Gross human rights violations of Palestinians – by Palestinian security forces

Human Rights Watch has published an important report on the methods used by Palestinian security forces against dissidents in both Gaza and the West Bank. Arrested individuals have in a number of cases been illtreated and tortured.

In Gaza most of the victims have been activists for Fatah and in the West Bank they have primarily been Hamas supporters. In other words, the conflict between the two major Palestinian political groupings is now also reflected in mutual human rights violations.

Security forces on both sides have received foreign assistance, primiarly in order to prevent violence and chaus. Israel has developed close cooperation with the security structures of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority which was established under the Oslo agreement.

Those who have aided the training of Palestinian security officials in order to promote  professional behaviour now need to react. Also Swedish authorities should convey a strong message that these criminal violations are absolutely unaccetable and must stop without delay.

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is no excuse for the systematic torture. The executive director of the Palestinian independent human rights organisation Al Haq, Shawan Jabarin,  made this point clear:

“The fact that Israel systematically violates Palestinians’ most basic rights is no reason to remain silent in the face of the systematic repression of dissent and the torture Palestinian security forces are perpetrating”.     




UNRWA in financial crisis – here the facts explained by the spokesperson Christoph Gunnes

The complex and harsh challenges the Palestine refugee community has endured over the past decades are monumental. This year the challenges have grown, following the largest ever reduction in funding UNRWA has faced.  The ability of Palestine refugees to persevere is hugely admired by many around the world who continue earnestly to express solidarity and support for them.  As we continue to pursue every avenue of support to overcome a severe financial crisis, UNRWA, its dedicated staff, and the refugees have only one option – to face up to this situation together and preserve the most important work we do.

The decision of the US to cut $300 million in funding to UNRWA this year has been described by our Commissioner-General as an existential threat to UNRWA. Determined not to forsake Palestine refugees, UNRWA and its partners have mobilized political and financial support around the globe, to maintain its operations and render essential services to its beneficiaries with dignity and hope.

Our global fundraising efforts and Dignity Is Priceless campaign have led to significant additional support for UNRWA, from historical donors to new partners, including institutions for the mobilization of Zakat. Throughout this period, the Hosts provided important backing. From March to June alone   UNRWA raised US$ 238 million in new funding for Palestine refugees, and with the conclusion of the New York pledging conference on 25 June, the US$ 446 deficit was reduced to US$ 217 million – a monumental achievement.

The response, so far, reaffirms that UNRWA enjoys clear support from key donors, hosts and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Continuing and expanding this support is crucial for our efforts over the coming months to bridge the financial gap and ensure needed funding for our 2019 operations.

We are still in crisis. Let no one claim otherwise. But we are also determined to maintain core services to the millions of Palestine refugees who rely on us in Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territory, and Syria, and preserve what we can of our emergency assistance.

Our emergency assistance is critically under-funded in the occupied Palestinian territory, where the US contribution for emergency programming  — almost $100 million per year — is no longer available and has forced us to take mitigating measures.

In implementing these changes to its emergency interventions in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, UNRWA’s humanitarian responsibility dictates that we give priority to refugees with the most critical needs. It dictates that we protect core services, including education, health and relief, via our staff members to the millions of Palestine refugees in need of such services. With the rolling out of these measures, a limited number of personnel (both area and international) will be affected.

In the West Bank owing to the absence of emergency funding, UNRWA will discontinue its Cash for Work activities effective 31 July 2018.  However, households assessed in the last two years as abject poor, will be transitioned to the Social Safety Net Programme (SSNP) – a core programme of the Agency, which we are determined to continue. This will ensure that the most impoverished refugees inside camps continue to receive assistance, and become eligible for other forms of support which are not available under Cash for Work. Food voucher activities will continue until the end of 2018, at which time households who have been assessed in the last two years as abject poor will also be transitioned to SSNP.

The Bedouin community’s food assistance programme will continue operating until the end of 2018, with UNRWA and its partner the World Food Programme  actively working to secure funds for its continuation in 2019. The Community Mental Health Programme (CMHP)  will be discontinued effective 31 August 2018. UNRWA is currently coordinating options to continue working with select communities alongside UN agencies. Finally, mobile health clinics will be discontinued effective 31 October 2018. UNRWA is identifying possible partners for continued service to select communities.

As a result of all these measures, 154 staff members hired against now depleted emergency funds will not  have their contracts renewed upon reaching their expiry date. UNRWA recognizes the implications of such measures on affected staff.  In recognition to the important service of these colleagues and their dedication, if they chose to apply in the future to vacant posts, they will be treated as ‘internal candidates’ allowing an exceptional greater opportunity for re-employment with the Agency.

In doing all it can to minimize the impact on refugees in Gaza UNRWA is prioritizing food security support to the most vulnerable refugees by continuing its emergency food programme to nearly I1 million refugees and retaining certain interventions such as Cash for Work. In order to do so,  the community mental health programme, job creation programme and protection functions will have to be altered. The community mental health programme will continue, albeit at reduced capacity and cost. As of September 2018, mental health activities will be largely embedded within our health and education departments instead of a standalone programme.

In order to protect as many jobs as possible and retain components of certain emergency-based interventions by integrating them into core programmes, around 280 staff will be redeployed on full time basis in existing or revised functions and approximately 584 staff will be offered part time posts in existing or revised functions.   The EA funding challenge in the Strip would result in having 113  posts on emergency funding not renewed upon expiry of contract in August this year. As is the case with the West Bank field, if they choose to apply in the future to vacant posts, they will be treated as ‘internal candidates’ allowing an exceptional greater opportunity for re-deployment with the Agency.

It is important to emphasize that relentless efforts are underway to ensure that the new school year would start on time, catering to half a million students,  and that our other essential services – such as health care for example – continue uninterrupted. It is equally important to be clear that UNRWA remains committed to provide assistance and protection to Palestine refugees, in accordance with its mandate. The General Assembly has consistently extended the Agency’s mandate, most recently until 30 June 2020.

In his recent letter to UNRWA staff, the Commissioner-General said that despite all the challenges it faces, the Agency “will prevail” and it will not weaken its “defense of the rights and dignity of Palestine refugees.”


New report on the Palestinian refugees by Thomas Hammarberg: “Justice Postponed”

The report published by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs is titled “Justice Postponed”. The link is below.

The report makes the point that there is an acute need for a political and rights-based solution of the Palestinian refugee crisis. The continued postponement of dealing with this challenge has great human costs and undermines the possibilities of resolving other aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fate of the refugees is not a side issue, it is a major obstacle to the overall peace efforts, concludes Thomas Hammarberg in his analytical report.

Time has not healed the wounds and the current conditions for the refugees in exile or in the occupied territories are desperate. The situation has become even more precarious in recent time. Palestinian refugees fleeing from the war in Syria are badly treated wherever they manage to go. In Lebanon they are denied social and economic rights and suffer severe discrimination. In Gaza the Israeli blockade and military interventions have had disastrous consequences for the living conditions of people there.

At the same time the assistance to refugees from the United Nations has been crippled for financial reasons. The fear now is that the UNRWA programs on health care, education, jobs and emergency aid will have to be further reduced as the US contributions to the budget have been cut back dramatically.

The report describes the background to the present crisis, its human consequences, the failure to uphold humanitarian and human rights standards, the political positions of the parties and the failed attempts to promote a peaceful solution of this political and humanitarian disaster. It ends with a series of concrete recommendations on how to address the immediate humanitarian crisis and at the same time restart attempts for a genuine political solution.

UN agency for Palestinian refugees has to appeal for financial support while its programs have become life-saving

The UN Agency for the Palestinian refugees, UNRWA; is faced with deep economic problems at the time its programs have become life-saving for many of the refugees, not least those still in Syria.

There was a donor conference resently in Rome for UNRWA which gave some additional resources. The coming two days there will be a conference on Syria in Brussels which ought to look at the humanitarian crisis. The situation has  worsened with the US government decision to hold back on previously pledged contributions to UNRWA.

The UNRWA Commissioner-General is appealing for support in an article now being published in international media. It is presented below.


Palestine Refugee Children in Syria Brave “the Checkpoint of Death” For the Sake of Education and Dignity

 By the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Pierre Krähenbühl

Local people call it “the checkpoint of death”. For two years, 900 Palestine refugee students registered with UNRWA risked their lives passing through it every day to get to school in the neighbourhood on the other side.

The school’s education coordinator says “these children dream of becoming doctors. Armed opposition groups would harass them as they waited to cross, sometimes confiscating their books. But they persevered because education for them is a matter of life and death; their only hope”.

Yarmouk, the refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus from which the students were moving was once the thriving home of 160,000 Palestine refugees. Today there are just an estimated 6,000 remaining.  In 2015 ISIS moved into the camp, taking most of it. Harrowing images of the siege of Yarmouk have long shocked the world. All UNRWA schools in the camp have been severely damaged or destroyed.

Six weeks ago the checkpoint was closed entirely and when it opened briefly two weeks later, the majority of the 900 children made the painful decision to leave their family homes and move in with relatives and friends in areas on the other side  to ensure they would not be prevented again from access to school.

Their determination is symptomatic of the value Palestine refugee communities attach to education, which explains why despite alarming levels of insecurity and dramatic challenges posed by the conflict, some 48,000 students continue to attend UNRWA-run schools, compared with 60,000 before the war.

Through an innovative approach including lessons on satellite TV and self-learning materials, UNRWA has provided continued access to education in Syria and beyond for Palestine refugee students.

These children are part of a pre-war population of 560,000 Palestine refugees in Syria. Over 120,000 have fled abroad, including approximately 32,500 to Lebanon and 17,000 to Jordan. The vast majority of those who stayed behind are in need of sustained humanitarian assistance to meet their most basic food and shelter needs. Almost 60 per cent of those still in Syria have been displaced at least once.

UNRWA’s emergency programmes aim to meet these basic needs, to provide food and cash assistance this year to 418,000 Palestinians in Syria as well as those in Lebanon and Jordan.

In addition, we provide primary healthcare to registered Palestine refugees in 15 clinics and 11 health points across Syria, despite 8 of our 23 health centres being destroyed.

This life-saving work is under threat after a major donor withheld over 300 million US$ of funds to UNRWA in 2018.  This decision severely impacted our emergency appeal for Syria which is currently US$ 165 million underfunded.

It also critically impacted our budget for core programmes in education, health, relief and social services in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. Access to Education for 526’000 Palestine students, to health-care for 3.5 million patients and to emergency services for 1.7 million people are at serious risk across the Middle-East.

UNRWA has responded robustly. First, we turned to our donors to ask them to advance their expected contributions, which many did, for which we are grateful.  We also launched the #DignityIsPriceless campaign and a pledging conference was held in Rome. Key donors responded generously. To date 150 million dollars of new money has been pledged, by countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Canada, Norway, India, Switzerland, France and beyond. These are very significant and welcome steps and I believe this will create momentum for other donors – existing and new – to come urgently forward so that our services can continue. A lot more needs to be done.

To illustrate our determination and unique ability to deliver, let me tell you about Faisal, a 56 year old UNRWA teacher from Dera’a Camp, in the south of Syria. He leaves his house at 6.30 every morning, travels a circuitous journey of 60 kilometers, crosses two frontlines and four checkpoints, to teach his class of third grade students inside Dera’a. The three UNRWA school buildings there have been destroyed, but 300 children attend a make-shift school where Faisal teaches.

Faisal’s journey took ten minutes before the war. These days he and 14 UNRWA staff members put their lives on the line, journeying to Dera’a to provide young boys and girls with an education.

Their courage is typical of the 4,000 UNRWA staff in Syria and the risks they take are all too real. 18 of our staff have died since the start of the conflict, 23 are missing.

In light of the dangers Faisal and his colleagues face every day to keep our crucial services running, I cannot imagine informing him in a few weeks’ time that we would have failed to mobilize the needed financial support to safeguard our education, health-care and emergency work, as well as his employment. This would be truly inconceivable.

UNRWA stands for hope and the preservation of rights for a profoundly vulnerable community. I call on the world to take a stand for the 900 students from Yarmouk and for Palestine refugees from Syria. Their dignity and UNRWA’s mission matter.





The genocidal campaign against the Rohingya must be stopped!

More than 600 000 Rohingya refugees are reported to have been forced to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh in recent months. Others are in hiding as internally displaced. They have all fled from an exceptionally brutal military campaign of ethnic cleansing in the province of Rakhine.

An unknown number have not managed to escape the pogroms and several hundred are estimated to have been killed. Refugees who have reached Bangladesh have told about killings also of small children in the hands of military forces and mob groups.

The Myanmar government describes the military activities as a legitimate response to some violent actions by a small extremist group. However, it is clear that there is no proportion between what this group has actually done and the ongoing atrocities against hundreds of thousands of members of this Muslim minority which has been discriminated for generations and deprived of their citizenship.

The vast majority of the victims are women and children who, in fact, are increasingly targeted by soldiers and other armed elements..

The brutality during this systematic campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing has gradually assumed genocidal proportions. We are faced with a situation that possesses all the earmarks of crimes against humanity.

It is extremely important that all organs of the United Nations as well as regional intergovernmental organizations respond effectively and with a greater sense of urgency to these atrocities.

The wave of uncontrolled violence must be made to stop; fleeing people given secure protection; and relief organizations equipped to provide support and safety in refugee camps and settlements. The international community must more generously contribute to the resources of the humanitarian organizations.

The seriousness of the situation has made a number of us who have previously served as human rights experts for the United Nations – as Secretary General Special Representatives or UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights – to jointly appeal to the Myanmar Government to put an end to the systematic campaign against Rohingya (see below).

This group of 17 experts from different parts of the world stated that all Rohingya – as a first step – must be allowed to return to their homes voluntarily, with dignity and safety guaranteed. Further, it must be officially recognized and confirmed through full implementation that they can no longer be denied nationality and citizenship rights.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called for an end of statelessness and implementation of the right of every person to a nationality. These principles must be enforced. It is an outrage that Rohingya living on their ancestral land have been denied these fundamental rights.

International presence is crucial in the present situation. The Secretary General Guterres has requested immediate and safe access for UN agencies and their non-governmental partners to all affected areas. This is imperative as the politically generated humanitarian crisis needs to be immediately addressed.

The UN Human Rights Council recently stated that the independent international fact-finding mission must be allowed to work unhindered so as to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces”.

This important signal about monitoring should serve as a sobering reminder that one day justice will have to be established by proper procedures. Indeed, the time has come for the Security Council to refer this matter to the International Criminal Court at the Hague, so that a proper investigation can be initiated and perpetrators of these crimes against humanity can one day be held accountable for this unconscionable violence.

Certainly, there is a risk that such an initiative in the Security Council might be blocked by a veto from one of the permanent members. However, even a full discussion on this issue in that very forum will have some impact and may encourage other initiatives by international forces to act against these massive crimes.

Silence cannot be an option.

Former United Nations Special Rapporteurs Call for End to Human Rights Abuses Against Rohingya









 The Palme Center has decided to make public a report on the human rights situation in Abkhazia, a disputed territory in the former Soviet Union. The report is based on thorough research and several field visits by myself and Magdalena Grono, an expert on post-Soviet conflicts, now working with the International Crisis Group.

The report states that the unresolved conflict has severe impact on the human rights of people living in the contested territory of Abkhazia, as well as of persons displaced by the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz armed conflict.

The human costs of the continued conflict, playing out at Georgian-Abkhaz as well as Georgian-Russian levels, must be a serious consideration in all settlement efforts and dialogue, recommends the report.

A final settlement that would guarantee sustainable peace may continue to be elusive for some time, but a number of human rights problems can be addressed, and even resolved, before comprehensive political resolution is reached.  

Further international visits to Abkhazia on human rights issues would benefit both people affected by the ongoing conflict but also the broader climate for conflict settlement, in which humanitarian and human rights issues get easily politicized. Substantive apolitical dialogue on human rights issues with internationally recognised independent human rights experts should therefore be encouraged.  

The report is based on extensive research on both sides of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict divide, and especially in Abkhazia, over the course of nine months in 2016. They had full access to all relevant interlocutors – including authorities, civil society and ordinary people.

Their report is the first major assessment of the human rights situation in Abkhazia made by international, independent experts. The situation of ethnic Georgian returnees living in Abkhazia’s Gali district is one of the important aspects the report highlights.

This assessment, and an earlier version of their report, was initiated by the European Union and also circulated to relevant diplomats and international organisations. In view of its broader significance the authors have given the Palme Center the privilege of publishing the full and updated report. It will be an important contribution to ongoing efforts to address the conflict, including in the Geneva International Discussions, the conflict settlement forum in this case.

The full report can be found on the web site of Olof Palme International Center.

The Olof Palme International Center publishes the first independent report on human rights in Abkhazia

Military coup in Greece 50 years ago, democrats were betrayed – what did we learn?

Fifty years have now passed since the military takeover in Athens. The coup in the early morning of 21 April 1967 was indeed a shock for democrats all over Europe. How was it possible that a simple group of colonels could wipe out democracy in one of the oldest members states of Council of Europe?

The shock deepened when it became known that the Greek parliament was closed and the political parties dissolved, that strict media censorship had been introduced and that about 6 000 people, including politicians and journalists, had been taken prisoner, many of whom were tortured  during interrogation.

Though the colonels were political novices and made naïve – even ridiculous – statements, they were well prepared in military terms, got to grips quickly with the state machinery and launched their systematic terror skillfully. Obviously, the Greek army and security forces had not been kept under sufficient democratic control. Their links to colleagues in the United States became gradually more obvious.

As a young member of Amnesty International, I went to Athens soon after the coup in order to collect evidence about torture. I was immediately struck by the wide spread fear in the community. To testify to a foreign human rights organization involved a serious risk.

However, testimonies did come out and an interstate complaint was submitted at the end of 1967 by governments in Scandinavia and the Netherlands to the Commission of Human Rights within the Council of Europe. The Commission concluded that the European Convention had been violated and the Greek junta decided in 1969 to leave the organization in order to avoid the embarrassment of suspension.

However, torture continued and the colonels managed to stay in power for another five years, until July 1974. There were several reasons for this, a major one being that the solidarity with the Greek democrats – though strong in several countries – was not shared by everyone. The US government gave the junta political protection and the colonel’s Greece could therefore remain member of NATO.

The Greek democrats at the time appealed to European governments to try to convince Washington to stop supporting the junta, or at least demand an end to torture, but their requests were generally met with silence.

The succeeding democratic regime in Greece reined in the military and security forces and put the colonels and some of the most notorious torturers to trial. However, there was little discussion about the fact that the international community failed to stop the junta for years.

What did we learn?



Israeli extension of illegal settlements undermines international peace efforts

Signals are coming from Washington that the Obama team will during the remaining months make new efforts to restart peace talks on the Israel-Palestine conflict. At the same time the French government is pursuing its project to establish a meaningful framework for genuine negotiations. The so called Quartet – US, EU, Russia and the UN Secretariat – has come out with agreed positions, one of which is a strong call for termination of the Israeli settlement activities.

But Prime Minister Netanyahu is certainly not cooperating with this these efforts, in particular not with the French initiative. Instead, his government is stepping up the expansion of settlements. New permissions are given for hundreds of units in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank. More than half a million now reside in these illegal settlements.

Protests from the US government, the EU and UN representatives have so far been ignored. The reaction from the US State Department has been particularly strong:

The United States is deeply concerned about Israel’s reported plans to build an additional 323 units in settlements in East Jerusalem on top of 770 units previously announced in the settlement of Gilo”.

“These steps by Israeli authorities are the latest examples of what appears to be a steady acceleration of settlement activity that is systematically undermining the prospects for a two-state solution”. 

The UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, stated that the Israeli policies are destroying prospects for a Palestinian state.

“I remain increasingly concerned by the near-daily advancement of the illegal settlement enterprise in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem”.

In the midst of Israel’s acceleration of the settlement activities, the Republican Party decided at its convent to ditch any support to a two-state solution, a position largely influenced by Netanyahu’s agitation during his previous visits to the US. Now obviously embarrassed by this situation he made a statement that he was in favor of two states side by side (which he has said before – with conditions making the position totally meaningless).

Also, we have learned that when it comes Netanyahu deeds are definitely more important than words. For the moment he is busy building relations with the new dictator in Cairo and with the Saudi regime. One purpose is obviously to create an alibi for not supporting the serious initiatives from the outgoing Obama administration or the French government.

As before Netanyahu’s policy is to maintain the status quo. No compromises for peace.




Israel-Palestine: the two-state solution is now seriously undermined

Reports from the Middle East are not encouraging. While the world has given its full attention to the disaster in Syria, the relations between Israelis and Palestinians have reached a new low. The Israeli government has taken further steps to expand settlements on the West Bank and Palestinians have given up on the possibilities to reach a peace agreement through talks. Extremists are gaining ground on both sides. Violence has been spread during the last six months. 30 Israelis have been killed, several of them through knife attacks, while 198 Palestinians have lost their lives through the Israeli counter measures.

However, the international community has not been totally passive. The French government is trying to convene an international conference in order to start a peace process and the so called Middle East Quartet (with the US, the Russian Federation, the EU and the UN secretariat) is working towards a Security Council resolution with the same intention.

The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Process, Bulgarian diplomat Micholay Mladenov, has asked for new efforts by the international community to stop the negative spiral. His speech to the Security Council on 24 March gave a clear message based on an analysis which ought to be widely understood.

I quote below key passages of his presentation. 

“We in the international community must also be clear both in our understanding of the conflict and our role in how to help resolve it. Our immediate priority must be ending the violence which is tearing Israelis and Palestinians apart when both face the rise of radicals among their own constituents. We only need to look at the rest of the region to see the dangers of religious extremism, sectarianism and terrorism.  

But let us be also abundantly clear that the current security challenges cannot be addressed if we lose sight of the fundamental problems that have led us here — the persistent inability to achieve a just and lasting solution that meets the national aspirations of the Palestinians and Israelis and allows them to live in two states, side by side, in peace, security and mutual recognition. This is why today we must once again play an important role by saying no, the prospect of a two-state solution is not dead, it remains the best pathway for peace

The time has come to ring the alarm bells that the two-state solution is slipping from our fingers, that it is disappearing as the realities on the ground – driven by the ongoing settlement activities and confiscation of Palestinian land, as well as the continued lack of genuine Palestinian unity – make the prospect of a viable and independent Palestinian state less possible and less likely. The time has come for us to speak clearly as to the risks that undermine the two-state solution but also point to the way forward to a return to meaningful negotiations 

This is why the United Nations Secretary-General, the EU, the Russian Federation and the United States ofAmerica — all members of the MiddleEast Quartet, have stepped up their efforts to break the political impasse. The Quartet Envoys have started our work on a report which will review the situation on the ground, identify the dangers to a two-state solution, and provide recommendations on the way forward. We remain seriously concerned that current trends – including continued acts of violence against civilians, incitement, ongoing settlement activity, and the high rate of demolitions of Palestinian structuresare dangerously imperiling the viability of a two-state solution.  

While the international community explores avenues for constructive engagement, there are trends that raise questions about the commitment of the parties to seriously address the main challenges blocking the progress towards peace.   

Israel’s settlement enterprise continues, despite broad international condemnation. In a particularly troubling development, on March 10th Israel classified 580 acress out of the city ofJericho, in the West Bank as so-calledstate land’. The area includes the 378 acres, reportedly approved, and widely condemned, in January of this year. This is evidence of a continued policy of systematic consolidation of Israeli control of the occupied West Bank, in direct contravention of international law.    

Since the early 1980s, Israeli authorities in the West Bank have adopted, based on a controversial interpretation of the Ottoman Land Law, a policy of declaring as “state land” land that is not otherwise registered as private. This has resulted in the State seizing control over certain areas where Palestinians claim ownership and has proved to be a precursor for settlement construction. Any such declaration, particularly of a large scale, raises justified concerns over further settlement expansion. Settlements are illegal under international law and I urge Israel to halt and reverse such decisions.   

The demolition and confiscation of Palestinian structures across the West Bank has also surged in 2016 withsome 468 houses and other structures demolished since the beginning of the year. On March 23, Israeli authorities demolished 53 structures in Khirbet Tana, including 22 homes, the third demolition this year in this particular community because Israel has declared by Israel as a firingzone. The total number of structures demolished or confiscated in these first 12 weeksof 2016 has now reached 85 per cent of the total number demolished or confiscated in all of 2015. As Palestinians are consistently denied permits to build legally, residents in the affected areas are left with few options but to build without permits, leaving them in constant fear of their homes and livelihoods being destroyed. I urge Israel to respect international humanitarian law and cease such unfair and unjust planning processes in the West Bank.”  



Nicolae Gheorghi had a message for us on Roma Rights

One of the foremost defenders of Roma Rights was Nicolae Gheorghi from Romania who sadly passed away in 2013. In memory of his remarkable contributions the European Roma Rights Center has now published a series of articles on his analyses, messages and efforts. The following was my own piece.

“He came with a broom in his hand”

I had invited Nicolae Gheorghi to a meeting of European Human Rights Defenders in Sarajevo. As Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe I had taken the liberty to convene meetings of activists who could give good advice and set the tone for our common struggle for human rights on the continent. Nicolae was an obvious invitee, not only because of his straight and often humoristic interventions – he had a message.

At that time he was no longer with the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. He had moved back to his Romania and joined civil society as an activist again. Entering the Sarajevo conference room he waived the broom in the air explaining that he and his colleagues had now concluded that their patience had run out. The time had come to sweep the corrupt decision takers out of power once and for all. The broom was the symbol for this determination.

Nicolae shared with many other activists a very deep commitment to the human rights cause. This was combined with other characteristics which made him unique: intellectual rigor, scrutinizing honesty and an openness to change opinion on the basis of experience. He became the sharpest critic of hypocrisy among both Roma and gadje. He told the truth even when inconvenient.

He exposed the symbiotic relationship developing between gadje Roma ‘experts’ and Roma leaders which tended to perpetuate the atmosphere of Roma victimhood. “The role of Roma opinion-makers”, he wrote, “is to suggest new approaches, focusing on integration rather than being victims”.

He stressed that misbehavior by Roma individuals should not be excused with a reference to the long history of repression. Criticism against someone’s criminal activities must be taken seriously and not just be dismissed as anti-Gypsyism.

Such statements – including Nicolae’s writings about ‘cunning’ (shmekeria) and early marriages – could hardly have been made by any gadjo without causing misunderstandings. Indeed, the approach taken by myself and many of my gadje colleagues is that raising such “taboo” issues must be left to insiders. We decided not to give the anti-Roma propaganda any further ammunition. We have also felt that these social issues were indeed to a large extent the consequence of enforced misery and marginalization.

Knowing that Nicolae did take up these issues was a relief and of course the best answer to those who used these negative social phenomena in their racist hate speech.

While defining and pointing at such problems, Nicolae also gave positive inspiration to the Roma rights cause. Many of his messages could be summarized with the slogan “Yes, we can”. Real change must come from ourselves, he repeated.

Of course, he was deeply aware of the divisions among the Roma people but he believed it would be possible to unite the various groups into one cultural nation. “The common aim of the Roma movement”, he once wrote, “should be the organization, mobilization and eventual remobilization of Roma, based on pursuing the struggle against racism and discrimination”.

Nicolae was in a sense a bridge between Roma communities and the broader international community, underpinned by his impressive academic and language skills. He was one of the initiators behind the International Roma Contact Group, a short lived but important organization in the very first years of this millenium. Its main achievement was to initiate – with the support of the government of Finland – the creation of the European Roma and Traveller Forum (ERTF) under the auspices of Council of Europe.

Nicolae followed the developments of the Forum even after having resigned from it. In his late writings he felt that it was still too early to evaluate its merits but that it would be wise to continue to maintain friendly relation in supporting the organization “while retaining our critical faculties”. He wrote that ERTF should move beyond its cluster mentality and do more to set standards and create precedents for national Roma organisations so that it would strengthen its position as a role model. It should seek answers to such crucial questions as assimilation, integration and cultural separation.

In conclusion he wrote:

“As a former club member I now appear a heretic for challenging prevailing orthodoxy by suggesting a more genuine, credible and legitimate type of Roma representation. This is the form my activism takes nowadays – by reinventing myself and working at national level in Romania but drawing on my familiarity with European structures and developments over the past years in the belief that the ERTF can be a key factor in the development of Roma culture as a European level”.

It was a great loss that this man were not given more time to pursue the work for his vision about a European Roma cultural nation of united communities, integrated in the broader societies and having their rights and culture recognized and respected.