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Sommaruga puts brave face on Jenin debacle

Cornelio Sommaruga laid the blame for the failed mission squarely on Israel

(Keystone)

Switzerland's Cornelio Sommaruga has emphasised the UN's humanitarian role in the Middle East, after its failed mission to the Jenin refugee camp.

In an interview with swissinfo, the former head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was keen to play up the UN's work in Palestinian refugee camps.

But Sommaruga sidestepped the question of whether the world body has any ability to influence events in the Middle East, after Israel refused to allow a fact-finding team into the Jenin refugee camp, where Israeli troops have been accused of massacring Palestinian civilians.

His comments come a day after the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, disbanded the team - of which Sommaruga was a member - after more than a week of futile negotiations with Israel.

"The UN will certainly have to play a role in a peace process [in the Middle East]," Sommaruga told swissinfo. "[But] I think one has to see the reality that the UN is very present in the Palestinian refugee camps - they are there for more humanitarian tasks... But it will be important to look at the UN's role [and] this will be the task of the Security Council."

Impotent

Correspondents say the Jenin incident has strengthened the view that the UN is totally impotent when it comes to influencing issues of geo-political importance.

Sommaruga said he hoped the UN's failure to investigate allegations of human rights violations in Jenin was "not something that should be regarded as a precedent. The UN's actions depend on the will of its member states and particularly from the action of the Security Council."

The question is of particular interest in Switzerland, which voted last March to join the world body. Voters approved UN membership amid concerns that the country would have no influence in the UN and would be compelled to do the bidding of the United States-dominated Security Council.

Lukewarm Security Council

Sommaruga said the reason the Jenin mission failed was clearly linked to the lukewarm attitude of the Security Council.

"Ten days ago, the secretary general had the real backing of the Security Council. This backing was less evident in recent days, which is why the Secretary General gave up."

Correspondents say there is little doubt that Washington played a role. On Thursday - the day Annan finally disbanded the mission - the US Congress passed a resolution reiterating its support for Israel, which it described as being on front line in the war against terror. The resolution added that Israel was right to destroy terrorist bases in Palestinian areas.

Sommaruga said the blame for the failed mission lay squarely with the Israelis, who changed their minds, and put numerous obstacles in the way of the team.

"There has been a change of opinion on the side of the Israeli government because the secretary general would never have proposed such a fact-finding mission if he had not checked it with the Israelis.

Israeli retreat

"He established the mission after receiving the green light from the Israelis. Afterwards the Israeli government made a retreat over the mandate and composition of the team."

One of Israel's objections was Sommaruga himself, who they demanded be dropped from the team, which also included the former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, and the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata.

"I very much regret that my colleagues and I were not able to make an independent, neutral and impartial fact-finding mission," said Sommaruga, "particularly given the expectations of the population on the spot and the international public."

For its part, Israel claimed the team was biased and that it was being set up to be smeared over what it insists was a battle against a camp - Jenin - which had in reality been turned into a terrorist fort.

Israel's UN ambassador, Yehuda Lancry, said 47 gunmen had been killed during the operation in Jenin, along with 23 Israeli soldiers and seven Palestinian civilians.

On Wednesday, Jenin hospital officials said 52 bodies had been recovered from the rubble of the camp. Human rights groups have said that 22 were civilians.

Sommaruga said the Jenin incident had once again highlighted the need for international observers to be deployed in Palestinian areas.

"We think an increased presence of appropriate international personnel in Palestinian refugee camps, including Jenin, could have contributed to protecting the civilian population on both sides."

Robinson weighs in

Meanwhile on Friday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, called on Israel to investigate the alleged violations of international humanitarian law in the Jenin refugee camp.

Speaking at a meeting of the Council of Europe in Lithuania, she cited a "credible" report by Human Rights Watch, which she said suggested "serious breaches of international humanitarian law in the killing of civilians and the destruction of civilian property".

In a report released on Friday, Human Rights Watch said it found no evidence to back charges that hundreds of Palestinians were massacred at the Jenin refugee camp, but said the Israeli army may have committed war crimes there.

swissinfo

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