Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Human Rights in Israel

Human Rights in Israel
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue.


The concept of human rights has become a well-known and widely accepted term to use. Varying interpretations are possible, with differences usually being based on cultural background. Nonetheless, most of these understandings consciously or subconsciously include the basic rights outlined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The United Nations General Assembly (GA) adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10th, 1948. It was written in the aftermath of World War II, “… as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind…” Thus it was truly meant to be universal, to protect citizens from any type of violation the world had recently experienced, as outlined in the Preamble and 30 Articles.

As such, it includes articles on the right to life in dignity; liberty and security; freedom of movement; right to nationality and education; just treatment of human beings and respect; as well as freedom of expressions and opinions, from torture or inhumane treatment, as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

International Human Rights Law

The Declaration is not legally binding, but is the basis of international human rights law. Two binding UN covenants were formed as a result of the UDHR; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Combined, these three documents are often referred to as the “International Bill of Human Rights”.

Over the years other conventions have been written to expand on and add to this fundament, focusing on a variety of topics such as refugees (1951 and 1967), discrimination of women (‘CEDAW’, 1979) and disabled persons (2008), against torture (1987), protection of migrant workers (1990), and against racial discrimination (1969) to name a few.

Additionally, the International Labour Organization has compiled a large number of conventions specifically related to work force and labour standards, of which 8 are considered ‘fundamental conventions’ and relate to freedom of association (1948, C087), collective bargaining (1949, C098), forced labour (1930, C029 and 1957, C105), minimum age (1973, C138), child labour (1999, C182), equal remuneration (1951, C100), equal opportunity and treatment (C111).

Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions are a revision of previously constructed conventions, adjusted after WWII and specifically focus on treatment of persons in time of war. It consists of four Conventions, and three additional protocols. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) explains that the Conventions “aims at ensuring that, even in the midst of hostilities, the dignity of the human person, universally acknowledged in principle, shall be respected.”

During a series of expert meetings, congregations by Red Cross agencies, and a confluence of government representatives over time, the articles were revised until a draft was represented at The Diplomatic Conference for the Establishment of International Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War in 1949. The Final Act was signed by fifty-nine nations, some of which no longer exist, and has attained more signatories since.

The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) was compiled by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1990, during the 19th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Cairo, and has 57 signatories. This Declaration holds similar – if not identical – principles as the UDHR, but notably also included articles related to ‘jus in bello’ – acceptable wartime conduct, alike the Geneva Conventions. The CDHRI also addresses equality between women and men, rights of the child, freedom, right to medical care, right to self-determination, amongst others. Most notably is that this 25 Article document clearly lists the Sharia as reference point including for punishment. The CDHRI has been adopted by 45 countries, out of the total 57 members of the OIC.

Conventions Signed By Israel

Israel signed the Geneva Conventions on 6 July 1951, and the Additional Protocol III (relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem, 2005) on 22 November 2007. Moreover, it became signatory to the Convention for the Rights of the Child (CRC) on 3 October 1991, and signed the Optional Protocol to the CRC on 18 July 2005. All 8 fundamental ILO conventions have been ratified by Israel.


The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is based off Article 14 of the UDHR, and recognizes the right of asylum and protection of refugees. It was approved during the General Assembly meeting of December 14, 1950 and came into force on April 22, 1954. However, the original Convention limited its scope to refugees fleeing prior to 1 January 1951. As such, an additional protocol was compiled in 1967, removing these limitations.

Israel signed the Convention and Protocol on 1 August 1951, and ratified it on 1 October 1954. As reservations Israel did state, however, that articles 8 (exemption from exceptional measures) and 12 (personal status) are not applicable to Israel. Additionally, pertaining to article 26 (freedom of movement), it states issuance and validity of passports or laissez-passer remains at the discretion of the relevant Minister. This is also the case regarding article 30 (transfer of assets).


The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – also called CEDAW, was approved during the General Assembly Session on 18 December, 1979 and entered into force on 3 September 1981. Israel signed the Convention on July 17, 1980 and ratified it on 3 October 1991. Countries that have ratified or acceded CEDAW are legally bound to put its provisions into practice, and thereby agree to submit national reports on measures taken to comply with its obligations. Such reports are to be compiled at least every four years.

It did voice reservations, however, namely against Article 7 (b), concerning appointment of women as judges of religious courts due do its contradiction with religious law – not specifying of which religion but presumably Judaism. The same reasoning was applied to reservation against Article 16, eliminating discrimination in marriage and family matters and child marriage. It does not consider itself bound by Article 29, discussing dispute between states concerning interpretation or application of the Convention. It is noteworthy that Article 29 (2) specifically allows for such a reservation.

Persons with Disabilities

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was approved during the General Assembly session on December 13, 2006 and came into force on May 3, 2008. Simultaneously, the Optional Protocol was approved, giving the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) competence to examine individual complaints with regard to alleged violations by States parties to the Protocol. The CRPD is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention.

Israel signed the Convention on March 30, 2007 and ratified it on September 28, 2012 with a single reservation. This was in regard to Article 23 (1a), stipulating states to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination and ensuring the rights of disabled persons of legal age to marry on the basis of full consent of the spouse. In case of this not being in compliance with personal status laws “binding on the various religious communities in Israel”. It is not party to the Optional Protocol.


The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also referred to as just the Convention against Torture, was adopted during the General Assembly session on December 10, 1984. On June 26, 1987 it was registered and thereby came into force. Its implementation is monitored by the Committee Against Torture (CAT), composed of ten individuals of various nationalities. All signatory states are obliged to send regular reports to the CAT, based on which recommendations are made. Israel signed the Convention on October 22, 1986 and ratified it on October 3, 1991. It made two reservations, against the competences of the Committee as described in Article 20 – allowed as per Article 28; and does not consider itself bound by Article 30, paragraph 1 referring to disputes between States related to interpretation or application of the Convention – allowed as per Article 30, 2.

Migrant Workers

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families was approved by the General Assembly on December 18, 1990 and entered into force on July 1, 2003. Israel is not party to the Convention.

Racial Discrimination

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was approved by the General Assembly and accordingly opened for signature on March 7, 1966. It entered into force on January 4, 1969. Despite the obvious as stated in the Convention title, it aims to obliterate hate speech and promote understanding. Implementation of the articles is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to which bi-annual reports are submitted by each signatory. It also is responsible for handling inter-state and individual complaints related to non-conformity to the provisions of the Convention, as prescribed in Article 14.

Israel signed the Convention on March 7, 1966 and ratified it on January 3, 1979. It made a reservation against Article 22, pertaining to inter-state dispute resulting from interpretation or implementation of the Convention, stating that all parties to the dispute are to expressly consent to intervention of the International Court of Justice.

Human Rights in Israel

In countless reports by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights in the Occupied Territories, Israel has been accused of violations of human rights, not only as a result of its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also because of its activities in Lebanon in 2006 and in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. The list of violations is thus long and serious. The Israeli governments, however, normally do not respond to such accusations. If they do respond, the message is usually framed within a discourse of self-defence.

Besides the activities of the Israeli military in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel’s legal system is also accused of human rights violations. Individuals can be held without charge under so-called ‘administrative detention’. According to international law this is only admissible if closely governed by rules. Israel has violated these restrictions many times. The period of detention can be extended time and again, which means that some detainees (almost exclusively Palestinians) have been in Israeli jails for years without being charged.

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