28 June 2008

The European Union needs to put justice first

By Juliette Harkin

I thought the European Union were pretty fussy about who they let into their fold, after all they are giving Turkey one hell of a run for its money and time in investing in EU convergence – with only a glimmer of hope of obtaining membership. But, judging by the recent announcement in Luxemburg, Israel is seen as such a positive model state and neighbour that it got an upgrade during a recent meeting to review Israeli-European relations.

Israel had already entered into an Association Agreement in 2000 with the EU. The agreement emphasises "the importance which the Parties attach to the principles of the United Nations charter, particularly the observance of human rights and democracy, which form the very basis of the Association". Israel has blatantly ignored a series of UN resolutions in relation to the Palestinians and shows nothing but contempt for the United Nations.

Despite this, Israel now enjoys a special relationship, as if it were a member of the EU, without the responsibilities that membership should entail. The joint EU-Israeli Action Plan agreed in 2004 sets out some of the terms and benefits of the continually deepening relation between the two. Again, this plan is based on the starting principle that

"…the EU and Israel share the common values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law and basic freedoms".

Yet, until now Israel has not ratified the Council of Europe's core conventions on human rights which afford populations protection from human rights abuses and guarantee basic freedoms. Israel makes a mockery of the European attempts to ensure that member and associate states to the EU abide by international laws for all their citizens – including those under occupation in the territories and Palestinians who lead a third class existence inside Israel today. Instead the EU paints a picture of Israel that none of the millions of Palestinians living in its midst will recognise. The European Commissioner Benita Ferroro-Waldner describes Israel as a "leading partner" for the EC in its Neighbourhood Policy.

More importantly, the contrast between the way the EU has dealt with Israel on one hand and Palestine on the other is indicative of the fact that the EU is blinkered and unable to see that these two entities are grossly unequal – one is an occupier while the other has been, for decades, occupied.

There is a very good reason why Israel is avoiding entanglement in laws on the preservation of human rights; because it is in breach of them on a daily basis. It is high time that we asked of Israel more than the current minimal nod to democracy that it grants to its own citizens through regular and open elections.

So why is Israel so crucial a partner for the EU? I checked out the website of the European Commission's European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) under which this new partnership has flourished. The ENP was set up with the objective of building relations with member states and their close neighbours to avoid division and conflict.

Besides the economic ties it seems much of the focus of the ENP is on "fighting terror". The EU sees Israel as its key ally in this. If the EU were really friends to Israel it would practise some old-fashioned tough love and push Israel to radically change its policies. As Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad pleaded with the EU in the run up to the EU decision, this should begin with the urgent need to halt more settlement-building and to immediately work to improve the appalling human rights record in relation to Palestinians. There will be no peace with gross injustice and the EU has lost a rare opportunity to hold Israel to account for its actions.

As reported on the Alternative Information Centre website Adam Leach, Regional Manager for Oxfam International, said: "As Israel's pre-eminent trade partner, the EU must use the upcoming upgrade negotiations process to ensure Israel ends the ever-worsening Gaza blockade, lifts movement restrictions and halts settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem."

On the same site, Kamel Jendoubi, President of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), said: "The EU must be consistent in upholding its human rights principles in its foreign relations, and Israel cannot be an exception to this rule. A weak or ambiguous EU stance on human rights in relations with Israel sends the wrong message also to other countries in the EU Neighbourhood, who could see it as a license to ignore EU engagement with regard to their own human rights records."

I couldn't agree more.