Why Working to Uphold International Human Rights in Israel and Occupied Palestine is Important to Me

by Karen Segal

Today, CLAIHR has announced the formation of an ad hoc Working Group on the situation of human rights in Israel and Occupied Palestine. 

The current moment highlights the necessity of this group. In addition to the 1,139 Israelis and nationals of other countries tragically killed by Hamas on October 7, Israel has killed 25,000 Palestinians in three months, including 160 children per day, and injured close to 61,000 more. At the same time, Israel has engaged in countless human rights abuses of Palestinians, such as deprivation of food, water, and energy, targeting civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, targeting aid workers, health care workers and journalists, and using chemical weapons, and Hamas continues to hold Israeli civilians hostage. According to leading experts on the ground, the situation in Gaza is catastrophic and unprecedented. 

Yet, the human rights crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territories did not start on October 7 and will not end at the conclusion of this war. That’s why when CLAIHR President James Yap asked me to chair this working group, I had to say yes.

I come to this work in a number of ways. Being a lawyer, a Jewish person, a mother, and a feminist, I am unable to turn away from the human rights crisis in Occupied Palestine caused by decades of war, occupation and apartheid.

As a lawyer, I start from the basic overarching legal principle that human rights are universal and inalienable. That means that every person, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality or religion, possesses human rights inherently. We cannot take those rights away, we can only violate those rights. Palestinians are just as entitled to live with freedom, dignity, and equality, and to realize their rights to self-determination, as are any other group, including Israelis. 

I also know that legal orders are only as strong as their weakest link. We cannot claim to live in a human rights based legal order if human rights are ignored and downplayed when it is politically convenient. If the world does not recognize and uphold the human rights of Palestinians as recognized in international law, then the laws that enshrine those rights cease to be laws of general application. That creates a very dangerous reality for any group.

This means that in a very real sense, my freedom is tied up with the freedom of Palestinians. As a Jewish person, I am devastated by the ongoing tragedies taking place in the OPT at Israel’s hands, just as I am devastated by the loss of civilian life in Israel. I also know how to recognize systematic oppression and violence, having learned about the Holocaust throughout my life. We are now observing conduct and rhetoric that is chillingly similar to that used by the Nazis against Jews being used against Palestinians by Israel, the US and their allies. Finally, I know that Jews, like other groups, are at risk when we start bending the rules of human rights for the “wrong people”. In that sense, Palestinian rights are everyone’s rights.

Third, I have spent my life and my career advocating for women’s equality. I know that in wars, women suffer unique gendered harms including sexual and reproductive violence. As a feminist, I hold dear the 1970s slogan, no woman is free until all women are free. 

Finally, and most critically, I come to this work as a mother. No parent can look away from the innocent faces of Palestinian children, who have lost their families, their homes, their limbs and their lives. I know that in another decade, it could have been my children suffering under genocide as the world looked away.

Amid the horrors on full display to the world, Canada actively supports Israel’s human rights abuses in violation of international law. Canada exports over $20-million worth of arms to Israel annually and it routinely casts votes in favour of Israel and its rights abuses in international fora such as the UN.  Canada provides economic, political and military support to its operations in Israel and in the OPTs. Canada has rightly condemned Hamas’ actions on October 7, but has failed in its obligations to defend the rights of Palestinians, as well.

Despite its many flaws, international human rights law can be a powerful tool to bring some measure of accountability to otherwise unrestrained state conduct. As South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice shows, international human rights law provides a powerful means to cast aside all rhetoric and judge disputes before the entire international community in an orderly manner according to universal legal standards that are agreed to in advance. Simply put, international human rights law matters.

For that reason, I am proud to chair CLAIHR’s Israel Palestine Working Group, and to lead this formidable group of experts in our legal advocacy for human rights for Israelis and Palestinians.