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It would be difficult to imagine a more bizarre press conference…

UN’s circle of unaccountability

John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent, 13 April 2013

[The timing of the press conference reported below is not clear. The Unicef report referred to would seem to be Children in Israeli Military Detention: Observations and Recommendations (pdf), discussed for instance in this online story UNICEF: Israel Guilty of ‘Cruel and Inhuman’ Treatment of Palestinian Children, published on 6th March 2013, almost 6 weeks before this latest story in The Australian – but the incident discussed is so bizarre it seems worth carrying despite this uncertainty.]

IT would be difficult to imagine a more bizarre press conference.

When UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, recently notified journalists in Jerusalem that it was releasing a report on Palestinian children in Israel’s military justice system, there was much interest.

The issue has had a growing international focus, particularly in Britain where it has been the subject of parliamentary debates.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his predecessor Kevin Rudd have taken up the issue with Israel. But something strange has happened.

During the past two years several groups have been attacked for highlighting Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children.

Breaking the Silence, a group of 850 serving and former Israeli soldiers campaigning to improve Israel’s human rights record, has been attacked for focusing on the issue.

But not UNICEF. After the new report Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “Israel will study the conclusions and will work to implement them through ongoing co-operation with UNICEF, whose work we value and respect. This year Israel has joined the UNICEF board and our working relations and collaboration with the organisation are appreciated by the international community.”

So why has UNICEF been spared an attack? It was obvious at the Jerusalem press conference that something was askew. The room had 60 chairs for only a handful of journalists.

“We were limited in the number of journalists we could invite,” one official admitted.

“You wouldn’t believe the pressure we were under to cancel this event,” another said.

Five UNICEF officials took their seats – with name tags and microphones – and television cameras were set up. It looked like a real press conference.

Inquirer’s photographer had brought a video camera to film for The Australian’s website. But UNICEF’s Jerusalem chief Jean Gough made an announcement: only the first five minutes could be filmed and no officials could be quoted. A press conference where you couldn’t film? Or quote officials?

Gough began speaking. During the first five minutes she praised Israel for its dialogue about the system under which Palestinian children from the age of 12 are tried by Israeli soldiers, while Jewish children in neighbouring settlements are tried before civilian courts. “I want to thank them,” she said of the Israelis.

But once the cameras were off, a totally different story was told – one official said the ill-treatment of Palestinian children was “widespread, systematic and institutionalised”; another told how Palestinian children were “beaten, slapped and kicked” by Israeli soldiers.

He said children sometimes were told they would be killed or that they or members of their families would be sexually assaulted if they did not confess, usually to stone-throwing. Another said there was “a systemic pattern of abuse and torture”.

This was not just media management but a distortion of the truth. The version from the first five minutes was highly positive to Israel, but the later version was of a horrific system in which children were taken from their homes – usually at night – by heavily armed soldiers, blindfolded, denied water and toilets, and even placed in solitary confinement for up to a month. And while UNICEF found Israel had engaged in actions that fitted its definition of torture, the report avoided using that word in its findings.

An investigation by Inquirer suggested that UNICEF had caved in to pressure from Israel or self-censored. The more we questioned, the less UNICEF answered. Gough would not answer certain questions, referring us to UNICEF’s New York executive director, Anthony Lake.

But Lake would not answer a single question, even though he signed off on the report. In a circle of unaccountability, his office referred us back to Jerusalem because “it is a report about children there, not a global report”.

Lake’s office stated: “So we will close on this from HQ and you will receive your responses from the region”. But the Jerusalem office would not answer several questions – so for one of UNICEF’s major reports many questions went unanswered.

There were general references to torture, but when it came to specific findings the word was omitted. The report even deleted “torture” when it quoted relevant sections of international law and substituted it with “duress”.

For example, it states: “In the majority of cases, the principal evidence against the child is the child’s own confession, in most cases extracted under duress during the interrogation … although many children reported providing confessions as a result of ill-treatment, few raise this matter before the court for fear that their complaints would lead to harsher sentences, even though international law prohibits the use of evidence obtained under duress by a court.”

The report says this is based on article 15 of the Convention Against Torture – which refers to torture, not duress.

The report lists practices that amount to “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment according to the Committee against Torture”. It says these include: restraining in painful conditions; threats, including death threats; kicking, punching and beating; excessive use of force; incommunicado detention; solitary confinement; sensory deprivation; not providing food and water.

The report concludes that Israel has done many of these – but it does not use the word torture.

Gough gave Inquirer various reasons for this. At first she said that if only one of these things was done it did not constitute torture. “We don’t have enough evidence to say that all of these things have happened to the one child,” she said. Gough said UNICEF was not “a complaints mechanism” and did not have enough staff to investigate individual cases.

UNICEF says the evidence base for the report included more than 400 documented cases of ill-treatment. About 200 were provided by Defence for Children International, which also gave UNICEF access to its report Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted. The cases in the DCI report included a boy who had his hands tied behind his back for 19 hours; a boy whose handcuffs were so tight that flesh came off; a boy who said he was hit in his testicles and a boy whose head was slammed against a wall.

The bizarre Jerusalem press conference followed a year of debate. In March last year word emerged that UNICEF was not going to publish any report. One source said there were “massive ructions” inside the organisation.

The source said some argued that it would be wrong if the report was not published while others suggested the report could be postponed indefinitely, which would delay upsetting Israel.

The source said a middle course was decided on – the launch would go ahead but the number of journalists invited would be limited to “calm everybody down”. It was an extraordinary decision; normally organisations want as much coverage for their reports as possible.

Gough admits that during the draft process “we took advice from Israeli lawyers”.

Did the Israeli lawyers see the final draft? “Of course,” Gough says. “We had discussions on it. That is about ensuring we have a dialogue.”

Gough, meanwhile, has been promoted to head the Nigeria office, UNICEF’s second largest mission. Asked about her new job she says: “It’s a promotion.” But then she quickly adds: “But not because of the report.”

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