Mondoweiss / July 16, 2022
Meet Francesca Albanese, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.
For its latest live show, Palestine Deep Dive interviewed Francesca Albanese, the new UN Special Rapporteur.
The show titled “Illuminating Israel’s Apartheid at the UN”, takes a closer look at the role of the Special Rapporteur and its mandate, and what challenges Albanese may face as she progresses through her six year tenure which commenced in May, earlier this year.
Mark Seddon, PDD’s show host who also worked for the UN both as a speechwriter for former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and as a media advisor for the former President of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa, begins by highlighting some of Albanese’s previous work in the field of international law:
“She is also an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. and the Senior Advisor on Migration and Forced Displacement for think tank Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development. She also co-founded the Global Network on the Question of Palestine and recently published Palestinian Refugees In International Law, with Oxford Press. She’s worked for various UN agencies including Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and also the United Nations Works and Relief Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).”
The Mandate and its Limitations
Kicking off the questions, Seddon asks what the mandate from the Human Rights Council grants Albanese in this unpaid UN position, she recently took over from her predecessor Michael Lynk.
“My role entails certain responsibility, as you said, investigating human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories – what remains of historical Palestine,” she responds.
“There are two important limitations to my mandate. One is the temporal, and one is geographic. This doesn’t render justice to what the Palestinians as a people have endured and the kind of justice they are really seeking. At the same time, I do think that there are ways to act and deliver on that mandate in a way that doesn’t inflict further pain and further injustice on the Palestinians.”
Elaborating on the temporal limitations to her mandate, Albanese says:
“I cannot go back in history where it’s necessary, meaning what are the root causes of the situation in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, as it’s called, or the situation of Palestine. I cannot go back to ’48 or 1922 because this is, for me, the beginning of the problem. It goes hand in hand with European colonialism and European antisemitism.”
“I would not be able to investigate that,” she continues, “but, actually, my mandate covers 1967. So as of 1967, yes, I can comment and analyze and I will do. Also, it doesn’t mean that I cannot look back at history and draw some conclusions that allow me to underpin my analysis.”
Asked whether she feels confident that the UN will even acknowledge her findings, in light of Israel recently vowing not to engage with her at the UN whatsoever, and given the Vice President’s position of the General Assembly is currently occupied by an Israeli representative, she responds:
“Well, I think they will be forced to because I cannot expect not to have my reports listened to.”
She continues,“…it’s unacceptable that a member state doesn’t cooperate with a UN-independent expert. I’ve been mandated by the Human Rights Council so now whatever the perceptions, I should be respected for the role, for the responsibilities I carry.”
Seddon responds: “Well, indeed, and having worked for the General Assembly and the Secretariat, what you say is absolutely correct. There’s no doubt about all of that. If the Israelis decide they don’t want to engage with you, well, I suppose they’ll be drawing attention to themselves.”
And questioned whether she’ll even be able to enter Palestine to carry out her work, Albanese stresses the illegitimacy of Israel’s travel restrictions:
“…reminder, Israel has no sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian territory. Which means that if I’m invited by the Palestinian Authority to visit the occupied Palestinian territory starting with the West Bank, Israel cannot prevent me or the Commission of Inquiry or the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which, by the way, it’s two years that it’s [been] prevented from entering [and] getting visas to work in the oPt, not in Israel. My mandate is the occupied Palestinian territory so I’m not planning to go to Israel and investigate Israel’s wrongdoing vis-a-vis the Israeli citizens but I need to go to the West Bank and Gaza and that I will do.”
Illuminating and Dismantling Israel’s Apartheid
In light of the growing consensus surrounding the true facts on the ground following reports from organizations such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch which expose Israel’s apartheid, and echoing what Palestinians have been saying for decades, there are now growing calls for the UN to take such claims seriously and act accordingly.
Writer and activist Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington DC, pitches an audience question asking how civil society can encourage the reopening of the now paused Special Committee Against Apartheid (established by the UN in 1962) and “crucially” the Center Against Apartheid, which started in 1976 in the UN Secretariat under the name “Unit on Apartheid”.
“It’s very important to keep momentum because Apartheid is a word that resonates very well and profoundly with a European with Western public…” Albanese responds.
“Stay united, work with – not unified – but with common messages. Have a strategy because it seems that also this is part and parcel of the fragmentation. There are people running in different directions. The apartheid discourse has somewhat unified the movement. Keep on pushing in order to dismantle the apartheid regime starting with dismantling occupation, because this is, eventually, the vehicle that has emboldened, it has allowed the realization of an apartheid regime – and it’s outside the realm of international law, just to be clear where do I stand on this.”
The Case of Ahmad Manasra
Turning to a specific case Albanese has selected to focus on during the first portion of her tenure, Seddon pitches a question on the situation of Palestinian prisoner Ahmad Manasra.
“…his case has been haunting me since the very beginning, since I saw the scenes of this boy, no matter what he had done, no child should be treated the way he’s been treated,” says Albanese.
“The footage of him, broken bones, laying on the ground under a barrage of insults, and then fiercely interrogated by an adult being tormented through the interrogation after being in hospital, chained to bed and spoon fed by someone who is not his mom.”
In 2015, Manasra then 13-years-old and his 15-year-old cousin were accused of stabbing two Israelis in the Pisgat Ze’ev settlement in the occupied West Bank. Ahmad was hit by a car soon after whereas his cousin was shot dead at the scene. An Israeli crowd is seen jeering at him in now viral footage as he lay motionless, bleeding on the ground.
“Ahmad was 13 when he was arrested and then he’s been convicted and there have been so many irregularities that I cannot go through them, but what I’ve done is to take this case as soon as I came into the job and do everything that is in my power. By writing letters, by joining the international advocacy campaign, there will be– Yes, I would come out more vocally in the coming days, but I’m not going to let go. This is a case that needs to be exposed. It’s not a unique camp.”
Albanese goes on to emphasize that Manasra’s case sits in the broader context of Israel’s regime of systematic detention and incarceration of Palestinians without trial, “there are 670 people in administrative detention.”
“Unbelievable,” Seddon responds.
Medical reports find that Manasra suffers from schizophrenia and human rights experts report that such harsh treatment which he continues to endure, including solitary confinement for extended periods, “may amount to torture”. Appeals for his early release were rejected last month, despite a significant deterioration in his mental health causing him to be hospitalised, due to Israel’s sweeping “Counter-Terrorism” laws.
Today, UN experts, including Albanese, have officially urged Israel to immediately release him.
Shireen Abu Akleh
Albanese responds to an audience question on whether she is satisfied with progress into the “quest for justice” for the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and whether the UN can do anything:
“There have been investigations carried out by media groups and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has forensic and legal expertise. They came out with a pretty solid conclusion that has been completely ignored by the Americans. Again, I do think that the United Nations need to step up their efforts.”
“I’ve received the request to investigate on the case. I think that the most appropriate body should be the Commission of Inquiry on Israel/Palestine as part of any investigation over the killing and the targeting of journalists, because killing of Akleh, unfortunately, was not the first case of journalists killed while in line of duty. And so there is this body, which is better equipped, I would say, than myself or other Special Rapporteurs. Actually, it’s the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC [International Criminal Court] which should try to go in and investigate on these cases because they’ve received the formal submissions to do so on many cases of journalists killed in line of duty in occupied Palestine.”
Decades of Impunity
Albanese illuminates Israel’s ongoing forcible displacement of Palestinians, a war crime under international law, and calls on the international community to act:
“Forcibly displaced population under occupation is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva convention, and is even a war crime. So now the point is, how to stop this from continuing to happen because it has happened, and it has happened at least since from 1967. Again, this is my mandate so let me speak to it, but I am very happy that there is the Commission of Inquiry created by the Human Rights Council in 2021 which will look at Israel and Palestine more comprehensively.”
She also emphasizes how international institutions, such as the European Union, could apply pressure on Israel for its violations of human rights by abiding with clauses within their own trade agreements:
“What should happen is the resort to the measures prescribed by United Nations Charter to reduce these kind of violations. There are political measures, diplomatic measures, economic measures, and more if there is no limit to the impunity. Also, for example, the European Union has a trade agreement with Israel that has a clause that refers to ‘serious violations of human rights’ as a course for terminating the agreement. I think that that threshold has been crossed and still starting with taking measures in prescribed, allowed for by international law, is what is really necessary here because condemnation is not enough.”
Not shying away from the broader impact Israeli exceptionalism and impunity has on the so-called “rules-based” international order, Albanese stresses:
“It’s leading to an erosion of the multilateral system and the multilateral order, which doesn’t afford for ‘pick and choose’ when it comes to international law and doesn’t afford for international law to be used more harshly against certain states and more leniently vis-à-vis the allies. Yes, it’s in the name of the value of international order that I advocate for a return to international law.”
Albanese’s first report to the UN General Assembly will focus on the Palestinian right to self-determination, “international law demands and requests that any people realize first and foremost, the right to self-determination. This is critical and it’s key and occupation is not compatible with the right of self-determination,” she says.
“Apartheid, which has used a military occupation for 55 years, is not compatible with self-determination. And not letting self-determination translate into freedom from external control is what should concern the President of United States, like any other country engaged with the issue of Israel/Palestine.”
Closing the show, Albanese declares, “I don’t like to be called Pro-Palestinian because this has never been the case for me. I am in favor of justice, I am in favor of legality.”
Follow Francesca Albanese on Twitter to keep up with her work @FranceskAlbs.