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Switzerland laments Israel's "missed opportunity"

Peter Maurer, who chaired the conference, described the declaration as balanced Keystone

Switzerland has hailed an international declaration calling on Israel and the Palestinians not to target civilians.

This content was published on December 5, 2001 - 16:23

The conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva convention confirmed that the convention - which seeks to protect civilians in wartime or during military occupation - was applicable in occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem.

The 114 countries present demanded that Israel "immediately refrain from committing grave breaches" of the convention. But it also urged "all parties ... to respect and ensure respect for the Geneva Conventions in all circumstances."

"I can't imagine a sustainable peace in the region, without respect for international humanitarian law," Peter Maurer, head of the Swiss Foreign Ministry's political division, told swissinfo.

"It was politically and diplomatically important to have this stated by the 114 parties present today. But this is only an intermediate phase. We won't be satisfied until international humanitarian law is applied," Maurer, who chaired the conference, added.

Israel, which along with the United States and Australia boycotted the conference, had called for it to be cancelled in light of last weekend's suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa.

But Switzerland, which as depository country of the Geneva Conventions organised the gathering, refused. It said a majority of countries still wanted it to go ahead.

Palestinian territory

Israel said the conference, which was called by the UN General Assembly in October 2000 at the request of Arab and Muslim states, would be used as a platform to attack it. Israel also believes the Fourth Geneva Convention is not applicable in Palestinian territory, since this land is "disputed" not occupied.

Maurer described the final declaration as "balanced". He said it only reaffirmed existing humanitarian law.

Arab states would have liked to see a more strongly worded declaration, with more overt criticism of Israel. But they relented to allow the broadest possible consensus. A statement dealing solely with humanitarian law was all European states would agree to.

"It showed that it is possible to have a sober and law-based conference without attacking one side or the other. It was important because the High Contracting Parties have stated clearly who has what responsibilities in this conflict," Maurer said.

"This is a missed opportunity for Israel and the United States. I find it unfortunate that they couldn't associate themselves with this process," he added.

"Flagrant violation"

Like most of the international community, Switzerland believes the Fourth Geneva Convention is "applicable de jure to all Territories occupied by Israel" and that Jewish settlements established on occupied Palestinians land "represent a flagrant violation of the Fourth Convention".

Nevertheless, as "honest broker", Switzerland has strived to ensure that the conference did not degenerate into an anti-Israeli forum. The conference was held behind closed doors and lasted just two and a half hours. There was no debate and no vote.

Among those who addressed the conference was the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson. She confirmed that Israel's actions "cannot be reconciled with several articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention", and condemned the failure of successive Israeli governments to abide by the principles of international humanitarian law.

But she added that Palestinians who attacked Israeli civilians were also in breach of the convention.

The Geneva conference had symbolic importance. Apart from an aborted meeting in July 1999, this was the first time the states party to the Fourth Geneva Convention had met to reaffirm the law's applicability in a specific region.

It has therefore set a precedent for similar conferences to be held on abuses of the convention in other parts of the world, although no-one really believes such a gathering will happen soon.

by Roy Probert

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