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Hands-On Human Rights Education

Palestine Taught Me What I Could Not Learn in Western Academia

By Silvia Arancia

Rules, just as is the case with history, are written by the powerful, the winners, and the privileged. In our world, the same applies to international law, including matters such as human rights. As a European who is passionate about justice, I have studied international law, with a focus on human rights and humanitarian law, at renowned European universities in the Netherlands and France. But after a two-week summer school course organized by Al-Haq in Palestine, I feel that I walked away with more insights and knowledge about these subjects than what I was taught in five years of higher education. To learn about human rights violations in a place where human rights are actually violated, and not at the source of their perpetration, is preciously irreplaceable.

One of the first things that struck me was how all people in Palestine are aware of their rights. Every Palestinian can define the right to freedom of expression, knows the content of Article 49 of the IV Geneva Convention, and can explain what the crime of apartheid entails. On top of this, they can illustrate, in practice, through their personal stories and by pointing at their surroundings, how rights should be enjoyed, how to defend these rights, and how to identify violations. Having learnt about these matters in Western academia, the theoretical knowledge that I gained does not compare to having witnessed a war crime or a crime against humanity. Experiences in the West differ significantly from such encounters, as education in international law suffers from an inherent detachment between theory and practice. Violations of rights are presented as abstract matters, which leads to the belief that they do not directly concern us but rather exist in a distant, in fact parallel reality, beyond the fine line between the inhuman atrocities and the surreal world.

We are taught that peaceful negotiations are always the best, preferred, and fairer solution, but we are barely introduced to the winner-loser paradigm genetic to any conflict, dispute, or oppressive system. This approach inevitably accepts that the rights of certain parties are diminished at the cost of compromise – which ultimately demeans the negotiations’ mission and purpose. Seeing what the Oslo Accords did to Palestine, narrated in the West as the only – albeit lost – opportunity to fix the situation in favor of all the parties involved, made me rethink all of this.

Indeed, understanding the situation in Palestine as that of conflict completely misses the root causes of the problem, namely colonialism, and the asymmetry of power and responsibility that exists between Palestinians and Israelis. Therefore, decolonization rather than negotiations should be the proposed solution. Finding my roots in a country that formerly pursued imperial ambitions, where colonialism and imperialism are presented as mistakes of the past that Western countries vouched to never replicate because of their deep commitments to human rights, I actually “touched” colonialism in Palestine – only to realize that my life is the winning product of it. It was a strange feeling to see right there, in front of my eyes, matters that I had been promised were banished from our time: products of history but not of our contemporary world, from apartheid to colonialism. I falsely was told that they had come to an end in the struggle for humanity. It showed me another important misconception in the human rights education that I received: the legal frameworks of apartheid, occupation, and colonialism are introduced to us as mutually exclusive, existing independently of each other. In reality, however, this is not the case. In Palestine, I learned how these frameworks are actually complementary. With settler-colonialism being the chosen imperialist system to be imposed over Palestine and its people, apartheid is a symptom of this Western-affiliated colonial project. When colonizers want to settle in a foreign land that does not belong to them and exploit its resources, racial segregation will almost naturally emerge as the means necessary to uphold the white alien minority’s privileges and entitlements. In all of this, occupation is a continuation of settler-colonialism, a key tool in efforts to maintain the domination over Palestine and Palestinians.

A “service” that Palestine offers to students and scholars of human rights is the opportunity to witness through hands-on experience the violation of a wide range of human rights and other violations of international law.

My stay in Palestine also served as a reminder of the right to armed resistance under international law, a right to which people undergoing colonial struggles and under alien domination are specifically entitled. In the West, this notion is barely mentioned; instead, we are presented with a narrative that is centered on allegations of terrorism for resisting the occupation. Seeing how poorly the international community has fared in protecting Palestinian rights and punishing perpetrators, the question arises: without popular resistance, what would Palestine be today? As a last resort in the struggle of defending the inalienable rights of Palestinians, popular resistance has served to keep the cause alive until today – in the continued reality of oppression. But even in a world where international justice institutions are merely an instrument of the powerful states to advance their interests, such a system could not take away from the people their legal entitlement to resistance.

A reminder by the Israeli army that this is an occupied territory. Sabastyia, Palestine.

To be armed with a greater knowledge regarding the rights we should be able to enjoy also means that we are better able to counteract violations and more equipped to fight for their enjoyment. The more you know laws and their implications, the better you understand the obligations and protections they entail. I learned from my experience that these insights can only be given by victims of human rights violations, as they know both the content of a right as well as what it means to have such right denied.

Unfortunately, in the West, most of the teaching comes from sources who tend to belong to the group of perpetrators of such violations. I have always found it ironic, and now the contradiction feels very irritating, that the “most expert scholar” in international humanitarian law, particularly regarding the law of occupation, presented to us is Yoram Dinstein, who is an integral part of the oppressive regime subjugating Palestinians and a perpetrator of systemic breaches of humanitarian law.* The commitment of a violation should rather indicate that a person’s knowledge of their own obligations is neither very extensive nor effective. Rather, voice should be given to those human rights defenders who have experienced all aspects of human rights, from their denial to the quest for justice. I assert this because the quality of education regarding human rights that I received in Palestine is incomparable in value to what I have gained throughout my Western, perpetrator-influenced education.

The interconnectedness of the Palestinian struggle that is a feminist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, anti-oppression, anti-imperial, and anti-racist struggle, makes Palestine a unique place to be educated on human rights. Upon being presented the perspective of a people that is suffering violations of international law and having witnessed some of these violations, I unlearned and re-learned these legal concepts through the teachings, stories, and experiences of Palestinians, the endless array of victims of human rights violations.

I will advocate for this cause: that voices be given to the oppressed, the victims and real experts, and that everyone in the West could have the same educational experience as I had in Palestine. Then, perhaps, human rights would be given their due respect.

  • Silvia Arancia holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in public international law. Her focus is on international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and the intersection of international politics and law.

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