New Zealand accused of ignoring human rights violations in Israel

By staff writers
June 3, 2009

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has told peace campaigner Harmeet Sooden - a former kidnap victim in Iraq - that it will not act on his official complaint regarding his mistreatment by the Israeli authorities.

When he attempted to enter Israel as a human rights volunteer on 14 June 2008, Mr Sooden was assaulted and injured, threatened, held in solitary confinement, denied the right to legal counsel and consular representation and was unlawfully deported four days later.

Israeli authorities told Mr Sooden that he was being deported because he constituted “a threat to the security of the State of Israel”.

He was working for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) at the time.

Harmeet Sooden came to public prominence when he and three others were kidnapped in Iraq on 26 November 2005 while participating in an international Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation. One member of the group, US citizen Tom Fox, was murdered on 9 March 2006.

Mr Sooden and the remaining hostages, Canadian James Loney and Briton Norman Kember, were freed two weeks later.

He points out that his treatment by the New Zealand government in relation to the latest incident in Israel is in stark contrast to its attitude when he was captured in Iraq.

In a recent letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) told Mr Sooden, “You have advised that you were travelling on your Canadian passport at this time. In this case, New Zealand would not have expected to be notified of your detention because you did not seek to enter Israel on your New Zealand passport”.

Mr Sooden says he is astonished by this statement. “I am a New Zealand citizen,” he said today, “and I would expect the New Zealand Government to act to protect its citizens overseas. MFAT is failing to consider evidence that I was denied the right to request consular assistance from New Zealand.”

Sooden and his supporters believe the response raises serious questions for New Zealanders with dual citizenship who travel abroad on a passport of their other nationality (many New Zealanders hold British passports).

“Should they, too, expect no assistance from NZ in dire emergencies?” asks the peace and human rights worker.

He adds: “MFAT’s decision not to pursue this matter with Israel implies that our Government thinks it’s OK for NZ citizens to be held incommunicado for four days overseas — a critical period during which serious harm could come to them.”

He says the New Zealand authorities have not taken his complaint seriously: “When I was kidnapped in Iraq, supposedly by an ‘official enemy’, the Government’s response was overwhelmingly compassionate. Now, under these circumstances does one stop being a Kiwi?”

Campaigners say MFAT’s response to Sooden’s complaint is consistent with the government’s failure to condemn Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza, its decision to withdraw from seeking election to the Human Rights Council in favour of the US and its boycott of the 2009 UN World Conference Against Racism.

“These decisions are not informed by a concern for human rights or the rights of human rights defenders, but rather accommodation to US foreign policy, particularly US policy towards Israel,” says Mr Sooden.

Monitors say that Mr Sooden’s deportation from Israel appears to be part of an ongoing policy to prevent human rights defenders from documenting and exposing Israel’s human rights violations in the occupied territories.

The International Solidarity Movement is a human rights organisation composed of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals who monitor the human rights situation and protect human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Several Palestinians affiliated with ISM have been killed or severely injured by the Israeli Defence Forces in the past year — a matter largely unreported in the West.

An ISM volunteer from the US, Tristan Anderson, remains in a coma after being shot in the head with a high-velocity tear-gas projectile by the Israel Border Police on 18 March 2009.

“The fact that I was seeking redress not only as a representative of ISM but also on its behalf appears to have made no difference,” says Mr Sooden.

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