This ongoing series profiles the brilliant work being done by lawyers from Ireland and Northern Ireland worldwide. For this edition, we spoke with Dr Susan Power, Head of Legal Research and Advocacy at Al-Haq, a human rights organisation based in the West Bank of Palestine.
Dr Susan Power at the International Law Commission, New York, Sixth Committee
Hi Susan – thanks so much for agreeing to answer a few questions for us. To begin, can you tell us who you are and what you do?
My name is Dr Susan Power. I am originally from Douglas in Cork and currently work as the Head of Legal Research and Advocacy at Al-Haq, a human rights organisation based in the West Bank, Palestine. Al-Haq is the oldest human rights organisation in Palestine, established in 1979, some twelve years after the start of the occupation. Al-Haq monitors and documents violations of Palestinian human rights and humanitarian law in Palestine, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. Using our documentation, we work towards holding both Israeli and Palestinian authorities accountable for violations of Palestinian human rights and international humanitarian law, before local and international mechanisms.
Can you tell us a bit about your training?
I graduated with a first-class honours degree in civil law from the National University of Ireland, Galway and subsequently obtained a PhD in international law from Trinity College Dublin. Following this, I lectured for a number of years on the Masters and Undergraduate law programmes in Griffith College Cork and Dublin. More recently, I took an Advanced Diploma in Public Procurement Law in Kings Inns, Dublin. Currently, I am engaged in a Postdoctoral research project on Palestine at the Irish Centre for Human Rights and working as the Head of Legal Research and Advocacy at Al-Haq.
(L-R): Dr Susan Power, Micheál Martin and Niall Collins
Why did you become interested in legal work?
I have always been motivated towards social justice and using law as a tool to achieve equality. Growing up as a teenager in Ireland in the 1990s, in my pre-law years, I was angered at the treatment of travellers and vulnerable minorities, in particular the stigma and draconian denial of abortion rights at the time. I felt then, as I still do now, that inequalities and denial of rights must be addressed through legal reform and I was particularly influenced by the work of Mary Robinson.
Later, when I carried out doctoral research on the Transformative Occupation of Iraq, I became interested in how occupation law is often distorted for the exploitative commercial interests of the Occupying Power. In the context of Palestine, where I work now, the entire regime may be considered unlawful, jus ad bellum, and is more accurately described and understood as a settler-colonial apartheid regime.
What do you hope to achieve from the work you are doing?
My main hope is that the Palestinian people realise their collective right of self-determination. In doing so, we need to see the dismantling of Israel’s discriminatory and segregationist settler-colonial and apartheid regime on both sides of the Green Line, in force since 1948. In addition, I hope that we achieve the fulfilment of the guarantees reaffirmed in over one hundred UN General Assembly resolutions that Palestinian refugees exiled in the diaspora for decades, denied their entry into Palestine and stripped of their Palestinian citizenship under Israeli law, are granted their right of return to their homes and lands and full exercise of their right of self-determination. Crucially, this cannot be achieved without ensuring accountability for the violations of the rights of the Palestinian people, including full criminal accountability for the ongoing international crimes committed against Palestinians at the International Criminal Court.
Can you tell us some of your professional experiences that have left a mark on you personally?
The Occupied Territories Bill left a personal mark. For years, we, at Al-Haq, have been advocating for Third States to prohibit the import of settlement goods and services from the illegal colonial settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT). Many States have started various initiatives in Chile and Belgium, for example. Significantly, Ireland too has progressed the Occupied Territories Bill to prohibit settlement goods and services, with the Bill passing through various stages in the Seanad, led by Senator Frances Black. Unfortunately, due to lack of political will when the new Coalition formed a government in 2020, the Bill, which also passed through a number of stages in the Dáil, is now frozen at the committee stage.
One of my proudest days at Al-Haq was when the Occupied Territories Bill passed first in the Seanad. Our General Director, Shawan Jabarin, took a massive Irish tricolour to the roof of our office and he waved it over the city, calling out in celebration of the Irish. People in Ireland don’t realise how much hope in Palestine is pinned to the Occupied Territories Bill. In Palestine, we operate in an environment where Palestinian human rights are put on hold in deference to fictional ‘peace’ processes, as Israel escalates, with impunity, its colonisation, crimes against humanity and war crimes, under the gaze of the international community. When Ireland hibernated the Occupied Territories Bill, the hope of the Palestinian people for justice collapsed with it – this was painful to communicate back to colleagues. It is still painful, that Ireland abandoned the calls of the Palestinian people to stop Israel from profiting from their stolen lands and natural resources. We must pass the Occupied Territories Bill.
Al-Haq offices, 2022
Nevertheless, we had some advocacy gains in 2021, with the passing of the De Facto Annexation Motion in Ireland. Following Israel’s eleven-day military offensive on the Gaza Strip in May 2021 and attacks across the West Bank, killing 276 Palestinians, Al-Haq engaged in a number of advocacy initiatives. Along with Sadaka, Trócaire, and Christian Aid, amongst others, Al-Haq engaged in joint advocacy efforts to push for the recognition of the situation in the occupied territory as de facto annexation. The following month, Ireland passed a non-binding motion recognising Israel’s effective control over the territory and permanent settlements as an intent to establish sovereignty, as therefore, de facto annexation. This was a critical turning point, as Ireland became the first European Union member state to acknowledge the de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank.
During the same month, Al-Haq successfully pushed for the establishment of a permanent UN Commission of Inquiry to examine the underlying root causes of Israel’s systematic and widespread violations of Palestinian rights. Although it is the eleventh UN Commission to examine human rights violations of Palestinians in recent years, its mandate is radically different from the previous Commissions of Inquiry and Fact-Finding Missions. This Commission can examine international humanitarian law and international human rights violations on both sides of the Green Line – so its jurisdictional reach is much broader than the occupied Palestinian territory. Also importantly, it is not limited temporally. This is critical on different levels, including for the work that we are doing on Israel’s apartheid, which is an institutionalised regime of racial discrimination of Israeli Jews over the Palestinian people as a whole, i.e., Palestinians in the occupied territory, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinian refugees and exiles in the diaspora denied their right of return, since 1948. This apartheid regime, of discriminatory and racist laws, policies and practices, applies on both sides of the Green Line. Discriminatory legislation is adopted in Israel, and transposed in the occupied Palestinian territory into military orders. To have a Commission of Inquiry that can finally investigate and examine the continuing crimes of mass appropriations of Palestinian lands and property since 1948, and the systematic denial of refugees their right of return, alongside the intentional and planned demographic engineering to forcibly displace Palestinians from their lands and create a majority Israeli-Jewish, is monumental.
Al Haq is the foremost Palestinian organisation working on human rights and the rule of law across Palestine. Can you tell me a little bit about when you started working and your work at Al-Haq?
I worked part time for Al-Haq since 2013 and continued to lecture law in Ireland. In 2017, I decided to return to Palestine to live and work full time, first as a Senior Legal Researcher, and then, since January 2018, as the Head of Legal Research and Advocacy. Some of the main work that we do in my Department is legal research and advocacy work, and we specialise in business and human rights, and accountability. In recent years, we have been the proud recipient of a number of consecutive awards for our human rights work. In 2018, Al-Haq was awarded, co-jointly with Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem, the prestigious Human Rights Award of the French Republic; in 2019, the Human Rights and Business Award at the United Nations; in 2020, the Gwynne Skinner award for our corporate accountability work; and in 2021, the Award of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs. Most recently, in June this year, Al-Haq was awarded the illustrious human rights prize in the name of former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky.
Currently, we are campaigning in our advocacy for the incoming UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, to annually update the UN Database on businesses that are involved in Israel’s colonial settlement enterprise, as mandated. We are continually submitting information to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on companies, but for the last two years, the Database has not been updated. Since 2016, when the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing the UN Database, political interference saw it stalled for the first four years, until 2020. However, the UN Human Rights Council resolution 31/36 mandates its annual update, and some of our core advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council is directed towards its continued update. This is an important tool to persuade companies to disengage and divest from the settlements. Already General Mills Pilsbury, who were listed in the 2020 release, have divested from the illegal settlements. Last week we submitted a file, endorsed by 105 organisations, three former UN Special Rapporteurs on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Noam Chomsky and Roger Waters, on WSP, a Canadian company operating the Jerusalem Light Rail between settlements. It is important that these companies, which fuel the colonisation of Palestine, divest.
Anata, West Bank
Our legal and advocacy work on Israel’s settler colonialism and apartheid is also a substantive part of our core work. This includes engagement at parliamentary committees, calling on Third States to recognise the situation in Palestine as that of apartheid, and to collaborate to bring the illegal situation to an end. We are currently preparing work for the upcoming UN General Assembly, urging the adoption of a resolution mandating the reconvening of the UN Special Committee on Apartheid and the UN Centre against Apartheid, to ensure that situations of contemporary apartheid are addressed in a permanent international mechanism, with the relevant expertise.
As we aim to hold Israeli perpetrators accountable, submitting our communications to the International Criminal Court is also a critical part of our work. We have been through an intense few years progressing this work through the preliminary examination stage, and then submitting our amicus curiae for the Pre-Trial Chamber on the question of Palestine’s territorial jurisdiction. At the same time, members of our staff have been subjected to death threats, which the then-Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, highlighted in her Annual Report on Preliminary Examinations in 2016, and had been referred to the Dutch authorities as host State to the Court. Since then, our organisation has come under concerted attack by Israel, including by carrying out smear campaigns, delegitimisation, attempts to circumvent funding to our organisation, and most recently, the arbitrary outlawing of our organisation along with five others, under Israel’s Counter Terrorism Law of 2016.
On 18 August 2022, the Israeli occupying forces raided Ramallah, forcibly entered, ransacked and closed our offices under military order, prohibiting the continuation of our critical human rights work. Three days later, Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence, called and summoned our General Director Shawan Jabarin, threatening him that there would be personal consequences for continuing the work of Al-Haq, including arrest and imprisonment. Notably, under the Counter Terrorism Law, this can mean sentences of twenty-five years for the General Director, but also penalties of up to fifteen years for managing an organisation designated under the Counter Terrorism Law.
For us, it is critical that Third States take concrete actions to curb these attacks, which might seem as only directed against the six organisations, but represent an attack on all Palestinian civic space. Ireland can play a leading role and take action on our human rights calls, including by advancing the Occupied Territories Bill. At an EU level, Ireland can intervene to stop rewarding Israel for its violations of Palestinian rights and suspend the EU-Israel Association Council agreement. Ireland can insist on a territorial clause in EU-Israel gas agreements; ensuring that Palestine’s militarily blockaded exclusive economic zone is not exploited as a gas transit route. Ireland can insist that electricity generated in illegal settlements does not enter the EU market via the EU-Israel Interconnector. Ireland, a Security Council member, can, and should, push for the realization of the Palestinian right to self-determination.
Diplomatic briefing at Al-Haq, September 2022
Why did you decide to work abroad?
I had been lecturing in Griffith College Cork and Dublin, on the LLB and LLM programmes at the time in 2013, and I had heard about Al-Haq in the occupied Palestine, through my counterparts at the Irish Centre for Human Rights. I was interested to take a six-month internship, researching at Al-Haq, with the hope that, with my experience lecturing and my PhD on occupation law, I might be able to contribute and be of some benefit. I had not originally planned on engaging for this length of time. However, when I experienced living in Palestine, it was textbook. It reminded me of the German occupations during World War II, that I had studied; the blueprint for demographic engineering, ethnic cleansing and racial supremacy came right out Raphael Lempkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (1944). Understanding what is really happening in Palestine, the severity of the crimes, the systematic erasure of the Palestinian people, and the ongoing settler-colonisation is the impetus for my work at Al-Haq.
What drives you to do what you do?
I am always driven by achieving justice, liberty and peace through constitutional means, through the rule of law. Living in a ‘conflict’ affected area, the reality is that acts of aggression really are “crimes against peace” – the crime prosecuted at Nuremberg. Israel’s widespread and systematic violence against the Palestinian people, including the daily violence carried out by the Israeli occupying forces against Palestinians, such as shelling, shooting, stun grenades, killings, house demolitions, nightly raids, arrests, and administrative detentions, and the brutality of settler attacks on Palestinian families, is the reason why ‘peace’ is disturbed. The generational harm of the gross injustice of impunity for these crimes against humanity, carries with it the unbearable suffering of the Palestinian people. This disturbs my peace, as it should disturb all our peace, and propel Third States to take action, to bring the illegal situation to an end. This is my constant driver to continue working as I do, for a free, independent Palestine, liberated from the shackles of Israel’s brutal settler-colonial apartheid regime.
What sort of an impact would you like to make?
I love team building and the energy and dynamism that comes from having the right team in place – real change comes from this. I am very influenced by Paulo Freire, and my aim is that the team is equipped and empowered to challenge and dismantle the power structures around them. My hope is that I leave a strong, independent and resilient team, with space to create.
Your advice to young people entering the legal profession?
Don’t be afraid to take one step back to take a step forward. Law in Ireland, for me, has always been a financial struggle. I worked in a shop all throughout my undergraduate degree to pay for the rent, and I worked and saved all summer for the registration fees for the following term. I used to study on my lunch breaks at work. I didn’t have the financial resources to travel the world doing internships, and I did feel at a disadvantage. However, a decade later in my career, when I was finally in a position to support myself on an internship abroad, I took the opportunity. This changed the direction of my life’s work.
Kings Inns was completely unviable in my early twenties after graduating, due to the costs involved, both the fees and the costs of living in Dublin. I know many others like me, who could not afford these options. But I think you can still hold onto these dreams and go back later.
Anything else that you would like to add?
There are also huge sacrifices working abroad. I enter Palestine on a single-entry visa. Foreign workers in Palestine cannot leave and re-enter easily. I live behind the wall, behind checkpoints and surveillance. I am treated like a Palestinian with West Bank status, so I cannot enter Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, or all of historic Palestine. The space feels small, confined. New rules are coming in next month, and the military commander is reportedly removing the possibility of any foreign NGO workers getting work permits to work in Palestinian NGOs. It is another measure of forcible displacement, fragmenting and dominating the Palestinian people and those that support them, another measure to dismantle and erode Palestinian civil society. The colonisation of Palestine is colonisation by a thousand cuts. This time, foreign workers contributing towards the viability of a liberated independent Palestine, are cut.