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Why Canada's vote for Palestinian self-determination matters

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Image: scottgunn/Flickr

On May 5, 1949, Israel's representative asked the United Nations to admit Israel as a member state. He argued that Israel's admission would allow it to negotiate peace with its Arab neighbours on an equal playing field. Israel was subsequently admitted, and Canada proved a staunch supporter of Israel's statehood.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to violate Palestinian rights. Illegal settlements swallow up Palestinian lands. Israeli military campaigns produce high Palestinian casualties. During a 2008 assault, for example, Israel dropped white phosphorus on Gaza. In addition to damaging property, white phosphorus burnt flesh, poisoned organs and caused cruel injuries and death.

But, little concrete global action has been taken to ensure that Israel lives up to its international commitments. By contrast, Palestinians have been called to account. States have imposed sanctions against Hamas, adding hardships on Gaza's population.

Against this context, Palestinians continue to demand the end of Israel's military occupation and recognition of Palestinian statehood. To date, 139 of 193 states of the United Nations have recognized the State of Palestine. Canada has not.

Instead, Canada tells Palestinians to negotiate their statehood with Israel. Former UN legal advisor Ardi Imseis points out that Canada's position on peace negotiations violates international law. It is also untenable given Israel's continued conduct.

Canada has also actively undermined Palestinian statehood. For example, Canada -- along with the U.S., Israel and six smaller states -- voted against making Palestine a non-member observer state of the United Nations in 2012. Then-foreign affairs minister John Baird made a special trip to the United Nations to speak against Palestine. Even the United States chose not to speak.

More recently, Canada submitted a letter objecting that the International Criminal Court had no jurisdiction to investigate Israeli war crimes.

Since Stephen Harper's Conservatives, Canada has consistently voted against United Nations resolutions concerning Palestinian rights. Trudeau's Liberals have largely continued this trend.

Last year, however, Canada voted in favour of the UN resolution which "reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right to their independent State of Palestine." This was a significant shift.

This week, the resolution concerning Palestinian self-determination was once again before the United Nations. As Palestinians despair that they have been abandoned by the world, this year's vote proved particularly significant.

For the second year in a row, Canada voted in support of the resolution on Palestinian self-determination. It is important to note that the UN resolution does not create the Palestinian right to either self-determination or statehood. It simply affirms it.

At the same time, Canada voted against several other resolutions supporting Palestinian human rights. Why do these UN resolutions matter?

They matter because they send a message about the global order: force and illegalities cannot produce political and territorial gains. They serve as a reminder that all hope is not lost.

The future might look different than the dismal past. They signal to all people living in colonial conditions that their status as equal members of the human family, as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is not forgotten.

By voting in favour of such resolutions, Canada also helps itself.

Canada defines itself on the international stage as a country committed to a world in which "no one is left behind."

Canada's vote in favour of UN resolutions concerning Palestinian human rights reaffirms that the rule of law, justice and human dignity are not hollow concepts that get trotted out when convenient. 

The rule of law and justice, as minister Chrystia Freeland has stated on many occasions, is not a "smorgasbord" from which one can pick and choose. The same applies to Palestinian human rights.

Reem Bahdi is an associate professor in the faculty of law at the University of Windsor. Her research includes access to justice, human rights, and national security in Canada and Palestine. She is a member of the Royal Society of Canada's College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists and recipient of the 2017 Guthrie Award from the Law Foundation of Ontario.

Image: scottgunn/Flickr

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