Remarks by Phyllis Bennis, US Campaign Steering Committee Member, UN International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People, 7 September 2006

UN International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People


United Nations Office in Geneva

7 September 2006



Remarks by Phyllis Bennis

Co-Chair, International Coordinating Network on Palestine



Mr. Chairman, Representative of the Secretary-General, Excellencies, and Friends:


I would like to extend my appreciation to the General Assembly’s Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People for sponsoring this International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People. It is a tribute to the longstanding and continuing commitment of the Committee, especially that of its chairman, Ambassador Paul Badji, as well as Ambassador Riyad Mansour and the rest of the Committee's leadership, that the General Assembly continues to link its work with civil society partners to remind the international community of the catastrophic situation facing Palestinians and the urgent need to end the occupation and provide Palestinians with all the rights guaranteed to them under international law and UN resolutions.


We meet today in the midst of a new crisis of war and occupation, in which Palestinians have suffered, and continue to suffer, even beyond the suffering imposed by almost 40 years of occupation. The aggressive reality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – which we must now recognize as Israeli apartheid – is escalating. Thirty years ago the United Nations recognized, condemned and crucially, committed itself to oppose, the international crime of apartheid.  And also crucially, it defined the crime of apartheid as a general crime against humanity, not specific to the then-reality of South Africa.  We stand here today, as civil society organizations and activists from around the world, to join with the United Nations once again to identify, condemn and commit ourselves to oppose once again, that heinous crime.


The war in Lebanon and the continuing assault in Gaza have created new realities. The conditions of Palestinians living under occupation continue to deteriorate and Palestinian refugees continue to be denied their internationally guaranteed right of return. But the current crisis has brought other changes as well.  The issue of Palestine, for too long limited to the narrow issue of ever-decreasing areas of authority governing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has been returned to its regional, Arab and global context.


In this new regional context governments are being forced by widespread expressions of popular democratic demands for an end to Arab support for the U.S. regional plan for what is called, falsely, “democratization” across the Middle East.  If democracy is to have any meaning at all, the United Nations, and indeed every member state, should welcome the opportunity to recognize and establish full relations with a democratically elected government in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, regardless of who the Palestinian people select. The reality of the international community and, unfortunately, the United Nations itself, largely standing paralyzed in the face of Israel’s blatantly illegal kidnapping of dozens of members of the elected parliament and indeed cabinet ministers of that democratically elected government, should be a badge of shame for all of us.


Excellencies, I use the term “all of us” advisedly – because the United Nations does not belong to you alone.  The United Nations belongs to all of us, to global civil society as much as to governments. And so when the United Nations stands silent in the face of new violations of international law and of its own resolutions, we stand responsible as well as you.


On February 15, 2003, the day “the world said no to war” on the eve of the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded Secretary General Annan of the relationship between the United Nations and civil society. Speaking on behalf of peace campaigners then marching in the millions all around the world, he told the SG that “we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of the global mobilization for peace.”


Like Bishop Tutu who has himself made justice in Palestine a priority of his work, we who work for Palestinian rights claim the United Nations as our own.  We believe that the United Nations must uphold international law and its own resolutions. Chief among these laws and resolutions must be the implementation of those that call for an end to Israeli occupation and the realization of all human rights – civil and political, economic and social, including the right of return – of  the Palestinian people.  As just one example, turning the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into truncated Bantustans, prisons in all but name, is a war crime.


Once again the crime of apartheid is being committed by a UN member state. And we call on our partner, the United Nations, to join with civil society’s call for the perpetrators of that crime to finally be brought to justice. 


Like global civil society throughout the years of South African apartheid, we have been and remain committed to a non-violent strategy aimed at ending the system of Israeli apartheid: a strategy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions on a global scale.  We have made significant gains in that strategy. Our partners in the UN Human Rights Council has taken an important step in investigating Israel’s use of prohibited weapons during the war in Lebanon. We commend that work, and urge that it continue. But we also call on the member states of the United Nations, to go further, to join with us in imposing governmental sanctions to stopping the murderous arms trade between Israel and so many governments throughout the world.


We know the UN is engaged in a difficult effort to initiate the compensation registry called for in the General Assembly’s resolution on implementing the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice which held Israel’s Apartheid Wall to be illegal. But the Wall today is nearly finished, encircling Palestinian towns and cities in the most massive land-grab since 1967.  We call on the UN to do more – to move to implement the rest of the ICJ’s Opinion that calls for the Wall to be dismantled everywhere it intrudes on Palestinian land.


And yes, we expect the United Nations to go still further. Many of us have long called for international protection for Palestinians living under occupation, since the Occupying Power consistently violates its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel has long refused. We know that Israel’s rejection of international protection is rooted in fear of a slippery slope towards international –specifically United Nations—centrality in Middle East diplomacy, instead of the current reality of a U.S. controlled “peace process.” 


But the war in Lebanon has changed the situation on the ground in the region. Among those changes is the new reality in which Israel and the United States have accepted the presence of UN Blue Helmet troops on Israel’s border, providing protection for Lebanese and Israelis alike. We urge the United Nations take advantage of this moment to take the next steps down this slippery slope, to reassert its own legitimacy with a call for real international protection for Palestinians living in the Israeli Occupied Territories.  That means a commitment to finding new forms to institutionalize that protection on the ground.


And finally, we urge that the United Nations move to convene, under its own auspices, a new international peace conference for the Middle East. Such a peace conference, grounded in international law and ALL relevant UN resolutions, will insure that all actors have a seat at the table, that ALL rights of ALL parties will be respected and implemented, and that no veto or threatened veto will impose an illegal outcome. No government, however influential, has the right to determine who legitimately speaks for another people. No government, however powerful, has the right to impose collective punishment on an entire population. No government, however protected by a global super-power, has the right to continue an illegal occupation and to deny a captive population its rights – all its rights – guaranteed by international law and UN resolutions.


We are pleased that on September 21st the Security Council will once again engage with the Arab League’s initiative calling for a new international peace conference. We are especially pleased with the commitment to move the issue out of the Council and into the General Assembly should the Council prove unable or unwilling to take its responsibility. We recognize that real UN reform will require just this kind of shift of key issues from the U.S.-dominated Council to the far more democratic General Assembly.


And finally, we also note that September 21st is the United Nations- designated International Day of Peace. Ending the Israeli occupation and implementing international law and UN resolutions guaranteeing equal rights to all Palestinians could not be a more fitting way to replace unilateralism and war with the possibility of peace.  Thank you.