The UK pays disproportionate attention to Palestinian child prisoners

How strange that the UK only notices the juvenile offenders from the West Bank
Illustrative: 14-year old Palestinian teenager Moawiyah Alkam seen at the District Court in Jerusalem on November 19, 2015. He was charged with attempted murder for a stabbing attack on the light rail on November 10. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: 14-year old Palestinian teenager Moawiyah Alkam seen at the District Court in Jerusalem on November 19, 2015. He was charged with attempted murder for a stabbing attack on the light rail on November 10. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Today, Britain’s parliament will debate the issue of Palestinian child prisoners. There is always something disturbing and upsetting when juveniles end up in the criminal justice system — wherever it occurs in the world.

It is, however, the second time in two years that a debate on this topic has been secured.

This would not necessarily be a problem were it not for the fact that, during this period, the House of Commons has not seen fit to expend time debating the issue of juvenile offenders with specific reference to any other country in the world.

International law bars the application of the death penalty for crimes committed by those under the age of 18.

Sadly, however, a number of countries not only pass such sentences, they also execute juvenile offenders.

Since 2010, Egypt, Iran, the Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Yemen have all sentenced young people to death.

Iran has at least an estimated 80 juvenile offenders on death row (the UN claims the figure may be as high as 160), leading the world in executing minors. Girls as young as 9 can be sentenced to execution; for boys it’s 15. At least 87 young offenders were executed between 2005 and 2018.

Last year, Iran executed four people who were arrested as children, among them, Ali Reza Tajiki, who  was 15 when he was arrested on suspicion of murder and male rape, and 16 when he was convicted and sentenced to death. His conviction relied on a confession — which Tajiki subsequently retracted — attained after he was brutally tortured.

Already in 2018, Iran has carried out two more executions of juvenile offenders, including 22-year-old Ali Kazemi, who was hanged last week for a murder allegedly committed when he was 15. His execution was scheduled and carried out without any notice given to his lawyer, as required by Iranian law, or his family. Amnesty International called Iran’s action “nothing short of an all-out assault on children’s rights”.

There has, however, been no debate in the House of Commons in the last two years on the execution of juvenile offenders.

Obviously, it is right to expect that Israel — a liberal democracy that respects the rule of law and whose judiciary frequently steps in to protect the rights of citizens — should be held to a much higher standard than theocratic dictatorships such as Iran and absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia or Sudan, a state whose president has been accused by the International Criminal Court of committing war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

However, the House of Commons has shown scant interest either in the fate of the approximately 60,000 children locked up in the United States’ juvenile detention facilities. Among their number in 2010 were an estimated 6,000 juveniles imprisoned for offences such as truancy, underage drinking, and running away from home. In some US states, as in countries such as Peru and Mexico, children can find themselves in the criminal justice system for consensual sexual activities — especially if the “crime” was committed with someone of the same gender.

And, while casting its moral gaze around the world, the House of Commons has also not specifically debated Britain’s own record on arresting and locking up children over the past two years.

It might make an interesting topic for the Knesset to examine at some point. After all, adjusted for population, 5.5 times more minors were arrested in England and Wales in the year to March 2016 than in the West Bank by Israel.

There are a number of other issues the Israeli parliament might want to explore: why, for instance, England and Wales choose to criminalize children from the age of 10 (the age of criminal responsibility is 12 in Israel and the West Bank) or the allegations that British prisons are holding child inmates in solitary confinement in a potential breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There are, as Human Rights Watch reported in 2016, an estimated 1 million children in prison around the world.

Some will no doubt have committed serious crimes. Nearly three-quarters of the offences committed by minors in the West Bank, for instance, are for violent crimes, including murder, attempted murder, shooting and the illegal possession of weapons. Thus, of the 313 Palestinian minors currently in Israeli detention, 301 are being held for security offences.

However, it appears that — once again — Israel is being singled out for disproportionate criticism and scrutiny.

In this, the British parliament will not be unusual. The UN Human Rights Council — whose members include such bastions of human rights as China, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia — has only one country-specific issue that has a permanent place on its agenda: Israel. Since its establishment, it has adopted 135 country-specific resolutions; 68 of which are against Israel.

The UN General Assembly similarly has a fixation on Israel: in 2016, more than three-quarters of its condemnatory country-specific resolutions exclusively targeted Israel. While there were 20 resolutions on Israel, there were a mere three on Syria, and one each on Iran, North Korea, and Crimea.

There is nothing wrong or improper about criticizing the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Millions of Israelis do so every day. However, for most Israelis, the obsession with the world’s only Jewish state, which is all too prevalent in the media, political debate in Europe and international institutions such as the UN, has only one, simple explanation.

About the Author
Jennifer Gerber is director of Labour Friends of Israel. Previously she was a special adviser in government.
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