...for his unwavering dedication to the rule of law and human rights under exceptionally difficult circumstances.
Raji Sourani has, without fear or favour, defended and promoted human rights for all in Palestine and the Arab World for 35 years. As the most prominent human rights lawyer based in the Gaza Strip, Sourani established the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights to document and investigate human rights violations committed in the Occupied Territories, and has defended countless victims before Israeli courts. Never hesitant to speak truth to power, Sourani has been imprisoned on six separate occasions by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. As President of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, he organised the first fact-finding mission to Libya after the fall of Colonel Qadaffi, and has recently trained Syrian lawyers, judges and activists on monitoring and reporting human rights violations.
Raji Sourani was born in Gaza on 28 December 1953. He studied law at Beirut and Alexandria universities, receiving his degree from the latter in 1977. After his studies, he founded his own law firm and very soon found himself almost wholly dedicated to working on human rights cases. He is widely recognised for his effective defence of Palestinians before Israeli Military Courts.
Sourani’s dedicated work towards justice for victims of human rights violations posed a challenge to the Israeli administration. In 1979, he was imprisoned by Israel for his political activities, and was tortured during his three-year sentence in Gaza prison. Three more imprisonments in 1985 and 1986 followed. While held in administrative detention in 1988, Sourani was declared an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. From 1977 to 1990, he was prohibited from leaving Palestine. Throughout this period, he was constantly harassed, and his office and houses were subject to dozens of raids. Further, he was prevented from visiting prisons or working on any cases from 1986 to 1987.
Raji Sourani was concerned that the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords did not contain a single word about human rights. His subsequent criticism of the new Palestinian Authority’s formation of State Security Courts and its use of several of the same suppressive laws applied by Israeli authorities led to him becoming the Palestinian Authority’s first ever political prisoner in 1995. He says: “I had thought that struggling against the occupation was the most difficult thing but I discovered that I was naïve. Struggling against your own authority for respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights is much more complicated and difficult.”
After his release, Sourani founded the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), where he continues to serve as Director. PCHR soon became the key human rights organisation in Palestine, carrying out essential work monitoring and documenting human rights violations, and providing legal assistance to victims of these violations. PCHR also organises workshops, conferences and trainings in the Gaza Strip, and its weekly reports and press releases are an invaluable source of information for civil society groups operating in the area.
Innovative use of universal jurisdiction
When all attempts for national remedies fail, Raji Sourani is innovative in using the concept of universal jurisdiction – a legal principle that allows states or international courts to claim criminal jurisdiction over someone accused of serious crimes outside their territory – to bring cases against high ranking Israeli officials accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In partnership with lawyers in European countries, Sourani has brought cases under universal jurisdiction in the UK and Spain against alleged Israeli war criminals. Whilst trials have yet to materialise, these cases have had a significant measure of success: for example, due to Sourani’s efforts, a London Chief Magistrate issued an arrest warrant against a retired Israeli Major General, Doron Almog, for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Fearing arrest, Almog returned immediately to Tel Aviv after his plane landed in London on 11 September 2005.
Working for peace in Palestine
Raji Sourani believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has maintained good relationships with Israeli lawyers, academics and human rights activists since the 1980s, facilitating their visits to refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Sourani regrets Israel’s closing of the Gaza Strip, which he believes is a deliberate effort to prevent dialogue and exchanges between Israelis and Gazans.
Today, Sourani prioritises reconciliation between the West Bank and Gaza, and believes that his role vis-à-vis the peace process is to enhance democracy and the rule of law in the Palestinian context.
Promoting human rights and empowering human rights defenders in the Middle East
Raji Sourani has been able to inspire, motivate and empower human rights defenders across the Middle East both by example and through concrete programmes, interventions and trainings. Since April 2012, he has served as President of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR).
Under Sourani’s leadership, the AOHR lobbied the Arab League in 2004 to make amendments to the Arab Charter for Human Rights to bring it in line with international human rights standards, achieving partial success. Currently, the AOHR is engaged in discussions with the League regarding reforms. In addition, Sourani facilitated the Arab League Fact Finding Mission to Gaza after “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009.
Raji Sourani believes that his duty is to continue to promote the rule of law in the Arab world, and ensure that the spaces that have opened up for human rights work, thanks to the “Arab Spring”, are fully utilised. To this end, the PCHR has established close working relationships with civil society organisations and provided practical and theoretical knowledge to human rights defenders from Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, with the aim of strengthening civil society in those countries. Following these trainings, two new human rights NGOs were established in Yemen. Sourani was also part of the first team of human rights monitors who went to Libya after the fall of Colonel Qadaffi, where he was able to persuade the new Libyan government to investigate the disappearances of human rights defenders.
For the past 25 years, Raji Sourani has actively worked with the UN and its various Special Rapporteurs, the EU, the Quartet on the Middle East, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), making oral and written submissions on the human rights situation in Palestine. In all these bodies, the PCHR’s material is considered to be credible and impartial. PCHR is currently lobbying the Palestinian Authority to sign the Rome Statute of the ICC, so that it will be able to bring cases of human rights violations in Palestine before the Court.
Raji Sourani was awarded the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Award for Human Rights jointly with Israeli lawyer Avigdor Feldman in 1991. He has also received several other awards throughout his career including the Human Rights Prize awarded by the French Republic (1996), the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights (2002) and the International Service Human Rights Award (2003).
It is noteworthy that Felicia Langer (Right Livelihood Award 1990) defended Sourani before the Israeli military courts when he was imprisoned for his human rights work in the 1980s.
Award Acceptance Speech by Raji Sourani
2 December 2013
I would like to begin by expressing my sincere thanks for this award. This is not an award that I can accept personally, but rather is something that I am proud to accept on behalf of all human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations in Palestine. Really, this is an award for all of us. And believe me this is how it has been received. Since news of the award broke, my office has been inundated with victims, colleagues, and former clients expressing their support and happiness. This award says that we are not alone. That people understand our struggle. That there is hope.
I have come to Stockholm from the Gaza Strip, a territory under siege. For almost 6 and a half years the 1.8 million civilians of Gaza have been cut off from the outside world. Imprisoned. This closure has resulted in a human-made disaster. 1.8 million civilians’ fundamental rights are deliberately violated on a daily basis and there is no end in sight – we are living through the de-development of the Gaza Strip. According to the World Health Organisation over 90% of our water is ‘unsafe for human consumption’, electricity cuts of up to 18 hours a day are routine and widespread, and unemployment has increased as has the price of basic food staples: over 80% of Gaza’s population have been made dependent on international aid. Driven by desperation and a need to support their families, our youth constantly risk their lives trying to cross the border into Israel to find work.
Can you believe that this is happening in the 21st century? We are being slowly and deliberately strangled while the world watches. This closure has become institutionalised. What was once shocking is now routine. A few trucks carrying food or construction materials are allowed in and we celebrate. But this is a human made disaster. It is unquestionably illegal and it is avoidable. Truly, it is a stain on the conscience of the international community. And this is without mentioning the bombings, the incursions, the constant hum of drones, or the frequent offensives that have rocked the Gaza Strip and terrorized its people over the last 7 years. In particular, I must mention Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 offensive on the Gaza Strip. Over 1,200 civilians were killed in 22 days, and more than 5,000 injured. But these figures – while horrific – do not convey the scale of the destruction, the number of homes, farms, and work places destroyed. Parts of Gaza looked like the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Can you imagine your children growing up in this environment? The fear that you would live with as you lose sleep worrying over what the future holds for them?
The stated purpose of this illegal policy of collective punishment is to weaken Hamas. Clearly, this has failed. Hamas remains in complete control of the Gaza Strip. It is better armed and equipped than ever before.
The closure of the Gaza Strip evidences a simple reality: international law has been deliberately violated in pursuit of elusive political goals. The result has been the opposite: entrenchment of the situation. It is innocent civilians who continue to pay the price.
This harsh reality is repeated across occupied Palestine. Nearly 20 years ago, the Oslo process was supposed to lead us towards peace and an independent State. But this process was premised on a disregard for international law and individuals’ rights. The result has been the reality that we are forced to ensure today, and we can only conclude that any peace agreement that is not firmly anchored in human rights will not last.
Israel and the world have to realise that we are the stones of the valley. Governments, political parties, armed conflict can all wash over us, but we shall remain. What we want, what we demand, is to be treated with humanity, with dignity, and as equals.
Two States, one State, or no State: the Palestinian people exist and their humanity – their human rights – must be recognised.
This is our dream. We are not fuelled by outrageous demands. Dignity, equality, humanity: these are the cornerstone of human rights and international law. Are these demands so unreasonable? This is also the message I, and my colleagues in the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, are promoting in the Arab world. This work has intensified in the last 2-3 years and we are now organising regular workshops and trainings in international law and human rights law for judges, lawyers and activists from Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. The Arab Spring has offered us a new opportunity to put human rights and human dignity at the centre of political and legal policy in countries emerging from dictatorship.
We have to find a way of making our voice heard. At the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights we work to document human rights violations. As human rights defenders this is our mission. For almost 20 years PCHR has documented the violations, published reports and analysis, and prepared cases. We have to document the reality. The world will never have the excuse that it didn’t know. Each victim’s story must be told.
The pursuit of accountability is another key goal. If international law is to be effective, if human rights are to be more than high ideals or words on paper, then they must be enforced. We firmly believe that it is the enforcement of international law that is the key to the future. We have seen international law sacrificed before, and the results have been nothing short of catastrophic. We must adopt international law going forward.
The reason is simple. International law, and international human rights law, recognises our dignity, our worth, and our value as individuals. It says that we are all equals, regardless of our nationality, our gender, or age, or our financial situation. It is this sense of equality that has been missing so far, and which must be established. In Palestine, as in so many other situations around the world, until we are recognised as human, as equals, there can be no progress.
In pursuing accountability and enforcement of the law for Palestinians under occupation, however, the system is stacked firmly against us. The world sees the Israeli court system as a model system, and perhaps in some respects it is, but it is firmly biased against Palestinian victims. Indeed, this is a key struggle for human rights defenders: the Israeli court system is strategically used to present an illusion of justice while in fact entrenching impunity. We have to dismantle this illusion.
The facts speak for themselves. So please bear with me while I give you an example that is close to my heart. We are approaching the 5th anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. In the aftermath of this offensive, our lawyers submitted 490 criminal complaints to the Israeli military authorities requesting the opening of a criminal investigation. These complaints included the most notorious cases from the conflict. In almost five years we have only received 44 responses. This means that 446 cases have been completely ignored.
Of the responses, 40 were interlocutory responses, merely stating that a case was under review. 3 cases were confirmed as being closed and only one resulted in a prosecution. In this case a soldier was charged with, and convicted of, the theft of a credit card. In the midst of all the war crimes, in the middle of the white phosphorous and the drones, it is the theft of a credit card that is punished.
So this is the reality: 5 years later we have 4 concrete responses from a total of 490 cases. Is this a system concerned with accountability?
This is why we have been forced to look for accountability outside Israel. In an attempt to ensure that victims’ rights are upheld and that those responsible for violations are held to account, we have attempted to bring cases before independent courts in third States. We are probably one of the most advanced and professional organisations in the world at this, and have built up a dedicated team in many different countries. This work does have an impact. It sends the clear message to perpetrators of human rights violations that they are not immune. That one day, they will be held to account. But here too, politics gets in the way. Laws are changed to promote accountability, States refuse to investigate, or delay decisions until a suspect has left the country.
Against these odds it is often difficult to continue year after year, but the victims have placed their trust not only in us, but in the rule of law – in the belief that their rights will be respected – and this is something that we cannot ignore.
We work for Huda Ghalia. In June 2006 Israeli gunboats fired artillery shells at a beach where families were picnicking, enjoying one of the few pleasures Gaza has to offer. Huda, who was seven years old, saw 7 members of her family torn apart before her eyes. We work for the Abu Halimas, whose house was hit with white phosphorous and high explosive shells during Operation Cast Lead, resulting in the immediate death of 5 family members – more were later shot at a checkpoint as they tried to reach a hospital – and burning the blood so deep into the walls that it could not be scrubbed clean. And for the al Dalou family, an entire family of 10, who were killed when an F-16 targeted their house. The Israeli authorities described this attack as “unfortunate”, and not worthy of an investigation.
It is for these people, and the countless others, that I am grateful to accept this award. This international recognition is an acknowledgement of their humanity, their existence. It recognises the importance of their struggle for justice and says loudly: you are not alone. While States may turn their back, free people around the world stand in solidarity.
This award is also recognition of the dedication and sacrifice of PCHR’s staff. After the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, they have worked hard on the Palestinian agenda, demanding that our own authorities respect, protect and promote human rights. For almost 20 years, they have fought human rights violations committed by the occupation as if there were no internal troubles, and fought these internal troubles as if there was no occupation. They have lived the true spirit of human rights, standing up for the victim irrespective of the perpetrator, and they have suffered for this. It is their continued commitment that is so inspiring. We recently won compensation in a case that we have been fighting for 17 years. 17 years, and this length of time is not rare. Now, I know that this is not justice, it is not accountability, but it is a result, it does make a difference to victims’ lives and without the dedication of our staff, it would have been impossible. These men and women, our family, have consistently demonstrated integrity, independence, and professionalism in the face of great adversity. I believe that they are a model for human rights professionals in Palestine, in the Middle East, and throughout the world.
For them, and for the victims, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We will not give up. If we stop we will reward the criminals. We have no right to do so.
The PCHR family has both a local and an international part – thank you to all free committed people across the globe who have stood firmly with us for the rule of law and against the rule of jungle. Also, a special thanks to our partners – donors who have supported our work for the last twenty years, not by dumping money on us, but by defending the positions of PCHR.
Today, we stand here together with you as equals. We are human rights defenders from across the world, speaking many different languages, but we are united by our desire for justice, by our dignity, and our shared humanity.
This is the future. This is what the powerful fear. Because they know that united we cannot be beaten.
Raji Sourani on UN Statehood Bid, Peace Process and Gaza Siege
Film about Raji Sourani
A film by Doi Toshikuni (Japanse subtitles).
Raji Sourani at the Russell Tribunal
The Russell Tribunal has no legal status but acts as a court of the people, a Tribunal of conscience, faced with injustices and violations of international law, that are not dealt with by existing international jurisdictions, or that are recognised but continue with complete impunity due to the lack of political will of the international community. (November 2011)
Work of PCHR in Gaza
Raji Sourani on the importance of assisting Palestinian Centre for Human Rights work (November 2012).
For more videos about Raji Sourani, visit the Palestine Center for Human Rights Youtube channel.
Raji Sourani gave a lecture in October 2011 jointly hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. The lecture was moderated by Dr. Sara Roy, senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.
The audio file is divided into four parts: 1. introduction; 2. main lecture; 3. Q&A; 4. closure.