Does the idea of universal human rights mean anything today? It is a question that comes to mind this December 10 on Human Rights Day amid the images and news coming out of Gaza.
A day after an attack by Hamas militants on October 7 killed scores of Israelis, Israel declared war on the densely populated Gaza strip. Since then, at least 15,000 Palestinians have been killed due to Israeli air strikes and bombardment with an estimated 6,000 of them being children.
On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its opening words are: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world..”
This Human Rights Day, the declaration is dead.
But even back then, it was clear that the rhetoric of human rights was a weapon for the wealthy, Western countries to further their foreign policy objectives. A few months before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the state of Israel came into existence with the help of these same Western countries driving 750,000 Palestinians out of their homes and land. Over 80% of the population in what would become Israel was expelled or fled to become stateless residents of neighbouring countries.
Israel has long been criticised for its violation of the human rights of the civilian population as well as flouting international humanitarian laws.
Already, in its unceasing war on the Gaza strip, Israel has flouted the United Nations resolution on the basic principles for the protection of civilian populations in armed conflicts. The resolution, which was passed by the general assembly in December 1970, states: “Fundamental human rights, as accepted in international law and laid down in international instruments, continue to apply fully in situations of armed conflict”.
Israel’s human rights violations had previously prompted the United Nations in 1968 to establish a Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories. The latest report documents the human rights violence being committed by illegal settlers on occupied Palestinian territories.
The General Assembly of the United Nations, in a resolution passed on December 15, 1970, had called upon Israel to comply with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It had also sought compliance with obligations under Geneva Convention for the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of August 12, 1949, as well other relevant resolutions.
In 1989, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. This historic commitment to children’s rights globally became the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. Israel ratified the Convention in 1991 but says that it does not apply in the West Bank and to define Palestinians under the age of 16 in the occupied territories as children. Israel maintains this stance though its own laws define a child as under the age of 18, in line with the convention.
This reflects in Israel’s frequent violation of child rights in the Gaza strip – now and before. For instance, the Defence for Children International Palestine noted that Israeli offensives had damaged educational infrastructure, including schools run by the United Nations, in the Gaza strip. In other words, Israel justifies the bombing of children and does not consider it morally repugnant or legally unacceptable under international human rights law.
Until 1991, Israel had not signed the basic UN Covenants on Human Rights, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. But even after ratifying the covenants, Israel declared the right to abrogate from its obligations because the country has declared a State of Emergency since May 1948 that has remained in force ever since.
In 2018, Israel passed the Basic or Nation-State Law which declares “the right to self-determination is unique to Jewish people” while denying the right of the Palestinian people their right to self-determination. Israel, thus, denies the basic premise of international human rights law which upholds the right of people to self-determination against foreign occupation.
In 40 days in Gaza, Israel had killed over 170 children per day, a calculation by Al Jazeera said. On November 6, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that “Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children”.
As the Palestinian Chronicle said: “The problem for Palestinians is not just that of Israel’s violence, but also the lack of international will to hold Israel accountable.”
The year 2023 may as well be declared the year that human rights declarations were bombed out of existence and buried under the rubble in Gaza with the bodies of children.
Yet, human rights remains a weapon of resistance, as in the case of prisoners held in Israeli jails. This is what Ahed Tamini, a young icon of Palestinian resistance, said after reading about human rights and humanitarian law behind bars:
“I was fully engaged in the course and loved every second of it. By educating ourselves about our rights and protections under international law and persevering despite every attempt to thwart us and derail our studies, we were practising the most powerful form of resistance.” She describes the details of the course in her memoir written with Dena Takruri called They called me a lioness (2022).
At the age of 11, Tamimi drew attention when she tried to intervene during her mother’s arrest in August 2012 and three years later in 2015 during her brother’s arrest by Israeli soldiers. She was arrested in December 2017 and jailed for eight months for assaulting an Israeli soldier.
In December 2016, the United States refused to give Tamimi a visa to participate in the tour “No Child Behind Bars/Living Resistance”. Tamimi was arrested again on November 3 but released on November 29 as part of an agreement for the release of hostages captured by Hamas on October 7.
While talking about her studies on humanitarian rights, Tamimi said the most important takeaway for her was that international law grants a population living under occupation the legal right to resist, even through armed struggle.
“We need to pursue Israel in the courts for every violation it has committed,” said Tamimi. “They need to know that we’re in the streets, the schools and universities, the criminal courts and press conferences fighting for justice.”
This Human Rights Day, Tamimi’s conviction must be followed by us all, in our countries, streets, courts, schools and universities. In this fight for justice, the Universal Declaration for Human Rights still has a role to play. We need to remember the provisions and the promise of a world free from want and free from fear.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.