By Vivienne Porzsolt
SYDNEY — Human rights are at the core of a real settlement to the conflicts in the Middle East, said Dr Gabi Baramki, the president of Bir Zeit University, at a public meeting on October 13.
Bir Zeit University is a strong political centre on the West Bank articulating Palestinian aspirations for independence.
"The absence of discourse on human rights has been a striking feature of the peace process", Dr Baramki said. "This is despite efforts by the Palestinians to raise the human rights issue at the negotiating table."
In the negotiations and agreement, "The main thrust of the discourse was mutuality rather than rights. Unfortunately, this leaves the Palestinian side, whose case is strong in international law, at a decided disadvantage.
"The words and the text in general evoke a symmetry between the two people ... What is suppressed is what ... Hanan Ashrawi repeatedly calls the 'asymmetry of occupier and occupied', an unequal relationship which it is difficult to envision being rectified without being recognised."
Baramki noted, "Tellingly, the only right affirmed in the exchange of letters between Arafat and Rabin is the right of Israel to exist. The mutual recognition did not extend to the rights of Palestinians but only to the representative character of the PLO. While this is a dramatic and much postponed victory, it does not encompass a mutual recognition of the rights of the two peoples."
Despite the long discussion of the need for confidence-building measures in the occupied territories, the situation in the towns, villages and refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza deteriorated, Baramki said. Human rights abuses continued through the most recent period with the mass deportation of more than 400 Palestinians in December 1992, the Israeli army's continued killing of Palestinian children and the sealing of Jerusalem and the occupied territories in March.
"The past 23 months have witnessed the converse of confidence building. Palestinian confidence has been undermined in such a systematic way that one is led to conclude that human rights abuse has become a crude tool to pressure a captive population into acceptance of the previously unacceptable."
The Israeli human rights organisation, Bet Zelem, Baramki said, notes that some Israeli politicians who were once ardent human rights activists and proponents "now contend that all efforts must be concentrated on the peace process, even if the price of the search for peace is continued violation of human rights. From this perspective the mass deportations become justifiable."
"Tellingly", said Baramki, "the Palestinian proposal to establish a multilateral working group on human rights was rejected by all parties, whether the US, Israel or the Arab states."
Palestinians must have democratic powers, concluded Baramki, if they are to be able to be democratic.