Enable javascript to see the website
Francesca Albanese
July 15, 2023

Decolonizing Palestine: the double standard of the international law

The voice of Francesca Albanese, interviewed by Sara Manisera and Michela Grasso

Decolonizing Narrative is a cycle of seminars and public events on freedom of expression, human rights, and public interest journalism organized by Voice Over Foundation. The aim is to support new narratives that put people's rights and their stories at the center. 

Interview with Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

Q: Can you introduce yourself? What was your educational and work background that led you to the position you hold today? Tell us what you do and what it means to be the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

A: My name is Francesca Albanese, a jurist by education and profession, and I am currently serving as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territory Occupied by Israel since 1967, so the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This mandate was given to me by the United Nations as an independent expert. The Human Rights Council gives such mandates to a person by virtue of his or her specific knowledge on an issue or a region of the world by asking him or her to make annual reports to the General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights situation on that issue, for example, freedom of expression, prevention of torture, protection of human rights defenders, or on specific areas of the world. My assignment includes the responsibility to report on violations of international law taking place in the 'occupied Palestinian territory' (I use the singular because that is a unitary part of what remains of the pre-1948 mandated Palestine). I am honored to be the first woman rapporteur in the 30-year existence of this mandate. From the beginning, I decided to give this figure a public profile, taking its contents, analysis and recommendations outside the United Nations as well, to make them accessible to an audience of more than just 'insiders'. This is because human rights and their violations are an issue for everyone. As for my background, I have a law degree, specializing in human rights, and have worked in the field of international protection in several countries in the Middle East and specifically in the areas where many of the Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel since 1948 still live. Since this is an unpaid assignment, my main work is for an Arab non-governmental organization (ARDD) dealing with refugees and migrants, and I work with a number of universities teaching topics related to the Palestinian issue, refugees and human rights. As a Special Rapporteur, I have a duty to document and stay abreast of what is going on. I follow individual cases and reports of violations that Palestinians suffer directly or indirectly from Israel's occupation, but also at the hands of Palestinian authorities. I try to interact with the Israeli authorities but they do not interface with my mandate. In addition, the rapporteurs are supposed to write reports after visiting the territory under their jurisdiction, but since 2007 Israel has been preventing those in this position from entering. This is a violation of its obligations as part of the United Nations system, which requires cooperation for the smooth functioning of the system, without exception.

Q: What is the context under the international law of the situation of the Palestinians? From occupation to apartheid. In what state do the Palestinians live today? What is their daily living condition? Can one speak of an apartheid?

A: It is in fact apartheid. To simplify: the story obviously starts 75 years ago when the international community, following the Shoah, decided to support the project of creating a state for the Jewish people in Palestine. Except that there were other people there (mostly non-Jews) and in that process there were massacres, villages destroyed, women, men and children forced to flee. Eighty per cent of the population, i.e. 750,000 Arabs of Palestine (Muslims and Christians), became refugees and lost everything they had (the Jews of Palestine displaced as a result of the violence that accompanied the birth of the State of Israel were soon allowed to 'return' to the newly formed State of Israel). For the Palestinians (or Arabs of Palestine) there was to all intents and purposes the crumbling of a homeland: that is what the Nakba is. The United Nations in 1947 proposed to divide the territory in two: 55% to the Jewish State and 45% to the Arabs, which already in 1949, after the armistice lines, became 22%. This is why I speak of the occupied Palestinian territory as 'what remains of Mandate Palestine'. In 1967, Israel invaded this territory where martial law has been in force for 56 years, i.e. the Israeli army makes military laws, which it applies and according to which it judges the Palestinians. In all these years, Israel has facilitated the transfer of Israeli Jews, but also from the United States, Europe, and Russia to this occupied territory. Today there are 720,000 settlers in 270 colonies. The reality experienced by Palestinians under occupation is made up of land confiscation, forced expropriations, and violence against men, women and children. This violent occupation is incompatible with international law, it is a real apartheid, a consequence of an occupation that by its very nature is colonial. And as was colonialism in Algeria, with the Aborigines in Australia, the United States or elsewhere, in Palestine too it is a settlement colonialism. The fact that Jews have strong religious and spiritual ties to that land and specific places in the Palestinian territory must be acknowledged, but it does not give them the right to drive out and plunder the population under occupation (which must in fact be protected under international law).

Q: Those who criticise the measures of the Israeli government and army are often accused of anti-Semitism. Has this ever happened to you? How do you get out of it?

A: Not a day goes by without receiving accusations and threats against me or my family. And the more you expose yourself, the more you are attacked. But one must not let oneself be intimidated. Those who work with human rights know, in some ways, that they are 'carrying a cross'. You know that this is not an easy job, but you do it to ensure a better present and future for everyone. Anti-Semitism, as well as Islamophobia and racism exist and are real things that should by no means be minimised. What has been happening, however, is that for the past ten years or so, anti-Semitism and the fight against anti-Semitism have been used to justify, cover up and prevent legitimate criticism of the State of Israel for what it does in its own territory and in the territory it occupies over which it has no sovereignty. Therefore, any criticism of the state of Israel becomes anti-Semitic. Why should one not criticise a state that has occupied territory where people are born in captivity for 56 years? The report recently published by the organisation ELSC - European Legal Support Center - highlighted how people, European or not, Jewish or not, second or third generation Palestinians are silenced, vilified, threatened with losing their jobs for their mission of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Freedom of expression is one of the foundations of Western democracies and is today endangered in places of public debate, from universities to the media, because one cannot criticise Israel.

Q: Media and representation. In Italy we see a polarising, divisive narrative that portrays the Palestinian people as if they were a people entirely of terrorists. When we talk about Palestine and Israel we tend to put them on the same level as if occupiers and occupied could be told in an equidistant way. On the contrary, elsewhere, let us think in Ukraine, the tale is told differently. Two different weights and measures? Why?

A: Until 30-40 years ago, it was normal to talk about Palestine in the context of national movements of liberation from colonialism like in South Africa, Algeria, Congo or elsewhere. Since the Oslo peace process of 1990 everything has changed. States have completely shied away from engaging on the underlying legal issues and contented themselves with saying that Israel was negotiating with the Palestinians when, in reality, the Palestinians were completely losing the space to advance their own demands and thus this unequal situation of occupier and occupied, coloniser and colonised, remained. Politicians incessantly call for negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis as the only possible solution. But this has important limitations. The Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that an agreement concluded between the parties cannot violate or restrict the rights conferred on the people protected by the Convention. This is the context. And in this situation, the media and politicians have their responsibility, because unlike 30 or 40 years ago, Palestine is no longer told as it is. This has also happened because since 2001 a flare-up of Islamophobia has spread throughout the West. And in this distorted narrative Israel would defend the liberal values of the West while the Palestinians are the irredentists and 'terrorists'. Despite this narrative, however, the Palestinian issue still remains important in the hearts of people and civil society. And this is why it is important to talk to young people about Palestine because Palestinians are fighting for civil, economic, political, social and cultural rights. This is the Palestine of today, this is what the Palestinians want and that means first and foremost freedom. But I repeat: there is still much work to be done to regain the space of public opinion and make the press responsible and not mere propaganda. With regard to the invasion of Ukraine, we can say that this war has shown how the mentality of certain European countries, which is then reflected in the policies of the Union, is still imbued with that discriminatory and racist spirit that allowed colonialism to take place, because while people fleeing Ukraine were rightly welcomed, other people were left to die along the Balkan route or in the Mediterranean. The war in Ukraine also made it clear how capable the Western world is of applying international law in its essentials. In this case, it was an aggression, a war of occupation, and radical measures were taken diplomatically, economically and politically to curb a state that had committed serious violations of international law. However, this is not the case with Israel, which has been occupying Palestinian territory for over 56 years, preventing Palestinians from exercising their right to self-determination and full rights. And this shows us once again the double standard of states using international law, a neutral instrument, to pursue geopolitical rather than humanitarian interests.

Q: What are the next steps for your future with your position? 

A: As Rapporteur, I am trying to bring forward a discussion on the Palestinians' right to self-determination and at the same time on the colonial matrix of apartheid carried out by Israel. If this is not understood and discussed, things can hardly change. So let us start with the decolonisation of Palestine. I am continuing to work on the arbitrary deprivation of personal freedom because thousands of Palestinians are in prison right now and continue to be arrested without trial or charge and tried by military courts. In future reports, I would like to focus on the role of private companies, pension funds, banks and financial investments to understand how much the private sector contributes to this occupation. The economic aspect is what no one wants to talk about but it shows once again where the West places its values. We must have the ability to recognise the other as equal in diversity, and as having the same rights as us. So I think my task is to help the process of decolonisation that subjugates the Palestinian people by decolonising the prevailing narrative and the use of international law.

Foto di Giacomo Fausti. 

Share Facebook Twitter Linkedin