Hard times push us to either give up or to stand undaunted in the face of challenges. As representatives of victims, we have no right to give up. Our obligation is to face the challenges, to be dreamers in spite ...

Acceptance speech – Raji Sourani

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
pchr (at) pchrgaza.org

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