Friday, August 14, 2009

Geneva Conventions Turn 60--What Does that Mean for Us?

This week marked the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, written after World War II in order to establish concrete protections for civilians during armed conflict under international law. In a press release issued by Oxfam America, the humanitarian organization warns that "the fundamental principles that civilians should be protected from violence and have access to assistance are violated in every current conflict":
"“If something is not done to reverse this trend, international humanitarian law may soon be irrelevant to those who need it most. The United States must take concrete steps to increase global adherence and accountability to the Geneva Conventions,” said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America."
Oxfam has several recommendations for what these "concrete steps" should be, not the least of which is adherence to the Conventions by the United States itself. Somel of the suggestions are particularly pertinent to the relationship between the United States and Israel. For example, Oxfam urges the United States to "Publicly challenge violations of International Humanitarian Law, even if the violators are US allies" and to "work with the UN to impose and closely monitor the implementation of sanctions targeted on political and military leaders who commit war crimes." [You might have guessed, we added some emphasis] The vast majority of the international community--excepting, not surprisingly, the Israeli government itself--including respected human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and Israeli groups such as Breaking the Silence has condemned Israel for violations of international law during its December-January attack on the Gaza Strip. Additionally, the Israeli occupation fundamentally violates the Geneva Conventions in many ways, not the least of which is the continuing expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in violation of Article 49 of the Conventions prohibiting the transfer of a country's civilian population into territory occupied by that country. Unfortunately, rather than challenging Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and considering sanctions on those responsible for these violations, the United States seems intent on rewarding them by continuing to send billions of dollars in military aid to Israel, allowing Israel to purchase U.S. weapons that are then used to attack Palestinian civilians--as in the recent incident when the Israeli Air Force, flying U.S.-made warplanes, bombed tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip that are currently the only lifeline for Palestinians living under siege. When governments fail to hold violators of human rights and international law accountable, civil society has to step up and step in. At the US Campaign, we encourage individuals and groups to challenge their elected officials, organize in their local communities, and join the global movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel's policies of occupation and apartheid. We're grateful to Oxfam for the support that they give civil society movements for justice and accountability--just recently Oxfam announced that Sex in the City actress Kristin Davis would no longer be serving as a humanitarian ambassador for the organization due to her role as a spokesperson for Ahava beauty products, which are illegally produced in a West Bank settlements. Ahava has been the target of a boycott campaign organized by US Campaign member group CODEPINK. Oxfam's honorary president, Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was just awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama along with other prominent critics of Israeli apartheid policies including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. (You can see Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interview Tutu and Robinson by clicking here). We're confident that with dedicated organizations such as Oxfam calling on the U.S. to be critical even of its allies and to sanction violators of human rights and international law, with civil society movements taking up the call to boycott and divestment, and with President Obama honoring critics of Israeli apartheid, the discourse is changing in favor of justice and peace in Israel/Palestine. But we can't sit back and wait for that to happen. Join the movement today, and help us change not just discourse, not just policy, but the prospects for peace in our world today.