MPs interrogate government over decision to abstain on UN Gaza vote

On Friday, UN Human Rights Council members voted to establish an independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the context of large-scale civilian protests in the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly Gaza. To date, 104 Palestinians have been killed and more than 12,600 injured by Israeli forces using live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets and teargas since demonstrations began on 30 March.

The Human Rights Council resolution passed with 29 votes in favour and two against. Fourteen States abstained, including the UK.

The UK’s decision not to support the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry came despite Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP’s statement in Parliament earlier last week – in response to an Urgent Question on Gaza from Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry – that the UK has been “urgently calling for the facts of what happened to be established, including why such a volume of live fire was used”, and that the UK was “supportive of that independent, transparent investigation.”

The UK has instead called on Israel to “carry out what must be a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border [sic] fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence”, despite the warning of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein of a “deficit in accountability for alleged extrajudicial killings and other violations [that] undermines confidence in Israeli justice.”

On Monday afternoon, MPs returned to the Commons chamber to discuss Gaza, this time to interrogate the UK’s decision not to support the resolution establishing the Commission of Inquiry. The Urgent Question was tabled by Chair of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group, Richard Burden MP, who responded to the Government’s assertion that the Human Rights Council resolution was “partial, and unhelpfully unbalanced” by saying:

“May I remind the Minister that the remit of the UN inquiry is to investigate “all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” and that it calls on Israel and “and all relevant parties” to co-operate fully with the inquiry? That includes Hamas and other Palestinian factions, as well as Israel.”

Alistair Carmichael MP echoed this, reminding the Government that the"United Nations commission of inquiry will be mandated to look at all violations of international law and calls for co-operation from all relevant parties."

Richard Burden further argued that the Government’s “feeble response” to recent events in Gaza – in which 104 Palestinians have died and more than 12,600 been injured, many due to Israeli forces’ use of live ammunition – only serves to “only encourages the culture of impunity that the Government of Israel too regularly display”. He further asked whether the UK Government would, now that the resolution has passed, get behind the Commission of Inquiry.

In reply, Minister Alistair Burt stated: “I think it was the general nature of the resolution, clearly specifying Israel as opposed to any other, that caused concern.” He reiterated the UK’s support for an internal Israeli investigation and that this “must have an international element to it”, explaining that “It is very clear that if it is done solely by the Israeli legislative and judicial system, it is unlikely to carry the sort of confidence that the international community is looking for.”

Focusing on the UK’s support for Israel to investigate its own action in Gaza, Jess Phillips MP inquired whether the UK would “set out its criteria for assessing the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of an internal Israeli investigation?” as well as what action the UK would take “should those criteria not be met.” To this, Minister Burt replied that he “had spoken to the Israeli ambassador last week, and representations have been made in Israel as well” and that there will be “further consultations.”

MPs from across the house shared concerns about the Government’s decision to abstain on the resolution. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP argued that “the debate about the wording of the resolution agreed by the Human Rights Council” was “frankly immaterial as long as the objective of setting up an independent investigation is achieved.” She further highlighted Israel’s self-exoneration over the killing of four boys playing on a beach during the 2014 military offensive on Gaza.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, asked:

“Given that Gazans did all the dying and the Israeli soldiers did all the killing, how does the Minister expect an internal Israeli inquiry … to be less partial and less unhelpfully unbalanced than the inquiry mandated by the UN Human Rights Council?”

MPs also raised concerns about Gaza’s dire humanitarian situation, including former DFID Minister Sir Desmond Swayne MP, who highlighted that “human rights are constrained and violence exacerbated by a water shortage that the UN says will render Gaza entirely uninhabitable by 2021.” SNP MP David Linden called on the government to place pressure on the Government of Israel to “lift the blockade of Gaza” and end its occupation of Palestinian territory.

Afzal Khan MP highlighted the gargantuan challenges faced by Gaza’s health system, which is struggling to cope with the many thousands of injured protesters who have needed treatment over recent weeks. He asked: “Have the Government offered any additional humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza to ensure that the injured receive the medical treatment that they so desperately need?” To this, Minister Burt responded that he is “in contact with international agencies that are involved in delivering humanitarian medical aid” adding:

“Gaza’s medical resources, which are already incredibly stretched, will have been put under even greater pressure following the events of the past few weeks. I am looking to see what further the United Kingdom can do beyond the support that we already give to those who provide such help.”

You can read the discussion in full here.


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