Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Lack of Help for Gaza

Action, not words The noble spirit of the universal

declaration of human rights is betrayed by a lack of

help for Gaza


* Karen AbuZayd * The Guardian, Friday December 5 2008


As we approach the 60th anniversary of the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights, the steadily rising death

toll in Gaza highlights the painful gap between its

peaceful rhetoric and the desperate reality for

Palestinian people.


The declaration was a pivotal statement in which the

world community recognised the "inherent dignity and

the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the

human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and

peace in the world". True to its nobility of spirit, it

declares "the advent of a world in which human beings

shall enjoy freedom from fear and want as the highest

aspiration of the common people".


Sixty years on, the fate of the Palestinian people

should be a cause for universal soul-searching. The

need to give substantive meaning to the protection of

Palestinians has never been greater. The former high

commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson has said

that in Gaza, nothing short of a "civilisation" is

being destroyed. Desmond Tutu has called it "an

abomination". The humanitarian coordinator for the

occupied Palestinian territory, Maxwell Gaylard, said

that in Gaza there was a "massive assault" on human

rights. Most recently, the European commissioner, Louis

Michel, described the blockade of Gaza as a "form of

collective punishment against Palestinian civilians,

which is a violation of international humanitarian law".


Fatality figures for the occupied Palestinian territory

must surely make us question our commitment to

upholding the right to life, that most fundamental of

all rights, protected by a broad range of international

legal instruments. More than 500 Palestinians, 73 of

them children, have been killed this year alone as a

result of the conflict - more than double the figure

for 2005. Eleven Israelis have lost their lives this

year. The informal ceasefire in Gaza has been welcomed

by Israelis and Palestinians alike. For the sake of the

sanctity of human life, we hope that it continues to

hold, in spite of recent violations.


The right to freedom of movement enshrined in article

13 of the universal declaration also remains a distant

hope for many Palestinians. The inhumane blockade of

Gaza - which, as many senior UN officials have said,

collectively punishes 1.5 million people - and over 600

physical obstacles to movement in the West Bank are a

sad reminder of the world community's failure to stand

by that article.


With an estimated 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli

prisons, including some 325 children, the declaration

that "everyone has the right to liberty and security of

person" and that no one shall be subjected to cruel,

inhuman or degrading treatment has a sad resonance

today. Compounding these abuses are statistics that

attest to the lack of protection of social and economic

rights. An unprecedentedly high number of Gazans - more

than half - now live below the deep poverty line.


This is a humanitarian crisis, but one that is

deliberately imposed by political actors. It is the

result of policies that have been imposed on the

Palestinian people. Is it not time to look again at

those policies and search for a new approach? Is it not

time to question afresh our commitment to the noble

tenets of the universal declaration?


Overarching all these rights is the right to self

determination, the right to a state, which the

Palestinians have been deprived of through 60 years of

exile. Rights are best protected within the framework

of statehood, and we at the United Nations Relief and

Works Agency, charged with delivering assistance until

the refugee issue is resolved, are as aware of this as

any humanitarian actor working in the Middle East.


The chasm between word and deed is a matter of

puzzlement to many Palestinians. The result has been a

cruel isolation from the global community, fed by the

inaction of the international system. In such

circumstances, radicalism and extremism easily take

root. But this can be reversed, and protection is the

place to start. Let us make the protection of

Palestinian rights the byword of all our interventions.

Let us make the vision of the signatories of the

universal declaration a reality; continued failure to

do so is to our universal shame.


* Karen AbuZayd is the commissioner general of the

United Nations Relief and Works Agency

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