European countries are usually not late in taking up sanctions and boycott against countries which neglect human rights, as was the case with South Africa during apartheid. Last April, the European Union has extended its sanctions against Burma for a further six months, describing the human rights situation there as extremely serious. In May, the European Union considered whether to impose economic sanctions against Zimbabwe in the light of the government’s human rights record and the deterioration in the rule of law.
Several European countries have already frozen all or parts of their cooperation with Zimbabwe. The Scandinavian countries — Sweden, Denmark and Norway — previously principal donors and partners, have frozen all cooperation. If the European Union in June finds that “progress has been insufficient”, pressure is expected to be hard to impose sanctions.
In 1998, the European Union imposed sanctions to punish Yugoslavia for its crackdown on the Albanian majority in Kosovo. The EU sanctions had been imposed separately to embargoes brought in by the US and the International Monetary Fund, and to a UN arms embargo. In February 2000, the European Union froze bilateral relations with Austria when the far right populist democratically elected Freedom Party, under the leadership of Joerg Haider, was included in Austria’s coalition government. Haider subsequently stood down as leader of the party and after seven months, the EU lifted the sanctions.
However, as far as Israel is concerned, the European Union is extremely reluctant to criticise the lack of respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. The European Union failed to take similar steps to enforce Israel to respect universal human rights and abide by international law.
The European Union has urged Israel to suspend building new settlements and lift the blockade of Palestinian territories. However, the European Union has not taken action to enforce international law and protect the Association Agreement from any more violations. How can the European Union accept that 5,000 settlers in Gaza control 40 per cent of the land, while 1.2 million Palestinians, most of them refugees, are left to share the remaining 60 per cent? How can the European Union silently witness Israel’s settlement policy? Fifteen new settlements have been built since Ariel Sharon became Israel’s prime minister; at the same time, they remain inactive. How can the European Union accept that 1,600 Israeli soldiers keep 40,000 Palestinians locked up in Hebron in order to safeguard 400 settlers?
The terrible events that take place in the occupied Palestinian territories, involving the loss of lives of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children, raise important issues concerning the legal responsibility of the political and military leaders of Israel. Human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. This also applies to peace. Strict adherence, de facto and de jure, to international human rights law and international humanitarian law is the prerequisite for creating trust and strengthening security in the wider sense.
Article 7 of the Treaty of Amsterdam allows for sanctions in case of violations of human rights. Earlier, the European Union has imposed bilateral sanctions against several third countries, such as Austria and Serbia. Moreover, Israel has clearly and continuously violated the EU-Israel Association Agreement, in particular Article 2 that made human rights an essential part of the union’s agreement with Israel. The European Union must therefore suspend its Association Agreement with Israel as long as Israel continues to violate international humanitarian law and universal human rights.
A combination of several measures taken by the international community against South Africa has been one of the factors which has led to the end of apartheid. When they impose sanctions against Israel, the European Union will send a clear signal that Europe is not merely an economic union but also a union of shared values. It must now avoid that that message be lost in the quagmire that is Europe’s silence towards Israel.
If the European Union respects its own values and human rights are indeed core values vital to the European Union, it must act and start showing its commitment to human rights. If this is not done quickly, the situation will further degenerate into a politically and morally counterproductive show. All of Europe will be the loser.