Last Steps in the Preparation for the 15th July Conference

On 23 June 1999, the Government of Switzerland, in its capacity as depositary of the Geneva Conventions, addressed a Note to all the High Contracting Parties to the 4th Geneva Convention. The note conveyed the results of the written consultations conducted by the Swiss on the 15 July Conference, as well as on the informal consultations which followed. That same Note was also sent, on the same date, to the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the U.N., as well as to the Secretary-General of the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

In the Note, the Swiss Government indicated that a large majority of the High Contracting Parties considered that the conditions needed for convening the Conference had been met. The Swiss Government also noted that two of the High Contracting Parties, one of them directly concerned, strongly opposed the conference. While in favor of the broadest participation possible in the Conference, a great majority of the High Contracting Parties expressed the opinion that unanimity was not a precondition for the Conference to convene. However, according to the Note, the informal consultations demonstrated that a number of High Contracting Parties believed that the Conference should be postponed due to the new political circumstances (i.e. a new Israeli government). Furthermore, the Swiss Note stressed that questions related to the modalities and outcome of the Conference were still open and required further consultations, which would be resumed by the Swiss Government in Geneva in early June.

In the Note, the Swiss Government further reported that the U.N. Secretariat had confirmed that it would make the necessary facilities available for the convening of the Conference on 15 July 1999 at U.N. Offices at Geneva. Two significant Annexes were attached to the Swiss Note. The first contained practical information regarding the Conference, such as the exact date and location, accreditation, and issues related to the interpretation, translation and reproduction of documents. The second Annex consisted of a registration form for the Conference to be returned to the Swiss Government, which would be undertaking the ad hoc services for the Conference.

For its part, the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) repeatedly met and affirmed the Movement’s insistence that the Conference convene on time. It also adopted a short and simplified Rules of Procedure and called upon the High Contracting Parties to begin the accreditation process through the return of registration forms to the Swiss Government. In the meantime, consultations took place between the Palestinian and Arab side and the Presidency of the European Union (EU), during which the EU Presidency proposed limiting the outcome of the Conference, which would take place on time. The Presidency also proposed adjourning the Conference to a specific date within a reasonable time frame, such as six months. The Palestinian and Arab side indicated openness to the idea, but affirmed that the Conference should be a full-fledged Conference and yield an outcome that would include the necessary basic issues.

At a later stage, the EU seemed to hesitate and convey different signals about the exact content of their proposal. At some point, the Presidency took an anticlimactic step by approaching the Palestinian side and inquiring once more whether they would accept the idea of postponement of the Conference. The firm Palestinian position was reiterated to them, yet, the EU appeared to want more time before finalizing any agreement. This in itself became a pressuring tool with regard to the outcome of the Conference. De facto, all contacts moved to Geneva beginning Monday, 12 July 1999, which left very little time to finalize matters prior to the Conference.

In general, the surprise was the degree of change in the EU position, proposing to convene and immediately adjourn the Conference without any outcome. Such a ludicrous position was, of course, not accepted by the Palestinian side. Nevertheless, negotiations were undertaken between the two sides, but in an unusually tense and arduous manner. The Swiss also adopted a position practically presenting conditions for them to chair the Conference. At the end, and at the very last minute – Wednesday (14 July) at midnight – an agreement was reached between the Arab Group and the EU on a package (See text of main article.).