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Crisis in Gaza is a war on women, on journalists, on human rights

The international human rights architecture is creaking under the weight of the hypocrisy of countries supplying arms to Israel

The shocking testimony of Dr Morgan McMonagle on RTÉ Prime Time last week relating to the injuries he treated in Gaza should make it clear that there exist no moral arguments that can justify the continued sale of weapons to Israel by states that respect the principle of the universality of human rights. Palestinian human rights defenders have emphasised to me the importance of a ban being placed on such sales, given how Israel has demonstrated time and again the casual abandon with which it uses weapons to indiscriminately kill Palestinians. Any claims of self-defence in reaction to Hamas’s illegal, immoral and appalling acts of savagery on October 7th have long since been invalidated by the disproportionality of the response. There are instead ideological arguments to justify the continued sale of weapons, which I can only conclude place the value of Israeli lives over and above the value of Palestinian lives. This is unconscionable.

Human rights defenders work to uphold the rights agreed upon as universal in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and codified in the various covenants and treaties adopted since then. Last December, to mark the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, over 150 states made pledges outlining how they would make those rights a reality. Some of the strongest pledges came from the USA, the UK, Germany, France and Canada, all of whom highlighted their steadfast support for human rights defenders. Yet these same states continue to arm Israel, with devastating consequences for human rights and human rights defenders. As has been recently highlighted in these pages, 68 per cent of weapons sales to Israel in the decade between 2013 and 2022 originated from the USA, while Germany’s weapons sales to Israel increased from €32 million in 2022 to more than €300 million. Last month in the UK, the High Court dismissed a case brought by the Global Legal Action Network (Glan) against the export of British weapons to Israel. As Vincent Durac pointed out, Ireland too has questions to answer about how its purchase of “defensive” equipment from Israel aligns with its often stated human rights values.

Two weeks ago, I received the awful news that another two women human rights defenders, along with scores of their family members, had been killed by Israeli bombs. Nour Naser Abu Al-Nour and Dana Yaghy both worked for the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, where they documented violations against women and children. I knew Nour personally and also know that in her last days, she continued to gather testimony to add to the ever mounting evidence of war crimes committed by Israel.

They are two of thousands of women killed in what must be described as a war on women and children. They account for a reported 70 per cent of the more than 30,000 Palestinians dead. Canada, France and Germany have all proudly declared that they have a feminist foreign policy, which, “should aspire to transforming the practice of foreign policy to the greater benefit of women and girls everywhere”. In its 2023 National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, the USA states, “Wherever the rights of women and girls are under threat, so, too, is democracy, peace, and stability.”


Other human rights defenders have been explicitly targeted, including journalists whose role in bearing witness to the horrors have helped us understand the levels of destruction being wreaked. Some have been killed at work covering the conflict, while clearly visible in press vests and helmets, and many had reportedly received death threats and intimidating messages from Israeli security forces before the attacks. This is also a war on journalists.

Last month my colleagues in Special Procedures and I noted that according to UN reports, since October 7th more than 122 journalists and media workers had been killed in Gaza. The USA, UK, France, Canada and Germany are members of the Media Freedom Coalition, all of whom have signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom, which commits them to promoting media freedom at home and abroad. Germany is currently co-chair.

A third category of human rights defenders killed by Israeli weapons are health workers as attacks against hospitals, medical facilities, ambulances and now aid convoys continue as if there were no international legal prohibitions against such attacks. This is a war against humanitarian personnel.

The number of United Nations Relief Works Agency (Unrwa) staff killed is 160, while 403 internally displaced persons sheltering in their premises have also been killed. Late last month, a “clearly marked” Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) shelter was attacked in Al-Mawasi. The Israeli army had been provided with the precise location of the shelter by MSF. No warning was given by the Israeli army before the shelter was shelled. Two people were killed. On March 2nd, a location next to the main entrance of a MSF-supported hospital in Rafah was struck by an Israeli shell, killing 11 people, including a nurse and a member of the hospital’s ambulance crew. MSF reports that in recent weeks “patients have voiced their fear of entering the hospital due to systematic attacks in and around healthcare facilities across Gaza”. The UN Security Council has adopted repeated resolutions on the protection of humanitarian personnel and healthcare facilities in armed conflict. The USA, UK and France hold permanent seats on the security council.

The international human rights architecture is creaking under the weight of the hypocrisy of states professing absolute support for a rules-based order yet continuing to facilitate this war by providing weapons to Israel to kill more innocent Palestinians.

Above all, this is a war on human rights.

Mary Lawlor is UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders