Phyllis Starkey MP on the role of Parliaments,Geneva 23 July 2009
The UN held a two-day international meeting on the question of Palstine to discuss issues surrounding the Gaza war. Session 3 was on ‘The role of parliaments and civil society in advocating adherence to international humanitarian and human rights law’.
Here is the contribution from Phyllis Starkey MP which gives insights into what a committed MP can do in relation to the conflict:
Contribution from Dr Phyllis Starkey, Member of Parliament on the role of parliaments
In addressing the role of parliaments, or rather parliamentarians, in advocating adherence to international law in relation to the occupied Palestinian territories I will be speaking specifically from my own experience as a British Member of Parliament. Although of course there are some general characteristics shared by all elected parliaments the precise relationship between the executive, parliament and the judiciary varies between different countries as does the role and power of individual parliamentarians.
My particular interest in the situation in Palestine started when as a newly elected MP in 1997 I first travelled through the Occupied Territories as part of a parliamentary delegation and saw at first hand the effects of the Israeli occupation and the obvious injustices being done to the Palestinian population on a daily basis. As a British MP my main focus is on what Britain can do to contribute to a resolution in line with international law, because that is the area that I can and should influence.
Overall the policy position taken by the British Government is clear: that the Israeli occupation, the land expropriations, house demolitions and settlement building are all illegal under international law and that the conflict cannot be solved except by a political solution which results in a sovereign and viable Palestinian State and a secure Israel within internationally recognised borders. The problem of course is how to get to that political solution and whether the British Government (either on its own or through the European Union) can be more active in pushing or persuading the parties involved to adhere to the agreements already made and deliver the two state solution set out in UN resolutions.
As a backbench MP there are a number of ways to influence the Government’s policies:
Highlighting the situation and advocating on behalf of Palestinians
Foreign Policy issues do not necessarily have a high profile in Parliament or in the press, there are many competing issues (Zimbabwe, Iran, and Sri Lanka) and domestic issues dominate, particularly at present.
By questioning the Foreign Secretary or Secretary of State for International Development (in oral questions), provoking debates on specific issues (there was a 3 hour debate on Israeli settlements on Tuesday), and pushing for urgent statements (in response to events on the ground) MPs can keep Palestine at the top of the agenda and press government to be more active.
More informally there are multiple opportunities for MPs to lobby and influence ministers – particularly for MPs who belong to the governing party – through informal meetings of ministers with interested Labour MPs, in one-to-one meetings with ministers, through letters.
These activities can change policy and the most obvious example of where opinion within the Parliamentary Labour Party effected change was the very different response of the British Government to the invasion of Gaza compared with the response to the earlier invasion of Lebanon.
Scrutinising government actions
Debates and questions are fairly broad-brush ways of influencing the general trend of government policy, but there are some specific areas of UK policy where MPs have a more obvious role
i) Arms Sales
The Labour Government introduced a stringent system of arms export licenses for controlling sales of arms from Britain to other countries. All exports require a license, and licenses will not be granted if the arms could be used for internal repression or external aggression. A special committee of MPs scrutinises the granting of arms licenses, this is done retrospectively but can change policies for the future.
Immediately after Operation Cast Lead, this parliamentary committee questioned ministers very closely on whether UK arms or components had been used by the IDF in Gaza. The Foreign Secretary gave an assurance that future arms licenses would be considered in the light of events in Gaza. This month it was announced that applications for licences to provide spare parts for guns on the Israeli naval Sa’ar 4.5 ships had been refused. The grounds for refusal were the use of these vessels in Operation Cast Lead. Agreements at a European level mean that no other EU member state would seek to fill the gap with their own arms exports.
ii) Arrest of those suspected of war crimes
In September 2005, lawyers in the UK used their rights under UK law, specifically the Geneva Conventions Act (1957) to obtain from a magistrate a warrant for the arrest of the Israeli Army Officer, Major General Doron Almog, in connection with the extensive destruction of Palestinian houses in Rafah City (Gaza) in January 2002. Under UK law the consent of the Attorney General is required for a prosecution under the GCA but a magistrate can issue an arrest warrant if presented with evidence that an offence under the act has been committed by a named suspect. Police attempted to arrest the General at Heathrow Airport but it appears he had been tipped off and he refused to leave the El Al plane and flew back to Israel.
The Israeli government, and others, exerted considerable pressure on the UK Government to ensure that private individuals would not in future be able to initiate warrants, as they feared significant numbers of IDF officers and others might risk arrest if they visited the UK.
Lawyers and MPs who supported the attempt to use UK law to pursue those accused of war crimes in the Occupied Territories kept up a barrage of letters and questions to ministers to try to identify how Almog was tipped off, to force ministers to confirm that any change to give the Attorney General the final say on whether a warrant could by issued would require legislation and to demonstrate the strength of parliamentary opposition to any such change.
In the end, despite various press reports from Israel that the British Government had promised to modify the law to protect visiting Israeli personnel, the government has now abandoned any attempt to change the law. The political aggravation involved in forcing it through, particularly since the recent invasion of Gaza, dissuaded them.
Push government to take action
There are a number of areas of policy where there is scope for the government to be more active in following through the implications of international law.
i) Settlement goods
The British government accepts that all settlements are illegal under international law but the abuse by Israel of the provisions of the EU-Israel Trade Agreement in misapplying “Made in Israel” rules of origin to settlement goods was for a long time ignored. The most important sector has been agricultural produce.
Working with a variety of NGOs, Mattin in particular but latterly a number of British NGOs and charities active in Palestine, I have been harrying the Government on this issue since I was first elected in 1997.
As a result of sustained and concerted questioning (mainly through a series of Written Parliamentary Questions to flush out the scale of the abuse) the British Government through its Customs and Excise function, has been at the forefront within the European Union in insisting on the application of “Made in Israel” in accordance with international law – that is to products from Israel within its 1967 borders NOT to settlements- and has imposed import duties on any settlement goods imported (including some originally mis-labelled).
Very shortly the government will also announce a voluntary labelling agreement so that settlement goods are clearly labelled as such and not hidden through being labelled as West Bank or Jordan Valley. This will allow consumers to exercise choice in NOT buying settlement goods. British supermarkets are likely to welcome this change since they have experienced significant consumer complaints on this issue.
ii) Other support for settlements
The income derived from the sale of goods produced in settlements helps to subsidise the continuing existence of those settlements so any measures that make those goods uncompetitive sends a strong message to reinforce the declaratory statements on the illegality of settlements.
But there are a number of other ways in which Britain can demonstrate to Israelis the unacceptability of the settlements.
Settlement properties are offered for sale in Britain at events targeted on the Jewish community. It is debateable whether this is of itself illegal, but MP pressure has resulted in the FCO now giving clear warning to potential buyers that these properties have doubtful legal title. The FCO had for some time been giving exactly this advice to those purchasing properties in Northern Cyprus where buyers were warned by the Government that the Greek Cypriot legal owners of such properties could reclaim them. MP pressure finally persuaded the FCO that the Cyprus example was directly relevant to the position of the settlements.
Britain participates in a number of bilateral and multilateral exchange schemes with Israel including university collaborations, student exchanges and co-operation in the field of biotechnology etc. In all these areas MPs have pressed for more effective action to ensure that settlement businesses, universities or residents are not able to participate.
iii) EU-Israel Trade Agreement
The Association Agreement includes a human rights clause and a human rights sub-committee. When the UK Parliament originally ratified the Agreement the then Foreign Office minister gave a clear assurance that if the human rights clauses were breached the Association Agreement would be suspended.
As we are all aware, the human rights monitoring within the framework of the Association Agreement has lacked teeth. It seems to be limited to regular reports on human rights abuses and then mild admonitions to Israel to improve its performance.
MPs have used the opportunities afforded by scrutiny of European Legislation to repeatedly highlight these human rights abuses and to call for more effective action. Most recently there are calls for the agreement to be suspended until Israel co-operates with the UN Human Rights Council investigation under Judge Goldstone.
Members of Parliament can use their position to highlight the ways in which International law is being violated in the Occupied Territories. If these interventions are of a “declaratory nature” they can help to shift the policy framework but they are most likely to lead to real (if small) practical changes if they focus on specific narrow issues where Britain has power to act, and argue from a position clearly based on legal arguments.
Given that most MPs are not lawyers and that most MPs, however passionate about Palestinian rights, have many other priorities including getting re-elected by their constituents, it is very important for MPs to work closely with campaigning groups, NGOs and experts so that they have the detailed information to challenge government positions.
This is particularly important where change is required at a European level. MPs and NGOs have not been good at co-ordinating between the parliaments of the various EU member states and between national parliaments and the MEPs.
Dr Phyllis Starkey MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
20 July 2009