Haider Rizvi
Inter Press Service (IPS)
October 16, 2007 - 12:45pm

The United Nations has come under strong criticism from one of its own top human rights officials for failing to take effective action to check the ongoing Israeli abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Expressing his anger and frustration at the fast-deteriorating human rights situation in Gaza and the West Bank, John Dugard, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights for the Palestinian territories since 2001, has suggested that the world body quit the Middle East Quartet.

The U.N. "does itself little good by remaining a member of the Quartet," he said in an interview with the BBC Monday, adding that the Quartet has done nothing to protect Palestinian civilians.

"Every time I visit, the situation seems to have worsened," he said. "This time I was very struck by the sense of hopelessness among the Palestinian people."

Dugard is the second prominent U.N. envoy to denounce the Quartet as ineffective. On the eve of his retirement in June this year, and after 25 long years with the world body, Under-Secretary-General Alvaro de Soto also blasted the United Nations in a 52-page confidential report, accusing the world body of undermining the goal of a Palestinian state.

"The steps taken by the international community with the presumed purpose of bringing about a Palestinian entity that will live in peace with its neighbour, Israel, have had precisely the opposite effect," he wrote.

This sentiment has now been echoed by Dugard, whose remarks come ahead of a major U.S.-sponsored peace conference scheduled to take place next month and amid the ongoing talks between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

Although many officials at the world body's headquarters in New York share Dugard's concerns about the abusive treatment of ordinary Palestinians, there will be no change in the Secretariat's role in addressing the question of Palestine and the Israeli conflict.

"Dugard is independent. He is entitled to speak independently," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson Farhan Haq told IPS. "(But) withdrawal from the Quartet would not help the causes of human rights and peace."

"From our standpoint, membership in the Mideast Quartet is important for the U.N.," he said, adding "but that does not stop the secretary-general and other U.N. officials from speaking out on human rights."

The so-called Mideast Quartet, which was formed about five years ago to facilitate peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, consists of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Like many others, Dugard, a retired professor of international relations from South Africa, thinks that over the years, the Quartet has proved ineffective because it is "heavily influenced" by the United States, a staunch supporter of Israel and its military actions.

In his statement, Dugard acknowledged that there were threats to Israel's security but added that "its response" in the occupied territories was "disproportionate", with scores of checkpoints in Gaza and the West Bank that are making the lives of ordinary Palestinians "miserable".

In defending Ban's decision to keep relying on the Quartet's efforts for a negotiated settlement, his spokesperson referred to the increased contacts between the Quartet and the Arab League, which has recently launched its own peace initiative.

Besides reaching out to the Arab League, the Quartet is also trying to bring about changes on the ground to improve living conditions and the economy of the Palestinians, he said, and it is also trying to engage the donor community for greater support to the Palestinian government.

"The SG [secretary-general] has taken a clear and independent stance," said Haq. "He has continually called for the reopening of the crossings and spoken out against any moves by Israel to collectively punish the population there."

Ban's repeated calls for restraint appear to have fallen on deaf ears in Jerusalem. Reflecting his pessimism regarding the situation in the occupied territories, Dugard said he expected another wave of mass uprisings in Gaza and the West Bank against the Israeli repression.

Reports from the region suggest that many Palestinian groups are already preparing to take part in mass protests against military actions, economic deprivations and daily casualties at the hands of Israeli army.

According to the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), about 46 percent of Palestinians do not have enough food to meet their basic needs, as the Israeli military is continuing its raids and blockading the exit and entry points around Gaza and other occupied areas.

U.N. officials say due to acute poverty and increasing unemployment, many children in the occupied territories are unable to complete their educations.

"The cumulative impact of years of violence and closures, of disrupted schooling and academic poverty is clear from the stark exam results of Gaza's school children," UNRWA's director John Jing said recently.

The total population in the occupied territories is estimated at three to four million people.

Independent experts on the region say that in the absence of intervention to shift the balance of power and secure implementation of a genuine peace agreement, there will be no easing of the human suffering and instability there.

"Until and unless a just and comprehensive peace is seen by the U.S. to be as strategic an interest as keeping military secrets safe, peace will remain an elusive goal," said Nadia Hijab, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Institute for Palestinian Studies.

The U.N.'s Dugard has drawn similar conclusions. In his view, the pro-U.S. Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas has raised high hopes among its people. "If those expectations are not met," he warned," there would be serious consequences, including violent uprising against the Israelis."

Dugard is due to present his report on the Palestinian human rights situation to the U.N. General Assembly later this month. He said he would urge Ban to take the U.N. out of the Quartet if it fails to address the human rights situation.


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