Karen Koning Abuzayd
The Guardian (Opinion)
December 5, 2008 - 1:00am

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 unrwa.org


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