The rapporteurs issued a statement on Thursday in which they say they have serious concerns. “This is incredibly important and courageous,” said lawyer and Arabist Laila al-Zwaini. She previously worked at the UN mission in Afghanistan as head of the rule of law building department. “These rapporteurs are mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to independently investigate and report on human rights violations based on their legal expertise.”
What exactly is the accusation?
The UN experts point to the more than 11,000 Palestinian deaths, almost half of them children. They also condemn the large-scale attacks on civilian infrastructure such as hospitals and homes. Blocking food and medicine shipments is also a violation of international law, the UN experts said.
In addition, the statement pays close attention to ‘increasing genocidal incitement’ by senior officials within Israel. For example, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said at the beginning of the war: “We are fighting human beasts and we will act accordingly.”
The combination of the many civilian casualties and ‘dehumanizing rhetoric’ is what causes the rapporteurs to use the loaded term ‘genocide in the making’. This has to do with how genocide is defined in international law.
What is genocide?
Genocide was given a legal definition immediately after the Second World War, at a convention in 1948. It says that you can speak of genocide in the case of large-scale violence, but only if it has been proven that there was an intention to destroy a population group. The latter is difficult to prove in practice, which is why the statement pays a lot of attention to the rhetoric of senior Israeli officials, al-Zwaini explains.
Genocide is a heavy and loaded term, which is why lawyers are very careful about using it. Often it can only be proven afterwards. Yet al-Zwaini understands that the UN experts are already daring to say it: “It has not yet been legally proven, but if you have justified suspicions you must take action against it. That is exactly their task.”
What else is in the statement?
In addition to warning of the genocide in the making, the statement also contains an explicit call for the international community to stop the violence. “That is not emphasized enough, there is also an obligation on every UN member state,” says al-Zwaini.
The international community should firstly insist on an immediate ceasefire, the statement said. There should also be a humanitarian corridor, all hostages should be released by Hamas, and an “international protective presence” should be established for the occupied Palestinian territories.
What are the consequences of the UN declaration?
The above recommendations are mainly that: recommendations, without binding consequences. Yet al-Zwaini does not want to underestimate its impact. “This has never happened before, to my knowledge, that such a large group of UN special rapporteurs has spoken out like this.” A smaller group of rapporteurs had already done this at the beginning of November. She also points out that at the end of October, the director of the UN Human Rights Council in New York, Craig Mokhiber, resigned because he felt that his employer was doing too little to prevent a genocide among the Palestinians.
Al-Zwaini: “As more and more authoritative voices emerge to condemn this violence, it becomes increasingly difficult to look away.” She therefore believes that the purpose of this call is for other countries, and in particular the United States, to put much more pressure on Israel to put an end to the violence in Gaza.