Israel and Syria: The UN and the Distortion of International Law

, March 29, 2018

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Israeli settlements are back in the news, not because of something going on here in the Middle East, but rather because of decisions – distorted decisions –  that are being taken in Geneva at the UN headquarters. This month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Prince Zeid, came out and described Israeli settlements as a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. He therefore set the stage for resolutions that were shortly thereafter adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, which, like all the resolutions of the Human Rights Council, were completely prejudicial against the State of Israel.

How did Prince Zeid, or the other critics of Israel, come to the conclusion that Israeli settlements were problematic from the standpoint of international law? Essentially, they focused on the Fourth Geneva Convention from 1949, and in particular article 49 of that Convention, which makes, among other claims, two essential points. First, it clearly states that “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of an occupying power,” is prohibited. The second point of the Fourth Geneva Convention of article 49 states that, “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” This has been thought of by legal experts to involve the forcible transfer of your own population into the territory which your army now controls.

For example, there’s Eugene Rostow, who was Undersecretary of State of the United States in the Johnson administration and served at the time of the 1967 Six-Day War. People forget he was also the Dean of Yale Law School. He wrote about the intent behind the Fourth Geneva Convention. For example, he says that “the convention prohibits many of the inhumane practices of the Nazis and the Soviet Union during and before the Second World War, specifically the mass transfer of people into and out of occupied territories, for the purposes of extermination, slave labor, or colonization.”

Once we understand the true intent behind the Fourth Geneva Convention, it becomes obscene to connect Israel with an international convention conceived to prevent actions like the transfer of German Jews to occupied Poland for extermination. For that reason, international legal experts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Eugene Rostow, rejected any link between Israeli settlements and the Fourth Geneva Convention. But the emerging problem with the critics of Israeli settlement activity in Geneva is not what they’re doing to Israel. It’s what they’re missing in other parts of the world, like in the case of Syria. The Syrian civil war, since 2011, has involved the mass forcible transfer of Syrian Sunni Arabs out of Syria into Turkey, Jordan, and of course into Europe, and while the UN Human Rights Council is completely preoccupied with Israel, it is missing the very type of activity that the Fourth Geneva Convention was conceived to prevent. For in Syria, not only is the Syrian Sunni population being ejected, but there’s a parallel effort under way, sponsored by Iran, to colonize Syria with Shiite Muslims.

So there you have it – removing one population and bringing in another – and yet the world is largely silent. The problem with the UN Human Rights Council, and for that matter the UN as a whole, is that it’s distorting international law, focusing on the wrong issues and leaving some of the greatest abuses of human rights since World War II unanswered.

Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.