UN expert Michael Lynk: International community must end Israel’s ‘belligerent’ occupation

Canadian law professor and UN human rights expert Michael Lynk is no stranger to media attention. As the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian territories, Lynk has reported on Israel’s human rights….

Canadian law professor and UN human rights expert Michael Lynk is no stranger to media attention.

As the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian territories, Lynk has reported on Israel’s human rights violations in the territories for years, drawing criticism from Israel and its allies, and widespread support from human rights defenders in Palestine and across the globe.

Lynk’s latest round of media scrutiny came last week when he released his newest report on the human rights situation in Palestine, and called for an international ban on Israeli settlement goods.

The report, which highlighted Israeli violations of international law in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, drew heavy backlash from the international pro-Israel lobby, as it called Israel’s 52-year long occupation of Palestine “the longest belligerent occupation in the modern world.”

Notably, Lynk also called on the UN to complete and release a database “on businesses engaged in activities related to the illegal settlements”, a so-called “blacklist” that the UN Human Rights Council was supposed to release in 2017 and has repeatedly delayed due to American and Israeli pressure.

Below is the advance unedited version of Lynk’s report:

Situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 (Advance Unedited Version)

Mondoweiss spoke to Lynk about his latest report, his findings, his advice for the international community, and what part of his research shocked him the most.

Mondoweiss: Your recent report on the human rights situation in the OPT has caused quite a stir in the media, specifically your calls for a boycott of settlement goods. Were you expecting backlash? How do you feel about the reception of the report?

Lynk: I generally always get both a very positive response from civil society, Israeli, Palestinian, and international, and negative responses as well from the Israeli government and its supporters.

When I was thinking about what to write this year, I was thinking, we have lots of laws, but what we lack is enforcement and accountability. That ought to rise to the top of the international agenda when it comes to ending the occupation. So I was expecting to get support from civil society because they have written about this a lot, and I was expecting very critical responses from the supporters of the occupation and the Israelis. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the international community except a shrug of the shoulders.

I called specifically for a ban on all settlement goods and services because that strikes me as a moral imperative — a minimal political step for accountability, and a legal requirement and obligation that rests on the international community in serious human rights violation situation. It was clear to me that if settlements are illegal and a war crime under the Rome Statute, the international community has a legal responsibility not to aid or assist in such violations.

Mondoweiss: What was the response from international diplomats and officials, given your harsh criticism of the international community for their lack of action in regards to the occupation?

Lynk: I spoke with several ambassadors in New York City after the publication of my report. The more candid diplomats agreed, or would say, that there is no more two-state solution. But when I asked about accountability, they began to speak about internal difficulties, politics of their own countries, and the fact that they’re not sure they have the political capital to challenge the position of the American administration on this.

I hope what I did was planted a seed in getting them to start thinking about formal accountability. But I didn’t see any of them say ‘yes you persuaded me and this is at the top of my agenda’.”

Mondoweiss: You mentioned formal accountability, and how international leaders need to start putting that at the top of their agendas. Banning settlement goods aside, what would formal accountability look like in practice?

Lynk: So, what I see as minimal steps, would be a ban on settlement goods and services and release of the database on business activities in settlements. There are a number of additional steps within international tradition and precedent: an international menu of what is to be done.

We have to think about the steps taken within other contexts of annexation and occupation, for example, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The EU in particular imposed substantial trade, political, and diplomatic countermeasures in response. That’s what should be happening in the case of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

In my report I referenced a report from the ICRC that lays out a range of possible countermeasures. I would include reviewing things like: arms transfers, the sale of military weapons, it could involve trade and financial restrictions, it could involve the imposition of visas from resident of the country [Israel] to visit Europe or North America, it could involve seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice to determine whether the occupation is still lawful, and what are the responsibilities of the international community in bringing it to an end.

As I said in the report, Israel is a small country with a high dependence on the international community, particularly Europe and North America for trade and diplomatic relationships. It would not be difficult, if the international community puts its mind to it, to bring measures that would require a significant change by the leadership in Israel.

Israel does pay attention to international opinion. The most recent example is the role of most European countries in support of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar. Benjamin Netanyahu has held a piece of paper in his hand for the past 10 months allowing him to proceed with the demolition of the village. Two reasons he hasn’t done it yet is the line in the sand drawn by the EU, and because of a statement made by the chief prosecutor of the ICC warning that forced transfer of people under occupation may amount to a war crime.

Mondoweiss: You say if the international community ‘just puts their mind to it’ they can enact change. So, in your opinion, what needs to happen for them to really wake up and act?

Lynk: It’s hard for me to reconcile the continual support and repeating of the importance of the two-state solution, even as the international community has watched the possibility of genuine two-state solution evaporate before its eyes without taking meaningful steps to try to save it.

The international community would say ‘we have made it clear we would not accept annexation,’ but there is no legal difference between annexation and advanced de facto annexation. If you’ve put more than 600,000 settlers, over 200 settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, with an enormous network of roads, security, factories, and overall control, that in effect is breaching the rule of international law on annexation.

De facto annexation is annexation. The international community has probably lost its chance to draw a line in the sand. It now has to think through what is the future with respect to this.

I don’t know what it would take, because there’s no occupation in the world that has been conducted in front of the international community, with the latter so knowledgeable of what the occupiers obvious intentions are with annexation, and so well informed of suffering and dispossession, yet so unwilling to act on the evidence in front of it. If all that has happened so far hasn’t moved the international community to take decisive steps, it’s difficult to imagine what would.

Mondoweiss: Your report touched on a lot of issues, from home demolitions and arrest campaigns, to the blockade on Gaza. Out of all the topics you highlighted, what is the one that stood out to you the most when compiling your report?

Lynk: I must say if I had to choose the first among equals it would probably be Gaza.

Gaza is a situation unique in the world in that there is a human-made catastrophe and crisis that is ongoing, that the world knows about, that the UN offices on the ground have been very diligent in reporting about, and yet the world’s attitude towards Israel’s continual siege of Gaza remains unchanged.

We’ve been through three devastating wars in the last decade that have caused immense human suffering and physical damage, it remains largely cut off from the rest of the world, its economy continues to shrivel and ossify, yet nothing winds up changing. Water is undrinkable, the healthcare system is collapsing, it has the highest unemployment rate in the world, and among people 30 years and younger it’s around 70%. Four out of five Gazans work below the already anemic minimum wage.

It becomes disheartening to keep on repeating dismal statistics of Gaza. Both the prior and current Secretary Generals of the UN says it amounts to collective punishment, which is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. But it continues.

Of all the issues you can think of that needs highlighting, there is unfortunately a wide range of issues to choose from, but Gaza has to be the worst of all the confounding tragedies in front of us.

Mondoweiss: The situation in the OPT, as you note extensively, is consistently developing for the worse. Many Palestinians are weary of the Trump administration and its plans for the region. What are your expectations for the “deal of the century”? Do you think Trump will try to see it through? And what effects might it have on the OPT and the wider region?

Lynk: I don’t have a high expectation that this will bring any of the needed relief and path forward for Israelis and Palestinians. Certainly any comments made by the principal authors of the peace plan including Friedman, Greenblatt and Kushner, all seem to indicate that they have largely lined up with the world view of the Israeli government: that the settlements will stay in place, that they envisage a little Palestinian state that will be a brand new definition of what it means to be a state in modern political science. And that the current permanent occupation will get a new title and rebranding.

I see it as a “state-and-a-half solution.” Any peace plan initiated by the international community that does not anchor itself in the accepted principles of international law — that settlements are illegal, the annexation of East Jerusalem is illegal, any Palestinian state would have to be viable contiguous and sovereign, the same as any country, that there has to be a just solution for the Palestinian refugee issue — if any proposed peace plan does not anchor itself in those widely accepted principals that make up the international consensus, then it’s not a peace plan worth advancing or releasing.

What has happened over the past 25 years since Oslo, Israel has successfully persuaded the US to act as a mediator and to mediate between the parties without the framework of international law and international consensus. And that’s why we keep on seeing failed agreements and initiatives.

Mondoweiss: With the situation on the ground getting worse everyday, and a lack of international action on ending the occupation, what would you say to the ordinary citizens of the world, who are interested in ending the occupation as well, moving forward?

Lynk: What I’ve been giving you has been a gloomy, dark, grim, and pessimistic view of the situation. But believe it or not, I remain optimistic, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, for all the persecution and slander thats directed by the government of Israel to the Israeli and Palestinian human rights defenders and for the shrinking space they’re facing doing their courageous work, they continue to perform invaluable advocacy and research of what’s going on on the ground.

Without pointing out some over others, the B’Tselems and Gishas of Israel, the Al-Haqs or Addameers of Palestine, plus the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watches, they keep the candles burning with respect to applying rules of humanitarian law to this conflict. They are the ones who mobilize international public opinion.

International public opinion remains largely in favor of wanting to see Palestinians attain their rights. As long as civil societies and popular opinion support the realization of rights for Palestinians so that Israelis and Palestinians can have a just, shared future, there’s every reason to be optimistic, there will be a future to look forward to.

It’s that public opinion, certainly in Europe, that I meet with in Ireland, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, who are the ones continuing to help drive political debate and diplomacy issues in countries like that. That’s why I remain optimistic.

There’s an opening in American public opinion as well. Three of the four leading contenders for the democratic nomination, to some degree or the other, say that we need to rethink our relationship with Israel if it’s going to continue down this path of forever occupation. It tells me the needle is moving in the US as well, and public opinion is being reflected in some of the debates going on. All of that makes me fundamentally an optimist that there are ways this will be turned around.