.
She pointed out that governments in the Arab region portray their repressive practices and arbitrary policies as necessary measures to preserve the security of the state. Instead of taking responsibility, these states follow a policy of holding citizens responsible for the financial deficit, security and economic problems.
Testifying to the suffering of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Danny Dugnes, from Scales for Justice, said that living on the ground she had witnessed first-hand the direct impact of the Israeli checkpoints separating their towns and villages and controlling roads into and out of the territory.
She also described a number of Israeli military orders, which the Israeli government uses in an arbitrary way to incriminate and arbitrarily arrest Palestinians who protest against the occupation. In recent years, she said, laws are however not only targeting Palestinians, but all human rights defenders, including leftist Israeli organizations.
In this regard, she addressed a law currently discussed by the Israeli government, which incriminates those who film, photograph or share pictures of Israeli soldiers while carrying out ‘their duties’, including if they commit human rights violations. Those caught in the act could be jailed for up to 10 years. According to Dugnes, such a law does not exist in any country in the world, even those with a shameful human rights record.
Ghada al-Rayyan, a Euro-Med researcher, presented harsh exclusive testimonies compiled by the organization’s team on the tragic situation of the residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp. Residents of the camp have been forced to pay a heavy price since the beginning of the crisis in Syria in March 2011, with 1,392 refugees killed, most of whom as a result of bombing or hunger following the siege and torture by the Syrian regime and armed groups, including ISIS, which controlled the camp for the last three years.
The number of residents staying in the Yarmouk camp shrunk from 144,000 before the Syrian Crisis began to 6,300 according to the latest statistics in April 2018. The military operation launched by the Syrian regime to liberate the camp from ISIS’s control lasted for 33 days, with intensive aerial and artillery bombardment resulting in the killing of 31 civilians, the destruction of 81% of the Camp's neighborhoods, the damage of water and electricity grid.
The Syrian regime and Hezbollah failed to protect the property of civilians who fled the camp in light of the military operation, Al-Rayyan said, calling for the establishment of an immediate investigation into hostile incidents that resulted from the military operation, and to bring to justice those involved in the commission of crimes.
Eman Z’eiter, Euro-Med’s researcher, discussed Israel's use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators near the Gaza-Israel fence, and the large number of dead and wounded resulting from the use of live bullets to disperse protesters. She also expressed concern over the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip following 12 years of Israeli blockade that crippled the lives of two million Palestinians, the majority of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees expelled by Israel in 1948.
On March 30, tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators marched to the fence separating the Gaza Strip from Israel, demanding the implementation of UN Resolution 194, which calls for their return to their homes and the lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip. However, they have been met with excessive force that claimed the lives of 131 civilians and the injury of over 14,000 others, mostly by live bullets and gas bombs.
Z’eiter pointed out that 35% of the injured were hit in the upper part of the body, indicating intent to kill. The bullets used caused serious damage to the bones, leading to permanent disabilities in most cases. The Israeli forces’ indiscriminate targeting of protesters resulted in the death and injury of journalists, paramedics and children.
At the end of her presentation, Z’eiter called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to pressure Israel to lift the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip and to end the collective punishment of its largely civilian population, demanding that Israel be compelled to implement UN Resolution 194, thus ending the ongoing suffering of Palestinian refugees that has been going on for 70 years.