Gaza and Israel Crisis : Open letter to Foreign Minister John Baird on international humanitarian law violations
The Honourable John Baird
Minister of Foreign Affairs
125 Sussex Drive
22 July, 2014
Dear Minister Baird,
Amnesty International has repeatedly spoken out about widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards since the most recent crisis in Gaza and Israel erupted on 8 July. We are writing this Open Letter to you, on behalf of more than 80,000 Amnesty International members across Canada, with an urgent request that the Canadian government similarly speak out and insist that these rapidly mounting violations – by both sides of this conflict – must end immediately.
We have of course noted the frequent comments made by the Prime Minister, you personally and other members of the government, criticizing Hamas for the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel. Amnesty International has similarly consistently condemned those actions, underscoring that such actions constitute violations of international humanitarian law.
We are deeply concerned, however, that the Canadian government has not yet forcefully condemned the nature of the military offensive launched by the Israeli government. The government has repeatedly stressed that the Israeli government is entitled to take action in self-defence. That is not contested. Any such action in self-defence, however, must be in full compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights norms which, among other crucial matters, provide for the protection of civilians. It has become tragically and abundantly clear that many aspects of the Israeli aerial campaign and ground offensive violate fundamental international legal standards; and that it is overwhelmingly Palestinian civilians in Gaza who are suffering the consequences.
The Canadian government’s most recent press release dealing with the crisis, released on 20 July, takes note of Palestinian civilian casualties, but lays the blame for the casualties entirely with Hamas: “Hamas’s continued aggression, combined with cowardly tactics that endanger civilians, has resulted in the tragic deaths of approximately another 87 Palestinians. Innocent civilians living in Gaza deserve far better than the reckless actions of this terrorist organization.” The statement fails in any way to acknowledge that it was military action taken by Israeli forces that directly caused the casualties.
It is vital that Canada recognize that the actions of Israeli military forces are causing civilian casualties and that violations of international law by Israeli forces must be the subject of an international investigation. Canada carries very substantial influence with the Israeli government. Canadian statements of concern about and pressure to end violations of international law by Israeli forces are, therefore, of vital importance.
Throughout this crisis, Amnesty International has called on both the Israeli and Hamas governments to end the violations. We have pressed the international community to impose an arms embargo on all sides to the conflict, and for all states individually immediately to suspend transfers of military equipment to Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip. We have also called for a UN-mandated international investigation into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties.
Yet the crisis only deepens and civilian casualties grow at an alarming rate.
Most recently, Israeli attacks against health care facilities are a very worrying addition to the list of possible war crimes. The third floor of the Al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah was struck yesterday by Israeli shelling, reportedly killing four people and wounding dozens. It is the latest in a series of attacks on and near medical facilities in Gaza, which have been struggling to cope with thousands of injured people. Last week, the al-Wafa rehabilitative hospital in Shuja’iyyeh was severely damaged after being attacked twice by Israeli forces. These attacks on medical facilities underline the need for a prompt, impartial international investigation mandated by the UN. There can be no justification for targeting medical facilities at any time.
With the Israeli ground invasion in its fifth day and the death toll in Gaza exceeding 550 people, the majority of them civilians, there is an urgent need for the parties to agree to periodic pauses in the fighting to facilitate the evacuation of the dead and wounded. Additionally, with as many as 1.2 million people without water or sewage services, municipal workers and relief organizations need to carry out emergency repair work to prevent a public health catastrophe.
Over the past weekend, from Saturday night to Sunday morning, intense Israeli bombardment of Shuja’iyyeh killed more than 60 people, including at least 17 children and 14 women. More than 200 people were reported wounded, and civilians were forced to flee under fire. At least 13 Israeli soldiers were also killed overnight, the majority of them in Shuja’iyyeh. Hamas has continued to fire hundreds of indiscriminate rockets into Israel in violation of international law, killing two Israeli civilians and injuring others.
The Israeli military has said that Shuja’iyyeh, a densely populated area with some 92,000 residents east of Gaza City, was targeted because it was a “fortress” housing rockets, tunnels and command centres. Locating rocket-launchers and other “military” objects in residential areas is a violation of international humanitarian law.
Israeli military and government officials have repeatedly said that civilians were warned to evacuate the area days before it was attacked. However, many civilians in Shuja’iyyeh and other areas did not evacuate because they had nowhere to go. All the UNRWA schools and other facilities opened as shelters are overflowing. Issuing warnings to evacuate entire areas does not absolve Israeli forces of their obligations to protect civilians under international humanitarian law.
Minister, this terrible human rights crisis must come to an end. Hamas’ campaign of indiscriminate rocket launches into Israel must end. So too must the many violations of international humanitarian and human rights law that have become distressingly commonplace in the Israeli military’s aerial and ground offensives.
Canadian policy must reflect unwavering commitment to the fundamental international legal principle of civilian protection and must demonstrate equal concern for both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. We urge the Canadian government to take up the recommendations Amnesty International has made with respect to an international arms embargo, suspension of arms transfers, an international investigation into violations and periodic humanitarian pauses in the fighting to deal with such concerns as evacuating the dead and wounded and dealing with critical water and sanitation repairs.
Canada’s demand should be clear: violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by both sides to this conflict must end immediately and all civilians must be fully protected.
Amnesty International Canada
Amnistie internationale Canada francophone
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Signed copy of the letter Amnesty International Canada to Foreign Minister John Baird 22 July 2014