With President Abbas
For those who doubt the imperative of dialogue in advancing negotiations the two historic international decisions in respect of Cuba and Palestine just before Christmas are clear evidence of its importance.
At the beginning of December I met President Abbas of the Palestinian government in Ramallah. He and others in the Palestinian leadership explained the importance of their strategy to achieve international recognition of Palestinian statehood and its potential to stimulate renewed momentum into the stalled peace process in that region.
Some of their key negotiators and senior Ambassadors have been travelling in recent months to European capitals and lobbying European political parties and Parliaments to pass motions of support and solidarity in favour of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinian focus has been on securing two key votes. The first was in the European Parliament – which they achieved on December 17th.
The second was in the United Nations security council. Jordan brought forward a motion to the United Nations on behalf of the Palestinians which would set a one year timeline for concluding peace negotiations, and a late 2017 deadline for an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands.
The Jordanian draft sought a resolution based on the 1967 borders and "Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two States which fulfils the legitimate aspirations of both parties and protects freedom of worship."
The draft also "calls upon both parties to abstain from any unilateral and illegal actions, including settlement activities that could undermine the viability of a two-state solution."
The vote on this took place at the end of December. Although the Palestinian motion was backed by a majority of eight in the 15 strong Council it did not secure the necessary ninth vote for it to pass. Speaking later President Abbas said: “We didn't fail, the UN Security Council failed us. We will go again to the Security Council, why not? Perhaps after a week ...We are studying it, and we will study this with our allies and especially Jordan ... to submit the resolution again, a third time or even a fourth time."
At the same time President Abbas signed onto 20 international conventions, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which gives the court jurisdiction over crimes committed on Palestinian lands. It opens up the potential for Israel to be held accountable for war crimes against the Palestinian people.
Israel retaliated within days by withholding taxes from the Palestinian Authority that it collects on its behalf.
As part of Sinn Féin’s contribution to the Palestinian strategy we introduced a motion into the Dáil before Christmas which was passed unopposed.
This vote and the unprecedented motion passed at the European Parliament wasn’t the only success for the Palestinians. At their request, and on the same day as the EU Parliament vote, 126 of the signatories to the Geneva conventions met in Switzerland for a one day conference. Israel had sought to have the conference cancelled.
These conventions are supposed to govern the rules of war and military occupation. A declaration adopted by consensus among the participating nations concluded that “all serious violations of international humanitarian law must be investigated and that all those responsible should be brought to justice.”
The Israeli government rejected the conclusion arguing that it doesn’t apply to the West Bank and Gaza. It claims that Jordan and Egypt no longer claim sovereignty over the occupied territories and, according to the Israeli government, as the Palestinians don’t have a state the declaration can’t apply to it.
This highlights the importance of the need for a Palestinian state and for Palestinian sovereignty to be recognised and it should be remembered that the UN General Assembly upgraded Palestine to a “non-member observer state” of the United Nations in 2012.
The Geneva Declaration also makes clear that Israel should “fully and effectively” respect the Fourth Geneva Convention. This is intended to protect civilians during times of war including in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem.
So clearly there is a lot of dialogue going on – much of it driven by the Palestinian leadership – to secure progress toward full recognition of the Palestinian state. The UN security council vote shows how much work still has to be done. The Palestinian people need our continuing support and solidarity in their endeavours.
Dialogue too was the driver for progress in improving relations between the United States and Cuba.
On the same day as the Palestinian vote in the European Parliament the United States and Cuba unexpectedly announced that they are commencing a new relationship between the two countries after more than 50 years of hostility. This included the release of prisoners by both governments.
President Obama and President Raul Castro, and all of those who have worked to achieve this historic agreement, are to be congratulated.
Sinn Féin played a small part in this rapprochement between the two nations.
In September two years ago Roelf Meyer, who was the senior negotiator for the Apartheid South African government in the negotiations with the African National Congress, organised a conference in Miami. The conference brought together leading conservative Cuban American citizens to discuss the need for reconciliation and dialogue between Washington and the Cuban government. Others included senior figures in the Catholic Church.
Among those who participated in the conference was Sinn Féin’s senior negotiator Pat Doherty MP who stressed the importance of dialogue and the need for a dialogue between the two governments.
I visited Cuba in 2001. On that occasion President Fidel Castro, and senior government representatives, discussed issues of human rights, civil and religious liberties, democratic values, social justice, equality and other matters of concern to people wherever they live. It was also very obvious that the Cuban government was closely watching developments in Washington.
To mark 20 years since the 1981 hunger strike the Sinn Féin delegation also led wreaths at the memorial in Havana to the ten Republican hunger strikers. The memorial event was a full state occasion, with full honours being accorded to the memory of Bobby Sands and his comrades. Whatever one thinks about Cuba, it is true that people there, like people worldwide, were moved and remember the sacrifice of the Irish republican prisoners.
The people of Ireland have a long record of solidarity with Cuba. Despite the enormous problems faced by the Cuban people over the last five decades, Cuba has remained steadfast to the goals of eradicating poverty, ending privilege and corruption and of promoting social justice.
As evidence of this commitment Cuban doctors and teachers have travelled widely to help those in need around the world. This is a great act of generosity that deserves our thanks and our praise
We also visited medical centres and saw for ourselves the amazing work Cuban doctors do around the world. But it was also very obvious that the United States embargo has caused long term difficulties for the Cuban economy and people.
I hope the new and more positive relationship between both countries can lead to the speedy lifting of the blockade.