A Double Standard on Territorial Conflicts and International Law

It’s one of the central questions surrounding a recent ruling by the European Union’s top court, which mandated the inclusion of the word “settlement” on consumer labels of Israeli products produced in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem. And the question carries implications for territorial conflicts worldwide.

In July 2019, shortly after a similar ruling by a federal court in Canada which stated that West Bank settlement wines could not be labeled “products of Israel,” legal expert Prof. Eugene Kontorovich said that the Canadian court had failed in its interpretation of the law.

“The Canadian free trade agreement clearly makes products from Judea and Samaria part of Israeli customs territory,” said Kontorovich, a professor of constitutional and international law at George Mason University as well as director of international law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum think tank. “And Canada labels wines from occupied Nagorno-Karabakh ‘made in Armenia’ — so this looks like another special rule just for the Jewish state.”

“The sole basis of the ruling was that ‘made in Israel’ labeling confuses consumers,” he continued. “But the court [provided] absolutely no evidence that any substantial number of consumers, who might care one way or another about a product’s origin in Judea and Samaria, are unaware of that fact.”

Similarly, in July 2017, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a notice that wines produced in the West Bank could not be labeled “Made in Israel,” Kontorovich wrote in The Washington Post that “such labels are not understood by consumers as making any statement about the importing state’s view of sovereignty in a disputed territory.”

“That is why the European Union imports products from occupied Western Sahara labeled ‘Made in Morocco,’ despite not regarding it as Moroccan sovereign territory, as well as allowing ‘Made in Palestine’ and ‘Made in Taiwan’ labels on consumer goods despite not recognizing even the existence of those countries,” he wrote, adding, “Indeed, bottles from occupied Nagorno-Karabakh are imported into Canada and Europe with labels describing them as ‘Armenian’ products or even products of ‘Artsakh,’ the Armenian name for the region that the international community regards as occupied Azerbaijani territory.”

Kontorovich’s latter point underscores the contrast between the situations on the ground in the West Bank and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement supporters hold Israel responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem, yet many take a markedly different stance when it comes to Armenia’s illegal military occupation of Azerbaijani territory and even ethnic cleansing in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. One prominent purveyor of this double standard is pro-BDS lawmaker Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who repeatedly asserts that Israeli settlements violate international law but simultaneously supports Armenian lobby-backed Congressional legislation that perpetuates the Nagorno-Karabakh occupation.

Reacting to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent landmark announcement that the U.S. considers Israeli settlements “not per se illegal under international law,” Tlaib said the Trump administration’s new position “doesn’t change” the settlements’ illegality. Calling out Tlaib’s hypocrisy, Kontorovich tweeted, “Last month, you were meeting with and pushing a bill to support settlers in occupied Azerbaijani territory.”

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As Kontorovich asked, why do BDS proponents like Tlaib conveniently reserve their criticism for Israel’s “occupation” while turning a blind eye to the rules of international law in other regions?

In fact, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as occupied by Armenia; the United Nations Security Council in 1993 adopted four resolutions (822, 853, 874 and 884) that affirm Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and demand Armenian withdraw from the area. Further, the U.S. State Department describes on its website that Nagorno-Karabakh’s leadership “is not recognized internationally or by the United States,” thereby acknowledging Armenian forces’ occupation of one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s territory during the 1988-1994 Armenia-Azerbaijan war. At the time, Armenia expelled more than 800,000 Azerbaijani civilians and has since barred them from returning to their homes. At least 100,000 Azerbaijanis remain in refugee camps today under desperate living conditions.

During the war, Armenia also carried out several massacres against Azerbaijani civilians — including in the town of Khojaly, where 613 people were killed, many of them women and children. As such, Kontorovich told me in an interview that the Armenian occupation is “belligerent” and that “you are looking at a 100 percent refugee rate.”

Israel is essentially penalized in the courts of law and public opinion alike for the more compassionate reality in the West Bank, where Jews and Palestinians live and work side by side. As many as 20,000 Palestinian workers are employed in factories, vineyards and farms in the Jordan Valley and West Bank, where they earn wages two-and-a-half to three times higher working for Jewish employers than they would working in their own villages, according to Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the Yesha Council (an umbrella organization for municipal councils of West Bank Jewish communities). If BDS pressure forces an Israeli farmer or factory owner to shut down or relocate his business, Palestinian workers lose their jobs.

Yet BDS activists will keep singling out the “occupation” while remaining silent on matters of international law for other territories. At minimum, Israel’s critics should be consistent.