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Palestinian Human Rights Defenders need protection: what can we do?

On 19 October 2021, the government of Israel issued a military order that designated six, renowned and award-winning Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organisations”. The reason for this military order, and the evidence for making such designations, have not been disclosed. This is the latest of Israel’s longstanding efforts to undermine the work of these organisations. It also seems clear that this action is intended to intimidate donors and supporters of these organisations.

The Palestinian human rights organisations under threat

The six organisations affected by Israel’s military order are: Addameer, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defence for Children International-Palestine, Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and Union of Palestinian Women Committees. The work of these six organisations is both crucial to a future peace in Israel and Palestine, and has been invaluable for the work of United Nations human rights treaty bodies, as well as Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry, and for the International Criminal Court that is currently investigating international crimes in Palestine. Declaring the work of these organisations as “terrorist” not only undermines efforts at peace, but also places individuals who work for them in a potentially very dangerous situation, and potentially creates dilemmas for states, individuals, and organisations who have supported them (financially or otherwise) regarding the continuity of that support. This combination of (possible) effects forms an existential threat to the work of the six organisations, which no doubt is intended by the government of Israel.

Addameer was founded in 1992 and advocates for Palestinian political prisoners who suffer long-term arbitrary detention, without charge or trial. Al-Haq, founded in 1979, is the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists-Geneva, and has issued dozens of meticulously documented reports on the countless human rights violations that Palestinians experience daily. These violations include denials of the right to housing and freedom of movement, lack of protection against settler violence, and a long list of international crimes, most of which are connected to Israel’s regime of apartheid, itself a crime against humanity. The Bisan Center for Research and Development, in operation since the late 1980’s, focuses on the most marginalised communities in Palestine, including women, youth, and workers in the most rural and deprived areas, and advocates for their development needs. Defence for Children International-Palestine has, since 1991, documented serious human rights violations directed against children, including inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment, arbitrary detention, torture, and unlawful killings. The organisation also provides legal assistance and representation to these children in Israeli military tribunals.

The Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) is one of the oldest Palestinian NGOs that advocates for Palestinian farmers’ rights to sovereignty of their land and products. They have played a leading role in documenting settler violence against Palestinian farmers, work that is especially important now as Palestinians across the West Bank are facing massive settler violence when they try to harvest their olive crops. This is confirmed by reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which have documented that from August 2020 up until August 2021, settlers destroyed over 9000 Palestinian olive trees, in addition to increased levels of violence and harassment directed against Palestinian farmers. The Union of Palestinian Women Committees (UPWC), established in 1980, is the umbrella organisation for all Palestinian women’s groups in the Occupied Territories. Its staff have supported Palestinian women’s rights, equal opportunities for men and women, and equity between social classes. UPWC has been a major force in the women’s rights movement in Palestine, and plays an active role in the global movement for women’s rights, including in relation to attention for gender-based violence.

Global reaction to the designation

B’tselem was among the first Israeli organisations to condemn the Israeli government’s designation as a ‘draconian’ measure. In addition, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the designations as “an attack on human rights defenders, on freedoms of association, opinion and expression and on the right to public participation”, and called for the designations to be “immediately revoked”. International human rights NGOs Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also issued strong statements condemning the designations. They have been joined by international legal experts, including the celebrated South African law professor John Dugard, who also reflected on the similar treatment of human rights organisations by South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1980s.

On 3 November 2021, more than 30 Dutch organizations addressed the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Parliament; they called on the Netherlands to:

  • publicly speak out against and condemn Israel’s decision as an unjustified violation against civil society;
  • appeal to Israel to retract this military order with immediate effect;
  • continue its support to Palestinian partner organisations and ensure that Dutch banking and financial institutions disregard Israel’s order;
  • openly support the work of these affected organisations.

Above all, the Netherlands has been called upon to ensure support to civil society, and especially to human rights defenders who speak out in defence of the rights of Palestinians.

All of these demands by Israeli, international, and Dutch human rights organisations are fully in-line with the United Nations Declaration and the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders. Referring to these sources, the Dutch government has openly declared that it “supports human rights defenders, so that they can do their work effectively and safely”.

Valuable time, however, has been lost since 19 October. Even worse, in January 2022, the Dutch government announced that it was stopping its support to one of the six designated organisations (UAWC), even despite their admission that they lacked evidence of a link to terrorist activity.

Action is needed NOW

Respect for international law, and the UN and EU guidelines on human rights defenders, should compel the government of the Netherlands to reverse its decision to defund UACW, and to urge the European Union to join United Nations experts, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, and others, in irrefutably condemning Israel’s designations.

So, what can we do now?

Both financial and diplomatic support are crucially needed during this time when Palestinian civil society is under great pressure from Israel’s military and apartheid regime. This is why we produced a letter for individual sign-on, to protest the Dutch government’s decision, and why we will be organising a webinar on 27 January 2022 to discuss this further. For more information, please register here, or alternatively contact our network.


An earlier version of this article, which we provide key updates to above, was published in the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Jeff Handmaker is Associate Professor in Legal Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Christian Henderson is Assistant Professor of International Relations of the Middle East at Leiden University. Both are supporters of Dutch Scholars for Palestine.

Marthe Heringa is a student at Leiden University and an organiser of Students for Palestine.

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From ‘merchants and ministers’ to ‘neutral brokers’: how the Dutch do water diplomacy

From ‘merchants and ministers’ to ‘neutral brokers’: how the Dutch do water diplomacy

The Netherlands has been a leading participant in water diplomacy efforts due to a self-proclaimed water management expertise. An extensive discourse analysis of an advisory report finds that the Netherlands ...

Human Trafficking | How anti-trafficking governance is getting it wrong: consequences of the differential treatment of migrant worker groups in the Netherlands

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In many countries, including the Netherlands, being an immigrant – or being perceived as one – is a key mechanism used to normalise job precarity and poorly paid work. From ...

Human Trafficking | Overregulated, but unprotected? Human trafficking governance is not protecting sex workers in the Netherlands

Furthering the discussion on the negative consequences for sex workers[1] of the regulatory conflation of sex work and human trafficking, this post reflects on how regulation focused on identifying cases of human trafficking in the Dutch sex industry has failed to protect sex workers, whose primary concerns remain an unsafe working environment and a lack of job security. Government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions – what is needed is increased dialogue for evidence-based policy-making that ensures that immediate needs of sex workers are met without further ado.

Photo: Gio Mikava (Unsplash)

“I don’t want security – I want that window to be changed. It’s unsanitary, it’s dirty,” says Vanessa[2], a transgender sex worker from Ecuador who has been working in the sex industry for 30 years, when I ask her what would make her feel safer at work. After reflecting a bit about what safety means and how we understand it, we start to talk about working conditions. What ‘good conditions’ means in the practice of sex work does not seem to be a priority for the authorities in charge of supervising this industry in the Netherlands, Vanessa and other sex workers tell me. Their objective is mainly to identify cases of human trafficking and illegal forms of sex work.

According to the sex workers I interviewed and observations in both window-based sectors in The Hague that I carried out for my master’s thesis, the working conditions vary from place to place. One afternoon, in the internal windows of one of the Doubletstraat passages, I could feel the dense, heavy, and hot air that many sex workers live with during the summer, as well as the dust that accumulates. Martha, who has been in the industry for 10 years, says: “Of course, there is no air here, here you are like a fish out of water”. For others, bad working conditions are also related to:

  • The lack of access to a clean bathroom with a shower;
  • The lack of access to clean changes of bedding;
  • The lack of a clean and sanitary work environment;
  • The lack of separate spaces for eating and resting;
  • High rental amounts;
  • The precarity of the business;
  • The possibility of being left without a workplace, as the number of licenses issued for sex work are still decreasing; and
  • The (im)possibility of working from home in cities where home-based sex work is illegal.

From bad to worse…

Sex workers’ insecurities were exacerbated by COVID-19-related government measures, which due to the extended lockdown and limitation of face-to-face contact left a big group of sex workers, especially immigrants, without work for longer periods than any other worker, and without financial help. Yet resisting the difficult working conditions is not straightforward. The fear of the consequences of their airing grievances is preventing sex workers from doing so. Vanessa tells me: “I have talked to the others about it, but they tell me not to mess with it because I am going to have problems”. Like her, several sex workers tell me that they would not be taken seriously if they complained about their working conditions, or that they could be retaliated against by the operators, who would no longer rent the site to a ‘troublemaker’. A member of the support organisation Spot 46 says that sex workers can go to the municipality to complain, but nobody really hears them.[3] Thus, the path to changing their precarious working conditions is unclear to window-based sex workers in The Hague.

Focused on legality, not on working conditions

“If you have your papers in order, there is no problem” – Martha (name changed)

Matters of legality seem to take precedence over the wellbeing of sex workers. When I talked to the sex workers I interviewed for my study, inevitably, the discussion turned to the controls and supervision of this industry that are carried out by municipalities. In The Hague, a team called HEIT (The Hague Economic Intervention Team), made up of members of the police and the municipality, oversees the sex industry. Interestingly, this team only focuses on identifying cases of human trafficking and eradicating criminality (City Council 2019:10). When I asked about their perception of government supervision, the first response of all sex workers was that the government was worried about ensuring their legality through document control: by checking their immigration status, work permit, and registration at the Chamber of Commerce. In addition, municipal health service GGD also monitors the industry, but its focus is on public health and therefore is directed at the sexual practices of sex workers, who are considered a risk group (City Council 2019: 10).

Overregulated, but unprotected

From sex workers’ experiences with the controls and from what is stipulated in public policy, it can be argued that government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions. Although there are specific and very strict regulations for sex workers, and although multiple institutions are involved in their enforcement, sex workers’ own concerns, and hence their protection as workers, are not a priority. Experiences on the ground reveal that what sex workers need is not more repressive surveillance that frames them as powerless victims of trafficking, but regulation that takes their demands for decent working conditions seriously.


References

[1] See: Heumann et al. (2017); Heumann et al. (2016); Hubbard et al. (2008); Outshoorn (2012); Pitcher and Wijers (2014) Verhoeven (2017).

City Council (2019) ‘Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening Voor De Gemeente Den Haag (APV) [General Local Regulation for the Municipality of the Hague]’. Local Regulation – Public order and safety, Municipality of The Hague.

Heumann, S., Coumans, SV., Shiboleth, T., Ridder-Wiskerke, M. (2017) ‘The Netherlands: Analysing Shifts and Continuities in the Governing of Sexual Labour’, in Ward, E., Wylie, G. (ed.) Feminism, Prostitution and the State, pp. 46-65. New York: Routledge Studies in Gender and Global Politics.

[2] Pseudonyms were used to protect sex workers’ identities.

[3] Interview, member of Spot 46, 2019.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author

María Inés Cubides Kovacsics is Professional in Development Studies with an ISS major in human rights, gender, and conflict studies. I have a particular interest in gender and sexuality, labour rights, sex workers’ rights, youth, security, and restorative justice. I have worked for identifying and fighting discrimination, exclusion and rights violations suffered by historically marginalized people and communities, alongside LGBTQ communities, imprisoned transgender women, homeless people, sex workers, drug users, street vendors, teenagers and young people with deprivation of liberty sanction.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.