"An Honour for All Human Rights Activists"
How did you receive the news that the city of Weimar had awarded you the human rights prize, and what does it mean to you?
Issan YounisThat the Weimar Awards Committee selected me certainly gives me a good feeling. The award is of great importance. It honours everyone who defends human rights – not just one person. It also conveys the important message that human rights activists in the Palestinian Territories are not alone and that there are people who share their concerns despite the complicated situation.
How would you describe the present humanitarian situation in Gaza?
Younis: It is catastrophic in every respect. We are talking here about a blockade such as there has not been since 1967 and which affects every sphere of life for the inhabitants. The people are unable to move about freely, and goods are not allowed in. There are no more supplies, not electricity or drinking water. The sewage system is also gravely endangered, thus posing a danger for the sea water and the Gaza Strip.
Subjecting one-and-a-half million people to an extreme blockade is a collective punishment. The Secretary General of the United Nations has called for lifting the blockade due to the catastrophic effects on Palestinian civilians. Eighty percent of families in Gaza are directly dependent on humanitarian aid which is no longer arriving. If this remains the case, the worst-case scenario will happen.
What difficulties do you have to overcome in observing the human rights situation in the Gaza Strip?
Younis: We are working in a complicated environment. Normally human rights organisations deal with a government's disregard of civil rights. In our case, however, there is first and foremost an occupation that bears the primary responsibility for the human rights situation, and additionally two Palestinian governments, one in Gaza and one in Ramallah, which also bear responsibility for the human rights situation. In this respect the situation in the Gaza Strip is unique and has implications for the work of human rights organisations, their roles and their ability to work.
Another major challenge is the extent of human rights violations. We must always act very swiftly and consistently in a rapidly changing environment. Moreover, this environment, with regard to the current political complications, is full of dangers.
What chance does the peace process have with Palestinians and Israelis in view of the complicated political situation?
Younis: I do not think the peace process will be successful until it is based on international law, human rights, and the end of the occupation. We have always warned that the peace process is condemned to failure without this base. Today we see violence everywhere and no security.
The peace process must have a broader design and be based on an historical reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. In addition, the Palestinian people must secure their rights – and both people must live in secure and recognised borders.
How do you see the future of Europe in the Middle East in view of Barack Obama's presidency?
Younis: Europe's role must be reassessed. Europe has played an important role in the peace process but has been somewhat content with the role of financial backer without exerting political pressure, especially on Israel.
The EU must take the initiative and bind financing with political measures. Nobody can claim that they do not know what is going on in the occupied Palestinian Territories. Europe must rehabilitate itself with a more effective and engaged role in the Middle East to end the conflict and enable the historical reconciliation of both nations.
Interview: Sagi Rotvogel
© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008
Issam Younis worked from 1995 to 2000 as coordinator for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. He is the co-founder and director of the human rights organisation Al Mezan. Issam Younis has been the director and the driving force behind the organisation since it was founded in 1999. Al Mezan documents human rights violations in all the parties involved in the conflict and offers victims relief and support.
The human rights prize of the city of Weimar was bestowed on Issam Younis on December 10, 2008, at the recommendation of the German Human Rights Commissioner Günter Nooke.
Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce