When the news story of the Abbott government’s pro-Israel switch in the UN appeared in the Fairfax media yesterday, it was already a fortnight behind the times.
The voting in the UN on the traditional November “Question of Palestine” resolutions had occurred a fortnight earlier. This voting is a yearly event that re-affirms the historic responsibility of the UN for Palestine. In February 1947, Britain relinquished its mandate power in Palestine given to it after World War I and handed the “problem of Palestine” (fighting between the Jewish Agency and Palestinians) to the UN.
Recently, Australia voted in favour of four of eight of these resolutions, as it has always done; assisting Palestinian refugees, supporting its agency UNWRA in it work in Palestine, supporting foreign aid to Palestine and encouraging the Middle East peace process.
But in the other four resolutions Australia reversed its prior stance.
It voted against (along with seven others) a resolution expressing grave concern at illegal Israeli practices and measures in occupied Palestine.
It abstained on a resolution (along with four others) asserting that the Geneva Conventions applied to Israel’s behaviour in the territory it has occupied since 1967.
It abstained on a resolution (along with seven others) demanding the immediate cessation of all Israeli settlement activities in occupied Palestine.
Finally, it voted against a resolution demanding that Israel cease the construction of the wall — condemned by the International Court of Justice — between the two countries and make reparation for the damage to the human rights of Palestinians. Seven others abstained on that, too.
During the period of the Rudd-Gillard governments, Labor voted in favour of the two key resolutions addressing recent concerns: Israeli settlement activity and the violation this entails to the Geneva Conventions signed after World War II. Labor voted in favour of the resolutions condemning the settlements as “an obstacle to peace” and the applicability of the Geneva Conventions to the Israeli actions.
By abstaining on these two resolutions, Australia put itself in a small minority: the vote condemning settlements was favoured by 158 to 6 against, the support for the Geneva Conventions was 160 to 8.
Abbott also ditched the Howard government’s record between 1996 and 2002 condemning settlements and supporting the Geneva Conventions.
Australians are yet to learn why and how it is in Australia’s interests to vote the way it has. The government has kept very quiet on this issue. There have been no press releases from Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop’s office, nor Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s, nor from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Abbott had the opportunity to inform Australians of his decision to switch sides on the Israel/Palestine dispute at his press conference at Parliament House on November 12, but failed to mention it. Neither he nor Bishop consulted the Labor opposition, nor did Abbott bring it up in the myriad of media appearances on radio and television since.
Bishop yesterday justified her decision with one line: this action “reflected the government’s concern that Middle East resolutions should be balanced”.
She is yet to explain how ditching the applicability of the Geneva Conventions — a key part of the architecture of internal law and practice — achieves balance in regional or global relations.
Labor, of course, has a long history with the role of the UN in Palestine. It was Chifley’s external affairs minister H.V. Evatt who headed the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947 which came up with the Partition Plan in November 1947. In May, 1948, after a civil war and 750,000 Palestinians becoming refugees, the two-state solution was born.
Politicians — and the people of Palestine — are still living with the consequences.
* Peter Manning is a former executive producer of ABC’s Four Corners, and former head of News and Current Affairs at the ABC and the Seven Network