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Gaza: UN Human Rights Council Vote

Volume 641: debated on Monday 21 May 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the decision of the UK Government to abstain from voting on the resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council held on 18 May, calling for an independent investigation into recent violence in Gaza.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question.

We abstained on calls for a commission of inquiry into recent violence in Gaza during the UN Human Rights Council session on Friday. The substance of the resolution was not impartial and it was unbalanced. We could not support an investigation that refused to explicitly examine the action of non-state actors such as Hamas. An investigation of that kind would not provide us with a comprehensive assessment of accountability. It would risk hardening positions on both sides and move us further away from a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, the United Kingdom continues to fully support the need for an independent and transparent investigation into recent events. We call directly on Israel to carry out a transparent inquiry into the Israeli Defence Forces’ conduct at the border fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence. We believe this investigation should include international members. We urge that the findings of such an investigation be made public, and, if wrongdoing is found, that those responsible are held to account. The Foreign Secretary stressed the importance of Israel conducting an independent investigation when he spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on 16 May.

Last Tuesday, the Minister assured the House that he endorsed calls for an international, independent and transparent inquiry into the appalling events unfolding in Gaza, yet when United Nations Human Rights Council resolved on Friday to set up a commission of inquiry to undertake precisely that kind of investigation, the UK failed to join 29 partner countries and instead abstained from the vote. The Government alleged that, as the Minister said today, the UN Human Rights Council resolution was “partial, and unhelpfully unbalanced”. 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. Which bit of the resolution and the remit do Ministers not understand?

May I put it to Minister that the Government’s feeble response to last week’s events in Gaza only encourages the culture of impunity that the Government of Israel too regularly display these days, apparently believing that whatever they do, they will in practice never be held to account? Will the Minister confirm that now the UN Human Rights Council has made its decision, the UK Government will get behind it? What consequences should follow if Israel, or anybody else, either refuses to co-operate with the inquiry or is otherwise found to be in breach of international law?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pursuing this matter.

I draw attention to the detail of the resolution, which names the state of Israel in many cases right the way through. That follows a clear demonstration by the UN Human Rights Council in the past of a biased view towards Israel. I think it was the general nature of the resolution, clearly specifying Israel as opposed to any other, that caused concern. We of course were not alone. This is not a matter on which the United Kingdom is alone. There were 14 other abstentions, including by four other EU members, so it is not a question of the United Kingdom taking one view on this; it is a question of other states believing that if we want to get to the truth, it will have to be done another way.

I said last week, and I repeat, that we want an independent and transparent inquiry. The House has heard me say again today that if it is carried out by Israel, it must have an international element to it. 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. That is what we will continue to press for, but this resolution in itself will not do the job we all want to see.

Order. Many hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye on this important matter, as could have been anticipated. I am keen to accommodate demand up to a point, but as in respect of the previous urgent question I do not wish to run this at inordinate length. There is other important business to which we must attend, so I am looking to move on after approximately half an hour from the start of exchanges. Pithy questions, pithy answers and we will maximise participation.

I very much welcome the Government’s decision not to back a resolution that was one-sided and biased against Israel. Will the Minister urge the UNHRC to desist from adopting these heavily one-sided resolutions as they have done so many times in the past?

I thank my right hon. Friend. We have made our position clear about the HRC on a number of occasions. We have expressed concern that elements of the HRC’s work have been clearly biased against Israel and that detracts from the other good work that it does. We will continue to maintain that position, but equally, if this inquiry is not the right vehicle, there must be another.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing it. I join him in welcoming the independent UN investigation into violence in Gaza. While we have already heard debate about the wording of the resolution agreed by the Human Rights Council, I have to say, as I did last week, that that debate is frankly immaterial as long as the objective of setting up an independent investigation is achieved.

The issue today is why the British Government, which claimed repeatedly last Tuesday to support that objective, chose three days later not to vote for it. The crux of that decision was made clear in the Government’s statement on Friday, which called for the Israeli authorities to be allowed to conduct their own so-called independent inquiry. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, I am afraid we should not be remotely surprised. After all, this is the Government that say that Saudi Arabia should be allowed to investigate itself for bombing weddings in Yemen. This is the Government that say that Bahrain should be left to investigate itself for torturing children in prisons. Time and time again we see this: if you are an ally of the Government, you get away with breaking international law with impunity, and you are also allowed to be your own judge and jury, too.

Before the Minister gets up and extols the virtue of the Netanyahu Government, may I remind him of the last time that that Government were allowed to investigate themselves over an alleged breach of international law? In July 2014, four children were blown to pieces on Gaza beach while playing hide and seek in a fisherman’s hut. And the resulting investigation: a blatant piece of nonsense, full of basic untruths, exonerating the IDF completely and saying that the old fisherman’s hut was in fact a Hamas compound. That is what an independent investigation by Israel looks like. That, instead of an international commission of inquiry, is what this Government on Friday decided to support, and that is nothing short of a disgrace.

Of course I read the right hon. Lady’s tweets over the course of the weekend. I remind her that among the other Governments that she was calling disgusting are those of Germany, Japan and, as I said, four other EU partners. It shows how careful we have to be in relation to this. Let me quote what the United Kingdom said in relation to the explanation of vote:

“Our abstention must not be misconstrued. The UK fully supports, and recognises the need for an independent and transparent investigation into the events that have taken place in recent weeks, including the extent to which Israeli security forces’ rules of engagement are in line with international law and the role Hamas played in events. The loss of life, casualties and volume of live fire presents a depressingly familiar and unacceptable pattern. This cannot be ignored.

To that end, in addition to abstaining on today’s resolution, we call directly on Israel to make clear its intentions and carry out what must be a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence. This investigation should include international members. The death toll alone warrants such a comprehensive inquiry.”

If we want to get to the bottom of this and find out what happened, I maintain that the HRC resolution was not the way to do it. We want the inquiry to succeed. That, we believe, is what we defended last week and will continue to pursue.

I say to the Minister that I support the Government’s proposals. Given that 53 of those killed last week were members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, how would this resolution—[Interruption.] It not only does not mention those two organisations but reaches its conclusions in the resolution outline; it has already prejudged the outcome. That is not going to lead to the impartial, international investigation that everyone in this House wants to see.

The reality, as we can hear from comments on both sides of the House, is that many people have already made up their minds about the events of last week. That is what the British Government must seek to avoid. If we want clarity about what happened, some people must be prepared to say, “We must find out the facts. We must await the facts”. Otherwise, as our explanation said, we only add to those who are already hardened in their hearts, and then we will not get the evidence we need.

We welcome the Human Rights Council resolution calling for an urgent independent investigation into the horrific killing of unarmed protestors in Gaza. It was a disgraceful decision of the UK to abstain from the HRC vote, and it flies in the face of previous statements from the Prime Minister and other Ministers in this House calling for an independent investigation. Given the mixed messages from the UK Government, will they now set the record straight and make it clear to the Israeli Government that deadly actions against protestors will not be tolerated by the international community? Finally, following this horrific incident, will the Foreign Secretary commit to joining his allies in concerting international pressure on the Netanyahu Government to lift the blockade on Gaza and put an end to Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories?

In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I refer to what I said earlier. In relation to the second, one thing that was clear from last week’s discussion at the UN Security Council was the recognition that, in the absence of being able to make any serious immediate move on the middle east peace process, which ultimately will be the best way to overcome the issues at the heart of this, the international community —and Israel, Egypt and others with entry into Gaza—should first make changes and drive forward developments, including to infrastructure in Gaza, to change the nature of the lives of the people there. The UK firmly believes that, whatever else might have been behind the events of last week, the long-standing frustrations of the people of Gaza, caused by pressures upon them from more than just Israel but including Israel, should be relieved. We support the efforts that will be made to improve the conditions in Gaza.

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

With respect to my hon. Friend, until we see the make-up of the inquiry process, we will not know the answer to that. I made it very clear that if Israel is not only to undertake its legal obligations for what has happened on its territory but to fulfil its own processes, an international element to the investigation will clearly be one of the most important things, and that should bring the transparent and independent element that the UK and others have called for in order to find out the answers to these questions.

Human rights are constrained and violence exacerbated by a water shortage that the UN says will render Gaza entirely uninhabitable by 2021. Does anyone have a plan?

I said during my statement last week that I had recently met the Quartet’s economic director, looking at existing proposals for improving the infrastructure in Gaza, including the water infrastructure. Again as I mentioned, it is clear to anyone who goes there what the circumstances are and how desperate the water and other situations are. The infrastructure needs improving, and improving quickly, and all parties involved in Gaza need to take steps to make sure it happens.

Israel has maintained a temporary occupation for 51 years. It builds settlements illegally, demolishes homes illegally, confiscates land and water from occupied territory and blockades Gaza by air, land and sea. At what point do these illegal acts ever meet with any consequences?

I think that the circumstances of last week indicate—as the United Kingdom Government have said on many occasions—that there is no status quo in relation to Gaza. Conditions are getting worse, and circumstances are getting worse. As we rightly call on Israel in relation to issues such as settlements, in relation to Gaza we remain of the view that until these issues are settled there is no future, and no future for peace in the region.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what this points to again is the need for reform of the UN Human Rights Council? Does he agree that, whatever difficult questions Israel needs to answer about last week’s violence, using this absurd body on which some of the world’s worst human rights abusers play judge and jury on the rest of the world is not the way to deal with that?

As I have said, the United Kingdom has had concerns about the UN Human Rights Council for some time, particularly in relation to Israel. We are not alone in that. The Human Rights Council must be impartial and balanced, and it has not always demonstrated those qualities in relation to Israel.

Israeli forces have killed dozens of protesters and injured thousands in an appalling escalation of violence. I am sure the Minister will agree that the lethal use of firearms is legal only if it is unavoidable, to protect life. Given that Israeli officials have authorised soldiers to fire live rounds at people trying to damage or even coming within 100 metres of the border fence, how can he possibly have confidence in an investigation led by those officials rather than by independent voices?

As I said earlier, I believe that an independent element in any investigation is vital if anyone is to feel confident about finding out whether or not the circumstances were as the hon. Lady has described them.

Given that 50 members of Hamas and three members of Islamic Jihad were killed, and given that Hamas has now admitted that one of those incidents involved a gunfight between its members and the IDF, has my right hon. Friend any confidence at all that Hamas will co-operate with any independent inquiry?

That, of course, will be a matter for the inquiry itself. Just as we are not rushing to prejudge an inquiry by not supporting a resolution that we felt would have led to an unbalanced inquiry, I am not prepared to say that there is evidence that Hamas would or would not co-operate with any inquiry into what happened in relation to the allegations made about it.

The Minister does not like the UNHRC. He says that there must be another way. There is little or no confidence in the United States acting as an honest broker. What discussions are the UK Government having with other EU Governments about restoring the original United Nations mandate over the occupied Palestinian territories to make a more serious move on an international peace process?

I remind the House that we joined European allies—Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia—in the vote last week, so we are indeed talking to our European allies about what might be the best way to proceed. I do not think there is any clear pathway yet beyond what I have already indicated: the inquiry must have a transparent and independent element.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Israel is the only properly functioning democracy in that part of the world, and that it is right for it to be able to defend itself against aggression and terrorism, as it has done so successfully for the last 70 years?

By supporting an independent and transparent element in its inquiry, Israel has an opportunity in these circumstances to ensure that its long-standing statement of democratic principles is demonstrated to the rest of the world.

The Government of Israel will not tolerate any independent scrutiny of their actions, and increasingly obstruct and persecute international and domestic human rights organisations. What representations has the Minister made about the current plan to deport Omar Shakir, the well respected director of Human Rights Watch in Israel?

The first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question demonstrates the difficulty of dealing with the issue. He has already made up his mind about all this, and he is welcome to do that, but, as I have said, the United Kingdom Government cannot.

I have made no personal interventions in the case of that gentleman. I said last week that immigration processes were for each individual state, but we have made representations about the closing down of political space. We believe it is much better to interact with people than seek to bar them from a country; however, that is Israel’s own immigration right, as it would be ours.

The UN Human Rights Council has held a total of 28 urgent sessions; not one of them has focused on Iran, North Korea, Turkey, Russia, China, Venezuela, Yemen, Crimea, Pakistan, Somalia and so on, yet eight of those 28 have been on Israel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that organisation lacks any credibility whatsoever as an impartial observer?

The hard truth of what my hon. Friend said stands for itself, and illustrates the degree of difficulty the Human Rights Council now has in relation to Israel in demonstrating its independence and therefore being a credible body. That was one of the influences on the United Kingdom, besides the unbalanced resolution, that a number of our European allies supported.

The Minister has stated that the UK decided to abstain because the UK Government accept that the process is likely to be biased. Given the UK’s position that the Israeli Government should lead the inquiry, how can we continue to play the role of honest broker, which has been a very important role for our Government historically, given our unique historical relationship with that region? Can the Minister explain how that is possible?

I will endeavour to do so; that is a perfectly understandable and fair question. I draw attention to what we said in terms of the explanation of the vote:

“The loss of life, casualties and volume of live fire presents a depressingly familiar and unacceptable pattern. This cannot be ignored.”

We called on Israel directly to

“carry out what must be a transparent inquiry into the IDF’s conduct at the border fence and to demonstrate how this will achieve a sufficient level of independence.”

Difficult as it is, the UK taking a more balanced position on this than some enables us to remain in an impartial position in relation to this, which would be lost completely if we jumped one side or the other.

The Minister has pointed out that about a dozen other nations abstained on the motion. Is he able to clarify that their reasons for doing so mirrored those of the United Kingdom, namely that it was partial and imbalanced as written?

I have listened very carefully to the Minister. Having said that Israel must make its intentions clear, can he update the House on the number of arrests made during the horrific events of last week?

I am afraid that I have no information on that for the hon. Lady. I can say that since the events of last week I have met the Israeli ambassador here to stress what I said earlier about the importance of independent investigations, but I have no information on what she asked.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar says the purpose of the violence is to breach the border and murder Israelis living nearby. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Israel not only has a right to defend its border but must do so, and that includes using military action?

Again, uncomfortable as some of these statements are, it is entirely clear why Israel would seek to make sure that there was no breach of the border. There have been previous incidents in which Hamas operatives have taken Israeli lives, but it is to get to the bottom of what actually happened—the number of deaths, the extent of live fire—that this has be considered by some degree of independent inquiry.

Will the right hon. Gentleman not concede that the Government’s dismissal of the UN’s resolution as “partial, and unhelpfully unbalanced” is an attempt to muddy the primary question: given that there has been a death toll of over 100 men, women and children in the last six weeks, who is primarily responsible?

It is precisely the opposite, if I may say so to the hon. Lady: that issue would not be clarified by an investigation which from the beginning was clearly seen to be biased and in which it would be unlikely that all available parties would co-operate. It is precisely to unmuddy the waters that we are trying to take, difficult as it is, a more independent and unbiased line.

Israel clearly has questions to answer, but can the Minister confirm that Hamas is a proscribed terrorist organisation, so no one in this place or the UN should be seen as inadvertently defending or excusing it?

That is correct, and I am sure that no one in this House actually does that, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making it clear.

The other place recommended last year that the Government stop treating Israel with kid gloves and display some political robustness. This Government’s abstention is worse than weak; it is deplorable. How can the people of Palestine trust our Government when we refuse even to look seriously at these issues, let alone challenge them?

I understand the force of the hon. Lady’s response; she is always honest about all these things. I would point to what we said in the explanation of the vote, which clearly raises questions about Israel’s conduct. We seem to be one of the few Governments prepared to consider both sides of these dreadful incidents, and that is why we want to find the truth about what happened.

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. How do the Government see that as being unbalanced?

Mention was made of Israel’s activities a number of times throughout the resolution. There was no mention of Hamas, when it appears to be clear that there was engagement and involvement by Hamas, although no one knows how much. That is a vital part of the investigation, but there is no confidence that it would be part of it.

When the Government came to the conclusion that they could not support the resolution, what efforts were made to try to bring together a resolution that everyone could support, so that there could be a fully independent inquiry?

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. Before any of these resolutions come together, there is a great deal of contact between member states to try to find a way to broker an appropriate resolution. It normally works on the basis of someone putting forward a draft and other parties coming forward with suggestions, but if there cannot be an agreement, something then gets tabled on which people have to vote.

Both America and Israel are our allies, yet we are powerless when the US moves its embassy and we are onlookers when the UN votes to hold an inquiry into the killings in Gaza. True friends offer advice and criticism, but are we now content just to hold hands rather than holding anyone to account?

No, I do not think that that is the case at all. As I said earlier, true friends take a position in which they try as best they can to learn all the facts of the circumstances before coming to any conclusions, particularly in an area as sensitive and difficult as this. That is what we have sought to do.

I apologise, Mr Speaker, that I am not in full voice today. Will the UK set out its criteria for assessing the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of an internal Israeli investigation? What action will we take, should those criteria not be met?

It was indeed, and the hon. Lady’s questions are always relevant and to the point. Discussions are still taking place among members of the international community to define exactly what the terms will be. I said earlier that I had spoken to the Israeli ambassador last week, and representations have been made in Israel as well. I have indicated what we believe ought to happen in terms of there being an independent element to any investigation carried out by Israel, and we would like to see that delivered. There will be further consultations on this, as the hon. Lady would expect.

As I understand it, one Israeli soldier has been injured, and 104 Palestinians have been killed, of whom 14 were children, and 12,500 have been injured, more than 2,000 by live ammunition. Has Israel’s response been proportionate?

Other allegations include 50 or so Hamas operatives being involved and improvised explosive devices being placed at the border fence. There has been a whole series of allegations about what has happened. That is why it is essential to get to the truth. We have already expressed our concern about the amount of live fire, and we stand by that.

The Minister has come to the House a number of times on this issue, and he has accepted the fact that there have been real abuses of the Palestinian people in Gaza through the use of poisonous water, through illegal settlements and through all sorts of cruelty to the Palestinian people, yet the international community rewards Israel with billions of pounds-worth of aid and armaments. Is it not about time that we—

Would it not be appropriate, instead of saying that we criticise Israel and condemn what it has done, if we actually took action over what Israel has been doing over the years?

The hon. Lady is right to say that I have been at the Dispatch Box several times since 2010 in relation to this matter, and we despair at the fact that the arguments are always familiar. As for the long-term fixing of the issues that she raises, it is we who call the settlements illegal and call for an easing of the restrictions on Gaza, but none of that will be accomplished effectively until there is the political settlement that we are all trying to work towards. The United Kingdom unerringly pushes its determination towards that aim, and we do not believe that continuing to call for that while criticising Israel is necessarily a reward.

Do the British Government have any plans to seek support for a fresh resolution that requires an independent UN investigation, or is the matter now closed as far as they are concerned?

I do not think that any investigation is necessarily off the cards. In the first instance, the determination will be for Israel to carry out an investigation, and we have said what we have said about what should accompany that in order to convince the international community. What happens after that will depend on the response to that inquiry.

Following the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), regardless of the outcome of the Israeli investigation, surely the Government should try to initiate a further resolution to resolve the problem?

It may come down to resolutions at the end of the day, but an agreed mechanism, whereby we can find out what has happened in order to ensure that the circumstances do not arise again, is more likely to be effective. However, that would involve a whole series of other issues that relate to Gaza, as I mentioned earlier, and much determination among the leadership of both Palestine and Israel to ensure that the circumstances do not arise in the future.

Protesting adults and children have been shot in the back and shot while standing hundreds of metres away from the border fence. The Israeli authorities are clearly killing and maiming people in Gaza who pose no threat to them. If this was happening in Iran, the Government would completely and utterly condemn it, so why will the Minister not condemn the Israeli authorities for such actions?

I will repeat what I have repeated before—this is clearly set out in the United Kingdom’s concerns about the whole process:

“The loss of life, casualties and volume of live fire presents a depressingly familiar and unacceptable pattern. This cannot be ignored.”

The hon. Lady comes to her own conclusions about what she thinks has happened, but others have different narratives. It is clear that the extent of the live fire has caused casualties that raise prima facie questions about what has happened, which is why we must find out what the answer to that is.

The IDF and people here in this Chamber constantly refer to the “Gaza border” despite it not being internationally recognised. If it is a border, what state are the victims of Israel’s latest shooting spree in? If it is not a fence that entraps 2 million people, will the UK recognise the state of Palestine and push for an independent investigation, not just a whitewash by one party?

The hon. Gentleman makes a series of assumptions, and I understand where he is coming from. As I indicated last week, the United Kingdom will recognise the state of Palestine when it is conducive to the peace process, but there are more processes that must be gone through. If we are to find out what truly happened in Gaza, there must be a better option than that presented by the Human Rights Council last week.

The international community’s immediate focus after last week’s events was on the number of fatalities, but it is also important to dwell on the consequences for the thousands of injured people. 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?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. The short answer is yes. I am in contact with international agencies that are involved in delivering humanitarian medical aid. 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.