First Time in History of the Convention:
High Contracting Parties to the 4th Geneva Convention Convene a Conference on Measures to Enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem

For the first time in the history of the Geneva Conventions, a Conference was convened to consider a specific case of violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of August 12, 1949. The Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the 4th Geneva Convention on Measures to Enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, was held on 15 July 1999 at United Nations Headquarters at Geneva, Switzerland.

Taking into consideration the new political situation in the region, the Conference was convened on time as recommended by the resolutions of the 10th Emergency Special Session (ESS) of the General Assembly, despite the intense campaign of pressure against it. An important Statement, reflecting "the common understanding reached by the participating High Contracting Parties to the Conference", was adopted and issued by the Conference.

A package was agreed upon with regard to the Conference among the main players following difficult negotiations, especially between the Arab Group and the European Union (EU). According to that package, the Conference would convene on time, in accordance with resolution ES-10/6, but would be short, without a debate and with a limited outcome. Following this, the Conference would adjourn "on the understanding that it will convene again in the light of consultations on the development of the humanitarian situation in the field."

As part of the package, the Statement adopted by the High Contracting Parties reaffirmed basic principles with respect to the Convention and the Protected Palestinian population, including a reaffirmation of "the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem," and reiteration of "the need for full respect for the provisions of the said Convention in that Territory."

The Conference was attended by the majority of States High Contracting Parties. Pursuant to the request by the General Assembly in resolution ES-10/6, the United Nations made the necessary facilities available at its Geneva headquarters to enable the High Contracting Parties to convene the Conference. Palestinian participation took place in accordance with the recommendation of the Assembly in resolution ES-10/6. The Conference was also attended by the ICRC and by relevant U.N. agencies and inter-governmental organizations. The Palestinian delegation was headed by Dr. Nabil Shaath, Minister of International Planning and Cooperation (MOPIC) and was composed of Dr. Nasser Al-Kidwa, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the U.N., Mr. Nabil Ramlawi, Head of the Palestine Delegation to Switzerland, and Dr. Ahmed Soboh of MOPIC.

Convening the Conference, however, was not a simple task. Repeated delays by various parties and other obstacles hampered the process. An immense campaign against the convening of the Conference was carried out, and misinformation, particularly in the week and days leading up to the Conference, was widespread.

The United States in specific maintained a position in opposition to the convening and exerted efforts, generally under the guise of postponement, to cancel the Conference. The U.S. applied enormous pressure on the relevant parties and on States High Contracting Parties across the board, thus largely explaining many of the difficulties faced, including the difficult negotiations with the EU. Israel, of course, staunchly rejected the idea of such a Conference as well. The U.S. and Israel, in addition to Australia and Canada, announced that they would not participate.

The practical impact of the Conference lay in the fact that it elevated the position of the international community with regard to Israeli breaches and violations of the Convention, especially settlement activities, to a new level. That level is one in which the parties to a treaty have legally affirmed its applicability and the need for full respect of its provisions. Such an affirmation will significantly help the Palestinian negotiator as it creates relative parity between the parties. While the Israelis have the power on the ground, the Palestinians maintain the power of international law and legitimacy.

The process of convening this Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the 4th Geneva Convention began with the adoption by the 10th ESS of resolution ES-10/3 on 15 July 1997, exactly two years to the date. In that resolution, the General Assembly recommended "that the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention convene a conference on measures to enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, and to ensure its respect, in accordance with common article 1…." Three more resolutions were adopted by the 10th ESS, ES-10/4 (13 November 1997), ES-10/5 (17 March 1998), and ES-10/6 (9 February 1999), each reiterating the recommendation for convening the Conference. It is important to note that, prior to the recommendations by the 10th ESS for such a Conference, the U.N. Security Council, in resolution 681 of 20 December 1990, had also called "upon the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to ensure respect by Israel, the occupying Power, for its obligations under the Convention in accordance with article 1 thereof."

Additionally, in the process of convening the Conference, the Secretary-General of the U.N. presented a report on the matter on 14 October 1997, in accordance with a request in resolution ES-10/3. The report conveyed, inter alia, the responses of the High Contracting Parties, both individually and collectively, submitted to Switzerland, in its capacity as depositary of the Geneva Conventions, regarding the recommendation by the Assembly for the convening of the Conference. The majority of responses expressed support for its convening. This was followed by two rounds of consultations conducted by the Swiss, as well as the holding of a meeting of experts of the High Contracting Parties at Geneva, from 27 to 29 October 1998, to consider general problems concerning the 4th Geneva Convention and possible remedies for ensuring respect of the Convention in general and in particular in occupied territories.

The need for a Conference on measures to enforce the Convention specifically in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, rather than simply in general in cases of occupied territories, is based on reasons stemming from the very uniqueness of the Palestinian situation. Primarily, Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory has been characterized by a multiplicity and intensity of grave breaches, breaches and serious violations of the 4th Geneva Convention and other acts contrary to its provisions, all of which have caused the Palestinian civilian population immense suffering. Israel’s policies and practices have constituted systematic and even institutionalized violations of international humanitarian law.

Secondly, those breaches and other acts have continued for an extensive period of time, for 32 years, in total disregard for the clear position of the international community and in blatant violation of many Security Council and other U.N. resolutions. Thirdly, the Israeli occupation is unique because it has effectively transformed the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, from one of "normal" occupation to one of active expansion and annexation, i.e. colonization, of the Palestinian land and has denied the legitimate national right of an entire people. This situation continues even as the 20th century comes to a close and at a time when the phenomenon of colonization has long been deceased in other parts of the world. It is for all these reasons that, after all these years, the High Contracting Parties determined to become serious about addressing such violations by convening a Conference on measures to enforce the Convention and ensure its respect by Israel, the occupying Power.

Despite the setbacks and recurrent delays, the Palestinian side remained resilient in its emphasis on the importance of the Conference. For the Palestinian side, the basic principle of convening a Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the 4th Geneva Convention was not negotiable. Although compromises were reached with regard to the date of the Conference and later on its outcome, the question of convening it was not considered a point for compromise, particularly given the nature, character and prolonged length of the occupation and the importance of such a Conference in this regard.

Following two years of resolutions, negotiations, meetings and consultations, the Conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention on Measures to Enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem was finally convened at Geneva on 15 July 1999. While it was not possible to achieve optimum results in the Conference, the Conference was significant because not only did the High Contracting Parties convene to consider a specific situation for the first time in the history of the Convention, they also determined to reconvene the Conference by adjourning "on the understanding that it will convene again in the light of consultations on the development of the humanitarian situation in the field." This clarification was considered an important inclusion in the statement by the Palestinian side as it provides a mechanism for the High Contracting Parties to continue this process in the future. Although it is hoped that Israel, the occupying Power and a High Contracting Party to the Convention, will heed the message sent by the High Contracting Parties, the Palestinian side intends to pursue serious follow up to ensure full respect of the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem.