Canadian Law Professors Are Speaking Out in Support of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders

Last year, Israel designated several Palestinian humanitarian organizations as terrorist groups. In an open letter, 60 Canadian law professors urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make good on his professed commitment to human rights. He has yet to respond.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh holds a press conference after Israeli forces raided and shut down seven Palestinian NGOs in Ramallah, West Bank, August 18, 2022. (Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On August 18, 2022, the Israeli military raided the offices of seven Palestinian human rights and humanitarian organizations in Ramallah. The groups reported that troops busted down doors without warning and seized property.

This latest move follows Israel’s decision, in October 2021, to designate six of the seven groups as fronts for terrorism. No credible evidence for the charge has ever been produced. An independent investigation found no basis for concern. European donors have continued to fund the organizations’ important work.

Yet remarkably, Israel has suffered no diplomatic, legal, or other consequences for its brazen lie. The failure of allies to call out the Israeli government and press for a reversal gave it a green light to take its repression to the next level.

The office raids will likely be followed by increasingly violent and menacing action. With no defense and meek international support, a veteran human rights community now faces the likelihood of obliteration as the world stands by watching, doing nothing.

On November 4, 2021, a group of Canadian law professors sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Attorney General David Lametti, and Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly, urging them to take action to protect the targeted Palestinian human rights organizations. We asked the leaders to leverage Canada’s relationship with Israel and its professed commitment to democratic values to defend the work of the listed organizations. We pointed out that the human rights fact-finding, advocacy, and legal-aid work they do is rooted in the same values and commitments that Prime Minister Trudeau’s caucus claims to champion.

Sixty full-time law professors from across the country signed the letter to the government leaders. Up until recently, no political leader had been willing to hold the Canadian government to account for its betrayal of Palestinian human rights defenders. Then, on August 26, 2022, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Jagmeet Singh, laid out the party’s position on Israel in an email: “We believe Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories is at the centre of the challenges facing the Palestinian and Israeli people.”

Singh listed thirteen demands of Trudeau’s minority Liberal government, which is currently being supported by the NDP. The demands include denouncing Israeli violations, defending Palestinian human rights, and a call to “condemn the Israeli government’s attacks on civil society in Israel and Palestine, including the recent designation of six Palestinian human rights groups as ‘terrorist.’”

The government has thus far given no indication that it intends to shift its current policy of inaction. As Israel widens its assault on the Palestinian human rights sector, the message of the law professors’ letter to government leaders is more important than ever. It is reproduced, in part, below. Ten months later, we are still awaiting a response.

November 4, 2021

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister Lametti and Minister Joly:

We are Canadian law professors. We have come together to urge you and your government to take immediate action to defend the work of Palestinian human rights organizations from unfair suppression by Canada’s close ally, Israel.

On October 19, 2021, the Israeli Defense Ministry issued an order labelling six respected Palestinian non-governmental human rights organizations as “terrorist organizations” and ordering the closure of their offices. The order allows the Israeli military to close the offices of Al-Haq, Addameer, Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCI-P), the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Union of Palestinian Women Committees, and the Bisan Center for Research and Development. These prominent organizations — some of which have been in existence for decades — have won international awards for their work defending human rights. Human rights organizations around the world have learned from and aspire to attain the skill, experience, knowledge, and dedication that the staff and leadership of these human rights organizations have displayed in the face of systematic human rights violations under prolonged Israeli occupation.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and parliamentarians and experts around the world have called on Israel to reverse course. Two dozen of Israel’s leading human rights organizations, including B’Tselem, Peace Now, Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) have denounced the decision as a “draconian measure that criminalizes critical human rights work.” These Israeli groups accuse their own government of engaging in “an act of cowardice, characteristic of repressive authoritarian regimes.”

Western University Law Professor Michael Lynk, who serves as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, addressed the UN General Assembly on October 25, 2021. He asked members to encourage Israel to review its decision. He described the banned groups as “widely respected for their stellar work in documenting the human rights violations associated with the Israeli occupation, and for providing voice for those vulnerable Palestinians who have none. They are exemplars of what the international human rights movement stands for.”

Currently, members of the US Congress are deliberating a bill, Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, spearheaded by Congresswoman Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn). McCollum has worked closely with DCI-P, one of the banned groups, in putting together the proposed legislation. Congresswoman McCollum has pleaded with the Biden administration to urge “the Israeli government to reverse the decision and restore these organizations’ ability to continue their important work.”

Until now, Palestinian human rights advocates have persevered notwithstanding the challenges they face caused by the ongoing illegal Israeli occupation. This is possible because they have the support of international partners and funders, who recognize the critical importance of their advocacy on behalf of civilians suffering under Israel’s protracted and ongoing military occupation. The human rights groups have documented human rights violations committed by both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli security forces; they have litigated on behalf of Palestinians detained indefinitely without trial; and have sought to protect the rights of women and children. Without the work of these groups in the OPT, ordinary Palestinians will be left without skilled, experienced legal advocates to defend them — and the world will be deprived of critical information about the human rights situation throughout the region.

Israel is a state that claims to be a liberal democracy much like Canada. In affirming Canada’s close allyship with Israel, the Prime Minster has lauded our “shared democratic values.” Now is the time for Canada to leverage its relationship and commitment to democratic values to defend the work that the listed human rights organizations do to uphold the rule of law, including fact-finding, advocacy, and legal aid.

We urge the government of Canada to immediately demand that Israel rescind the October 19 order, and restore the ability of Al-Haq, Addameer, DCI-P, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, and the Bisan Center for Research and Development to carry out their work. We also call upon the government of Canada to ensure that the donor community is able to maintain its support for these organizations in order to allow them to continue their vital work.