UN Human Rights Council Establishes Commission of Inquiry for the Occupied Palestinian Territory as Civilian Deaths and Displacement Continue

UN Human Rights Council vote on establishing a commission of inquiry.
Credit: @UNGeneva

In a special session convened last week to address the escalating violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, the UN Human Rights Council resolved to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate “all violations” of international humanitarian law and human rights law committed in the context of armed conflict in the region since June 13, 2014. See UN Human Rights Council, Resolution S-21/1, Ensuring respect for international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, A/HRC/RES/S-21/1, 23 July 2014, para. 13. The Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights supported a formal investigation to help hold the parties accountable for civilian loss of life and prevent further violations. [OHCHR]

Resolution S-21/1 comes after several weeks of heavy air strikes and shelling between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, resulting in more than 1,000 people reported killed and 200,000 displaced in Gaza. [NYT] As the number of deaths and injuries rises, demands for action from the international community have increased, culminating in the Human Rights Council’s call for Israel to “ensure the welfare and safety of the Palestinian civilian population under its occupation.” Resolution S-21/1, preamble. And, the UN Security Council yesterday supported the Secretary General’s call for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire and urged all parties to fully respect international humanitarian law, including by ensuring the safety of the civilian population. [UN Security Council]

The independent, international commission of inquiry will be tasked with identifying those responsible for grave breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights violations, ensuring accountability, and assisting in the protection of civilians. The Human Rights Council directed the commission to report its findings at the Council’s 28th session in March 2015. [OHCHR]

The Ongoing Conflict

Nearly three weeks have passed since the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began “Operation Protective Edge” to put an end to rocket fire from Gaza. [BBC] Reports indicate that the Israeli military operation has resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,200 people in the Palestinian territories. Of these, an estimated 815 were civilians, including 127 women and 232 children. [Washington Post] The UN estimates that over 70 percent of those killed have been civilians. [OHCHR; OCHA] Fifty-four members of the IDF have died, in addition to seven Israeli civilians. [Washington Post]

Israel maintains that it has gone to “unprecedented lengths” to protect Palestinian civilians, including by dropping leaflets, making phone calls, and sending text messages. [BBC: Gaza Crisis] Israel’s Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, has said that “[i]t is regrettable civilians are killed, but when we call on them to vacate and Hamas calls on them to stay, then that is what happens.” [BBC: Navi Pillay]

The Commission of Inquiry’s Mandate

Resolution S-21/1 affirms States’ obligations to “respect and ensure respect” for the restrictions and protections contained in the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949 (Geneva Convention IV). Resolution S-21/1, preamble.

The purpose of the independent, international commission of inquiry will be to “investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014.” Resolution S-21/1, para. 13. Specifically, the commission will:

  • Establish the facts and circumstances of any violations or crimes perpetrated
  • Identify the perpetrators
  • Make recommendations on accountability measures
  • Report to the Human Rights Council at its 28th Session (March 2015)

The Human Rights Council adopted Resolution S-21/1 by a vote of 29 States in favor, 1 against, and 17 abstentions. [OHCHR Press Release] The vote against adoption of the resolution came from the United States.

Basis for the Investigation

The possibility that war crimes and violations of international human rights law have been committed serves as the basis for the inquiry into the ongoing conflict. Civilians and those in the jurisdiction of an occupying power are entitled to protection, and the deliberate targeting of these populations “grave breaches and a threat to international peace and security.” Resolution S-21/1, preamble; Geneva Convention IV, art. 4. During the special session, the Human Rights Council noted that the “massive Israeli military operations” in Occupied Palestinian Territory have involved “disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks” against the Palestinian civilian population. Resolution S-21/1, preamble, para. 2.

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UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay speaks to the Human Rights Council
Credit: UNifeed

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has indicated that Israel may have violated international humanitarian law and human rights law by targeting civilian homes. “Civilian homes are not legitimate targets,” she said, “unless they are being used for, or contribute to, military purposes at the time in question.” [OHCHR] Where civilian homes had been targeted, there is “a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes.” [OHCHR]

The targeting of medical and humanitarian personnel is another basis for inquiry into the conflict. In addition to protected persons, civilian hospitals “may in no circumstances be the object of attack.” Geneva Convention IV, art. 14. Kyung-wha Kang, Assistant Secretary-General of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported that at least 18 medical facilities, including five UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) health clinics, have been among the facilities hit by air strikes and shelling. [UNOG; OHCHR]

In her statement to the Human Rights Council, Navi Pillay said:

This is the third serious escalation of hostilities in my six years as High Commissioner. As we saw during the two previous crises in 2009 and 2012, it is innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip, including children, women, the elderly and persons with disabilities, who are suffering the most.

After recounting the circumstances of several reported attacks on family residences and the medical facilities, the High Commissioner stated:

These are just a few examples where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes. Every one of these incidents must be properly and independently investigated.

[OHCHR: Navi Pillay statement]

Human Rights Monitoring in Israel and the OPT

In addition to the Human Rights Council, the UN Security Council is monitoring the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and on July 28 called for an “immediate and unconditional” ceasefire. [Guardian]

The Human Rights Council has also requested all of the special procedures to “urgently seek and gather” information related to human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and to report on their findings in their annual reports to the Council. Resolution S-21/1, para. 12. And, it requested Switzerland, as depositary of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to call a meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention. [OHCHR Press Release]

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 reports on the human rights situation in occupied Palestinian territories and issues periodic reports to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly. The Special Rapporteur will undoubtedly include analysis of the recent events in coming reports.

UN Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental entity composed of 47 States and a forum for discussion of human rights conditions in UN Member States. The Council’s mandate is to promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” and “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.” For additional information on the UN Human Rights Council, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.