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'Paradigm shift': Palestinians join treaties

Israel has called Palestinian accession to 15 international treaties 'blackmail', but what does the move really mean?

Last updated: 22 Apr 2014 07:27
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Palestinians welcomed the decision to join over a dozen international treaties and conventions this month [EPA]

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank - On April 1, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed applications to join 15 international treaties and conventions, including the Geneva Conventions, which articulate the laws of war.

The move came after Israel decided not to release a final batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners, a key part of an agreement made between the Palestinians, Israel and the United States to re-start peace talks last year. Israel said the Palestinian decision was grounds to halt negotiations and a new diplomatic crisis ensued.

But just what are these international treaties and conventions, and why are they important? Al Jazeera explains:

Treaties and Conventions

The Fourth Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and the First Additional Protocol

The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict)

The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

The UN Convention against Corruption

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations

The Vienna Convention on Consular Services

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

The Hague Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

What international organisations did the Palestinians join?

The Palestinians joined 14 treaties and conventions, and one United Nations organisation. According to senior Palestinian official Mohammad Shtayyeh, "most of them have to do with the image of Palestine and institution-building".

Has accession to the treaties and conventions been officially accepted?

Yes, it has. The official request for accession to the international human rights treaties and conventions was received by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on April 10 and has been approved. Ban informed all 193 UN member states that the applications were made "in due and proper form".

"We [Palestinians] have not only signed these [agreements], but we have become officially bound by them now," Randa Siniora, the Director General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR), told Al Jazeera.

Officially, the Palestinians will become party to most of these conventions in May.

What are the legal ramifications of joining these treaties and conventions?

Palestinians must ensure compliance with their clauses and must report back regularly to the overseeing bodies. "We welcome this step," Siniora said. "But it needs to be translated on the ground and it entails a lot of work."

"The issue is how to implement these treaties with the absence of the Palestinian Legislative Council," Siniora added, referring to the Palestinian parliament (PLC) which has not been in session since 2007. The PLC was paralysed after several of its members were imprisoned by Israel, and due to persisting political divisions between the two major Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

For these treaties to be implemented, changes must be made to the national legislation. But since the PLC is defunct, a presidential decree is needed to rule that international instruments take precedence over national legislation. This will bypass the need to resort to the PLC, Siniora said.

Changes at the local level would potentially address issues such as the "honour killing" of women, freedom of speech for all, including journalists, and nepotism and corruption in public institutions.

None of the newly-signed treaties and conventions will have a direct impact on Israel as an occupying power. Palestinian authorities must ratify the Rome Statute, as well as other conventions, if they want to hold Israel accountable for war crimes.

The treaties work both ways, Siniora explained, meaning that Palestinians must ensure that civilians are protected on both sides of the "Green Line", the internationally-recognised border between Israel and the West Bank.

Why did the Palestinians join these treaties and conventions?

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is responsible for holding negotiations and signing agreements with Israel, said it became a signatory to the conventions and treaties because Israel reneged on an agreement to release the last batch of Palestinian detainees on March 29.

Israel had pledged to free 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four parts, and in exchange, the Palestinians had pledged to freeze all unilateral steps to seek membership in UN organisations until the end of April 2014.

According to Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PLO's director general, Israel's decision left the Palestinians with little choice but to turn to international bodies. Palestinians also said that they can no longer rely on negotiations to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They called joining the international entities a "paradigm shift", and said they would pursue other means in parallel with peace talks.

Does this mean the Palestinians wanted to drop out of US-sponsored negotiations?

Palestinians said there was no link between signing the international conventions, and a return to the negotiating table with Israel. The PLO said in a statement that, "The release of prisoners was not formally linked to the negotiations process."

Becoming a signatory to international conventions, the PLO stated, "does not mean that [the] negotiations process is over. Indeed, the PLO remains committed to this nine-month process [of talks], which ends on April 29".

What has Israel's response been?

The Israeli authorities have accused the Palestinians of sabotaging the US-sponsored talks. Their response was to formally cancel the release of the last batch of Palestinian detainees - 26 prisoners, most of whom are Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the PA had sabotaged US-sponsored peace talks [EPA]

At a cabinet meeting on April 6, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the crisis on the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Abbas. "[Abbas] hastened to declare that he is not prepared even to discuss recognising Israel as the national state of the Jewish people," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also said the PA was quick to unilaterally request to join the treaties, and had "substantially violated the understandings that were reached with American involvement".

On the ground, Israel slapped financial penalties on the Palestinians. The penalties are in the form of a freeze on the tax levies Israel collects on the PA's behalf each month. Withholding tax revenues is in contravention of the "Paris Protocol", signed in 1994 between the PLO and Israel within the framework of the Oslo Accords, according to Ramallah-based human rights group Al-Haq.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa'eb Erekat called Israel's move an act of "piracy" and "theft".

Is this the first time Israel has withheld Palestinian tax revenues?

No. This isn't the first time Israel has withheld money owed to the Palestinians. 

In 2012, Israel withheld Palestinian tax revenues after Palestinians' observer status at the UN was upgraded to "non-member state". A year earlier, Israel stopped the transfer of funds after UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, granted Palestinians membership.

In 2008, Israel also delayed the transfer of funds after former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called on the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) not to upgrade relations with Israel.

Why are the Palestinians accusing Israel of political "blackmail"?

Palestinians are saying that Israel is using the last batch of Palestinian detainees to extend talks beyond their April 29 deadline, and to extract more concessions from the Americans and Palestinians.

"Israel has refused to release the last tranche because they wanted a trade-off," Shtayyeh said. "Sometimes it's 'prisoners for [more] settlements'; now it's 'prisoners for talks' and recently it's been 'prisoners for [incarcerated US spy Jonathan] Pollard'. They want to use the last group [of prisoners] for blackmail."

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Al Jazeera
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