Agnes Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International

Transcript from our ‘Peace with Justice – how to get there’ Conference in London on 6th June 2024.

Since October we have been plunged back to a future we don’t want, one we were all promised would never recur. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 Genocide Convention, the 1948 Geneva Convention, promised not only to relegate horror to the past but to chart a path to universal human dignity. Tragically the community of nations caused that promise to blur, weaken and fade. A deepening erosion of the rules-based order caused not only by massive human rights violations, but crucially by the heartless justification of them in the name of self-defence, counter-terrorism, national security… leading us to the brink of a pre 1948 abyss, worsening under the spread of global inequality and an escalating climate crisis.

Many people are already in the abyss since 7 October, when Hamas committed these crimes against Israeli citizens and others. The world has been the seemingly powerless witness of the most organised, deliberate destruction of people, of international rule, of international law – those rules that were supposed to keep shut the doors to hell. Palestinians have been indiscriminately or deliberately targeted; starved, denied medicine, punished collectively. Palestinians, the very victims who had been forgotten. In 1948, when we were celebrating a new world order, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were enduring the Nakba. Responsibility does not lie solely with the Israeli authorities, Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza. Other states, our international institutions and mechanisms for justice supposed to safeguard against hellish scenarios – all failed.

The 7 October Hamas attack killed over 1000 people, most of them Israeli civilians; thousands more wounded. 245 people taken hostage. These are war crimes and crimes against humanity. Hamas and other armed groups continue to hold hostages despite repeated demands for their release, including from their anguished families. They are firing indiscriminately rockets towards population centres in Israel, creating fears and insecurity. Both are also war crimes.

Israel instigated a campaign of retaliation against Hamas that soon became a campaign of collective punishment against the Palestinian people. They have launched indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks on Gaza, decimating entire Palestinian families, killing large numbers of civilians every day. Over 37,000 have been killed since the Israeli offensive began, including over 15,000 children. 82,000 people have been injured; life-changing injuries for many. Thousands more are missing, buried in the rubble. The UN estimates that 70%  –  75% of civilian infrastructure is destroyed.

2 million Palestinians have been forcibly displaced at least once. Many forced to move several times. The Israeli authorities have denied access to humanitarian assistance, also a war crime, through the closure of border crossings like Rafah and systematic obstruction at Israeli controlled crossing points. In southern Gaza, the flow of aid has been completely cut off. Bakeries in Rafah have been forced to shut. There are dwindling supplies and insecurity. There is famine. Engineered starvation, that too a war crime. The health system has been dismantled. Patients are dying daily due to a shortage of medical supplies, that too a war crime. Many Palestinians are now surviving on less than 3% of their daily water needs. The Gaza campaign has resulted in the largest killing of humanitarian workers over eight months: 200. And in the largest killing of journalists ever recorded: at least 108.

Despite evidence of war crimes, demands for an arrest warrant against the Israeli Prime Minister and the growing risk of genocide – according to many scholars, the fact that genocide is already being committed – it is as if the grave lessons of the Holocaust have been forgotten. Those lessons are purposefully ignored, with multiple violations constantly justified. These rules do not apply to us, to them, to this conflict, to Hamas, to Palestinians… All those living in Gaza, men, women, children, are treated as if somehow lawful targets. All in the guise of military necessity, getting rid of Hamas erected as an aim on a pedestal.

Immediately after 7 October, Western governments condemned Hamas crimes, expressing unconditional support for Israel: an understandable response to what had been inflicted on the population of Israel. They should have shifted their rhetoric once it became clear, as it quickly did, that Israel’s bombing of Gaza was killing thousands of civilians. They should have publicly demanded an end to those unlawful actions and called for a ceasefire. But that did not happen.

The US largely failed to denounce Israel’s relentless bombings and devastating siege. It rejected any conversation regarding context, including 56 years of Israel military occupation, instead amplifying Israel’s counterterrorism framing. The US paralysed the UN Security Council for months by vetoing a desperately needed ceasefire. In a display of double standards given their well-founded protestations about war crimes by Russia, the US, UK and others have continued to arm Israel.

Within days of the ICJ ruling to prevent genocide in Gaza, the US, UK and several other Western governments canceled funding to UNRWA. In doing so and in rejecting South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, they were not just ignoring the evident risk of genocide. They accelerated the risk of genocide.

In response to the 20 May ICC request for arrest warrants against leaders of Hamas and Israel, those states failed to act. The US, UK, Australia and others criticised the warrants. President Biden described the request as outrageous. The US Dept of State claimed that the ICC does not have jurisdiction. Republican lawmakers voted to pass a bill to sanction ICC officials engaged in any effort to investigate any protected person of the United States and its allies. The bill is unlikely to pass, but is sending a message.

Many of the architects of the post-World War II system of rule of law are now actively disregarding that system and undermining its institutions, working against the delivery of justice and peace. Numerically they are a tiny minority, but they have power and thus responsibility. An overwhelming majority in the world have demanded a ceasefire and call for justice, but the US, Israel and their few allies have carried on regardless. Evidently the rules do not apply to them.

The mockery of international law and institutions is sadly not confined to Gaza. It has deep roots. Over the last 20 years, the US post-9/11 War on Terror has been copied by governments the world over to expand the reach and range of self-defence measures. To tackle, with minimal restraint, whatever the authorities deem to be a loosely defined but widely applied terrorist threat. The extraordinary level of civilian killings in Gaza is a logical consequence of a framework that for 20 years has perverted, eroded and dismantled international law, and the protection and even the principle of universality. We hear the language of counterterrorism, the constant reference to Hamas as a terrorist group, as if that justified each violation.

The mockery of international law in Gaza comes soon after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, a flagrant rule-breaking which Russia has sought to justify, along with its indiscriminate attacks on densely populated civilian areas. China provides arms and money to Myanmar’s military while shielding itself against scrutiny for its own crimes against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in China.

The war in Gaza may well be the curtain call. The risk of genocide – or for many observers the actual genocide –  the gravity of the violations being committed. The fact that we witness them daily. The flimsy justifications by Western democracies. These warn of the possible total collapse of the rules-based order that has governed international affairs since 1945. The consequence of such abandonment will be more instability, aggression, conflict, suffering and more palpable anger. Across all levels of society in Gaza, in the West Bank and in many other places, except among those positioned to benefit from breaking the international system.

The picture is bleak. It would be too easy to give in to despair or to more anger and violence. But this is no option, certainly not for us living in privilege and peace. Who are we to give up when those far more exposed offer us such extraordinary examples? Look at the resilience of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank; at the families of Hamas hostages demanding an end to hostilities. At the many Israelis demanding equality, peace and security for all. At the outpouring of global solidarity around the world week after week, demanding an end to the bloodshed.

We look too to civil society, to those documenting evidence of crimes against international law, drawing media attention to their findings, advocating to protect the rule of law. This is brave action. Yes, international law is breaking down, but more people than ever are calling for international law, including the protesters.

We look to the public position of the UN Secretary General, the heads of UN agencies and humanitarian organisations. They have never been so clear about what’s happening. The UN General Assembly stepped in where the Security Council failed, adopting a ceasefire resolution by a huge majority. We look to governments that were not represented in the 1948 process because they were fighting colonialism. South Africa filed cases before the ICJ alleging that Israel’s conduct violated the 1948 Genocide Convention. The ICJ itself continues to rise to the challenge.

The ICC prosecutor has demonstrated finally that no one is above the law, issuing requests for arrest warrants against leaders on both sides. Questions had been asked about the ICC’s willingness to pursue charges. Amnesty International had criticised them for being so silent. Finally he did act, demonstrating that the ICC can resist undue influence: an important message to all parties to the conflict.

We need the ceasefire, the release of civilian hostages, a stop to the Rafah ground operations. An end to the transfer of weapons and military equipment from the US, UK and others. Stop shielding the Israeli authorities from international accountability. Governments must protect freedom of expression. There is a global attack on freedom of expression, clamping down on peaceful protest, sit-ins, university encampments, academic fora in solidarity with Palestinians. We must defend our freedom of expression.

We call for the dismantlement of Israel’s system of apartheid and military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem,  and the Gaza Strip – occupied militarily since 1967. Palestinians in the OPT have been trapped and oppressed under Israel’s brutal occupation and system of apartheid. Every aspect of their daily lives is disrupted and controlled. This is a place that is so destructive. But if you are an Israeli and don’t want to see and to know, it is so easy. There are walls everywhere: physical, mental, cultural, political. If you don’t want to see, you don’t see. I have seen a Palestinian home surrounded by walls and fences so that their Jewish neighbours would not have to see them. I have seen many roads in the West Bank that Palestinian residents can never drive on. Israeli settlements in the West Bank have grown, and with them, more and more violent attacks on Palestinian villages, people, livelihoods. That reality of apartheid and military occupation applies to every conversation on what’s happening in Gaza.

I’m talking about the West Bank. I could have spoken about Israel proper. The reality is that apartheid does apply inside Israel. Take the Bedouin, families there for generations, whose villages are destroyed. The poverty of those people living beside incredible wealth. The Bedouin reside in less than 3% of the entire Negev area. But that is too much and they must go. That is the context and the vacuum that the Secretary General almost lost his job over and that the US does not want us to report. The reality of apartheid must be at the heart of what we are discussing now. Jewish Israelis have the right to self-determination and to security. So do Palestinians. The reality must be acknowledged so that everyone can live in peace and security.

We can do more. Merely resisting wrongdoing is not enough. Across civil society, we are often put on the defensive. Now is the time to go on the offensive. The 1948 international system has not worked as we had hoped: neither fair nor equitable. Very often it has sided with the powerful. For it to work, it needs our constant scrutiny and at times our outright denunciation.

Those 1948 institutions are not sacred, but precious. Far too precious to have any power decide for the rest of us that it is no longer operable. When the powerful flout the law, the shield of law weakens for us all. When the most powerful set themselves above the law, betrayal of the law becomes a weapon favoured by many more.

We cannot let go of the 1948 system. We have nothing to replace it, except the violence and power of the most powerful. That is not an option. We must shape the future in the same way that South Africa did when it went to the ICJ. That is part of reshaping the international system. That is what the US, its allies and Israel do not want us to do. Together we need to re-imagine the rules and institutions for global governance. We should push for an overhaul of the UN Security Council, beginning with the use of the veto. We should look for alternative decision-making bodies when they fail to do so.

We must lead this transformation, to disrupt the building of a world and national order that takes us to the abyss. Imagine different institutions and rules fit for the world we are becoming. We are in a university. Be creative, rethink that world order. We cannot leave the construction of our brave new world to a few privileged states, institutions or rich individuals.

The only conscionable journey is to a future made viable by upholding the principle and promise of 1948. A path to a global rules-based order paved justly by human rights and made secure by the never again commitment upheld for the benefit of everyone, excluding no one. We cannot afford to wait in hope that heads of state or corporations or the super rich will do what is right. We must resist regression, reset for rights, recommit to the rule of law for everyone so that in 2048, when your grandchildren look back, they will see that there were many very good people in this world.

Question: What can we do in practice, eg about illegal settlements?

Agnes Callamard: The Balfour Project action plan provides a way forward on settlements and the sanctions that must be at the heart of any vision and work plan at international level, starting now. We at Amnesty agree with many of the Balfour Project recommendations. The only way to prevent the settlements is through accountability. As long as we do not have a strong global commitment to hold the Israeli government to account, as long as we don’t have institutions prepared to deliver that accountability, nothing will happen.

Today there is a bit of space. We have the ICJ, the ICC, signaling clearly that institutions made for that purpose are prepared to act, including against Israel. We need universal jurisdiction applied to those people, including settlers who travel abroad. Colleagues are documenting those individuals. Many have dual citizenship. It has worked to their advantage until now but may turn against them very soon.

Accountability is the only way to shift the propaganda and the mindset on what’s happening. We need to share the story of the violations. Most people don’t know what’s happening in the West Bank. When Amnesty criticises Israel, we are automatically accused of anti-Semitism. We need to be strong. When people are accused of anti-Semitism for criticising Israel, we need to say no, that is not what anti-Semitism is about – for we need to combat anti-Semitism, too.

As a human rights organisation, we need accountability – to place the Israeli violations over decades at the heart of what’s happening now and of how we are going to move forward. Holding Israeli leaders to account for what they’ve done. We have institutions that have started the process. We need to strengthen it, including through universal jurisdiction. When Benjamin Netanyahu decides to travel abroad, where is he going to go if the arrest warrants are granted? We need to be on the lookout for the settlers and for those associated with those violations. We need to shift the mindset around who is who and who does what in this conflict.


This entry was posted in Past. Bookmark the permalink.