European Trade Agreements, Human Rights, and Palestine


The spotlight is on the European Union’s use of trade as “soft power” in furthering human rights and international law. Developing countries that implement conventions on non-discrimination, the environment, and labor standards will enjoy lighter tariffs, the EU trade commissioner announced on October 20. The EU is pushing controls on weapons of mass destruction in the trade association agreement it initialed with Syria on October 19. It is also negotiating similar language for an EU “action plan” with Israel to further share the benefits of the single market. But for all the fanfare surrounding its human rights approach, the EU seems curiously reluctant to implement this when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Raymond Deane reports on recent efforts to hold the EU accountable for human rights in its existing trade association agreement with Israel.

The European Parliament Takes on Israel

The Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with Israel grants it preferential trading terms conditional on observance of Article 2 which states that "Relations between the Parties… shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles…"

Article 79 of the Agreement provides for measures – such as suspension – to be taken when one signatory fails to comply with its obligations under the Agreement. The EU is obliged under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure that an occupying power respects the human rights of those under occupation. In view of the patent illegality of the Israeli occupation the Agreement should clearly have been suspended long ago.

The European Coordinating Committee on the Question of Palestine (EECP), a coalition of non-governmental organizations, has been calling for the suspension of the Agreement until Israel ends its occupation and upholds human rights. Members of the ECCP have repeatedly contacted their representatives to the European Parliament to protest Israeli practices and communicate the strength of popular feeling on the issue.

Eventually, ECCP efforts were marked by success. On April 10th, 2002, in the wake of Israel’s savage assault on the Palestinian refugee camps and towns, the European Parliament voted to suspend the Agreement. However, the European Commission disregarded the vote. Two years later, on April 1st, 2004, after Israel’s assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin, the Parliament determined "that if Israel continued its targeted assassinations policy, the council of ministers and the European delegations should act to suspend the Association Agreement…" On April 17th, Yassin’s successor Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi was killed in an Israeli air-strike. Yet the Agreement was not suspended.

The Commission’s Argument

On May 5 and 6, 2004, EU foreign ministers discussed the Euro-Mediterranean process at their meeting in Dublin Castle. A delegation from the ECCP met with the Secretary General of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs Dermot Gallagher to call for suspension –” or at least a threat of suspension –” of the Association Agreement. They presented a petition signed by 275 parliamentarians from across the EU. The Irish representatives also presented 11,700 signatures collected on the streets of Irish towns.

Gallagher maintained that the suspension of the Agreement was inconceivable, because "it would remove any possible influence we might have on Israel." That alleged "influence" was graphically demonstrated 9 days later, when Israel embarked on Operation Rainbow in Rafah. By May 20, 45 Palestinians, 38 of them civilians had been killed, and 134 civilians had been injured. The UN Security Council condemned the operation. Even the US abstained rather than wield its expected veto. But the Association Agreement was not suspended.

Attempts to shift the stance of European governments are an uphill struggle, as the author’s own experience shows. As the Irish EU presidency drew to a close, I published an opinion piece in the Irish Times suggesting it had been a disappointment as far as the Israel/Palestine conflict was concerned, and criticizing the May 4th statement of the International Quartet for its one-sided focus on Palestinian responsibilities.

In reply, Foreign Affairs Press Counselor Dermot Brangan asserted that the Quartet statement was "very warmly welcomed in the Arab world and in particular by the Palestinian leadership." My criticism of the ineffectuality of the Irish EU presidency was "all the more astonishing when so many Arab leaders, including President Arafat and Prime Minister Qurei of Palestine, have been very warm and generous in their appreciation of the distinctive and effective role of the Irish presidency in this process."

NGOs Undercut by Palestinian and Arab Leaders

Brangan’s response highlights a key problem with international activism in support of Palestinian rights: the unwillingness of Palestinian and Arab leaders to use pressure to support their cause. While European activists fully appreciate the innate courtesy of the Palestinian and other Arab peoples, they are now advising their partners to temper their gratitude with a more steely insistence that Europe should live up to its responsibilities. Indeed, they argue, it is time the Palestinians appropriated a favorite and fully legitimate Israeli stratagem: the appeal to Europe’s conscience.

While the case of Germany obviously stands out, few European countries have clean hands when it comes to anti-Semitism; those that played no role in the pogroms or the Nazi genocide may have failed to grant asylum to Jews fleeing persecution. European politicians must be forcibly reminded that Palestinians are victims of Europe’s victims.

As long as the European Union continues to treat the "human rights clause" of its Association Agreement with Israel as a dead letter and fails to suspend the Agreement in response to Israel’s crimes – possibly as the first step towards the imposition of full sanctions – the Union will be open to the accusation that it is sacrificing the Palestinian people on the altars of Mammon and bad faith.

The International Court of Justice ruling on the illegality of the Wall on July 9th and the subsequent UN General Assembly resolution make this the most opportune moment for such action. In mid-October, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, called on the European Union to suspend the Agreement with Israel, saying they were the only lever available to stop alleged violations of the Palestinians’ right to food. He noted the Agreement laid out respect for human rights as an “essential condition” of the deal.

European NGOs believe that their campaign must be matched by strong pressure from the Palestinians themselves, citing European responsibility for the existing situation in the Middle East with as much insistence as the Israelis cite European responsibility for the pogroms and the holocaust.

The repeated flouting of the European Parliament by the EU Commission displays an elitist contempt towards the only EU institution for which European citizens vote. It also seriously undermines the EU’s efforts to promote a rights-based trade and foreign policy in negotiations with partners. If the European conscience finally awakens on behalf of Palestinian rights, then that awakening can ultimately be of real collateral benefit to Europeans themselves.