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The U.S. Withdraws (Again) from the UN Human Rights Council

24 Jun

[Prefatory Note:This post is a slightly edited and corrected text of what was published on this blog site a few days. I owe particular thanks to my distinguished collaborator, Virginia Tilley, for pointing out several shortcomings and misleading formulations in the earlier version. Of course, the essence of the indictment of the U.S. rationale for withdrawal stands as before.]

 

The U.S. Withdraws (Again) from the UN Human Rights Council

 

Explicitly focusing on alleged anti-Israel bias the U.S. withdrew from further participation in the UN Human Rights Council until it reforms itself in accord with the liking of the Trump Administration. The only internationally credible basis for criticizing the HRC is its regrettable tendency to put some countries with the worst human rights records in leading roles, creating genuine issues of credibility and hypocrisy. Of course, I would have expected Ambassador Nikki Haley to refrain from such a criticism as it could only embarrass Washington to admit that many of its closest allies in the Middle East, and elsewhere have lamentable human rights records, and, if fairly judged, the U.S. has itself reversed roles since the year 2000, having itself slipping into the category of the most serious human rights offenders.

 

In this regard, the U.S. ‘withdrawal’ could be most constructively viewed as a self-imposed ‘suspension’ for falling short when it comes to the promotion and protection of human rights, absenting itself until it can protect human rights in its own society at a high enough standard as to make it less laughable than when it lectures the world about the human rights failures of others, naturally America’s current list of adversaries. But Haley is not someone intimidated by reality. In her fiery withdrawal speech she has the audacity to say that the first objective of the U.S. is “Improving the quality of Council membership.” She adds, “(w)hen a so-called Human Rights cannot bring itself to address the massive of abuses of Venezuela and Iran..the Council ceases ceaces to be worthy of its name.” Making such an argument, politically charged at best, raises eyebrows of scorn if one takes note of the deafening silence of Washington with respect to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt to mention just three Middle Eastern allies.

 

Undoubtedly, the U.S. was frustrated by its efforts to ‘reform’ the HRC according to its views  of the UN agency should function, and blamed its traditional adversaries, Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, along with Egypt, with blocking its initiative. It also must not have welcomed the HRC High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, for describing the ‘zero tolerance policy’ of separating children from their immigrant parents at the Mexican border as an ‘unconsciounable’ policy.

 

In evaluating this latest sign of American retreat from its prior role as global leader, there are several considerations that help us understand such a move that situates the United States in the same strange rejectionist corner it now shares with North Korea and Eritrea:

 

            –the fact that the U.S. withdrawal from the HRC occurred immediately after the Israeli border massacre, insulated from Security Council censure and investigation by a U.S. veto, is certainly part of political foreground. This consideration was undoubtedly reinforced by the HRC approval of a fact-finding investigation of Israel’s behavior over prior weeks in responding to the Great Return March border demonstrations met with widespread lethal sniper violence;

 

            –in evaluating the UN connection to Palestine it needs to be recalled that the organized international community has a distinctive responsibility for Palestine that can be traced all the way back to the peace diplomacy after World War I when Britain was given the role of Mandatory, which according to the League of Nations Covenant should be carried out as a ‘sacred trust of civilization.’ This special relationship was extended and deepened when Britain gave up this role after World War II, transferring responsibility for the future of Palestine to the UN. This newly established world organization was given the task of finding a sustainable solution in the face of sharply contested claims between the majority Palestinian population and the Jewish, mainly settler population.

 

This UN role was started beneath and deeply influenced by the long shadow of grief and guilt cast by the Holocaust. The UN, borrowing from the British colonial playbook, proposed a division of Palestine between Jewish and Palestinian political communities, which eventuated in the UN partition plan contained in the 1947 General Assembly Resolution 181. This plan was developed and adopted without the participation of the majority resident population, 70% non-Jewish at the time, and was opposed by the then independent countries in the Arab world. Such a plan seemed oblivious to the evolving anti-colonial mood of the time, failing to take any account of the guiding normative principle of self-determination. The Partition War that followed in 1947 did produce a de facto partition of Palestine more territorially favorable to the Zionist Project than what was proposed, and rejected, in 181. One feature of the original plan was to internationalize the governance of the city of Jerusalem with both peoples given an equal status.

 

This proposed treatment of Jerusalem was never endorsed by Israel, and was formally, if indirectly, repudiated by Tel Aviv after the 1967 War when Israel declared (in violation of international law) that Jerusalem was the eternal capital of the Jewish people never to be divided or internationalized, and Israel has so administered Jerusalem with this intent operationalized in defiance of the UN. What this sketch of the UN connection with Palestine clearly shows is that from the very beginning of Israeli state-building, the role of the international community was direct and the discharge of its responsibilities was not satisfactory in that it proved incapable of protecting Palestinian moral, legal, and political rights. As a result, the majority of Palestinian people have been effectively excluded from their own country and as a people exist in a fragmented ethnic reality that is sustained by Israel’s apartheid regime of control. This series of events constitutes one of the worst geopolitical crimes of the past century. Rather than do too much by way of criticizing the behavior of Israel, the UN has done far too little, not mainly because of a failure of will, but as an expression of the behavioral primacy of geopolitics and naked militarism;

 

            –the revealing stress of Ambassador Haley’s explanation of the U.S. withdrawal from the HRC gives almost total attention to quantitative factors such as the ‘disproportionate’ number of resolutions compared with those given to other human rights offenders, making no attempt whatsoever to refute the substantiveallegations of Israeli wrongdoing. This is not surprising as any attempt to justify Israeli policies and practices toward the Palestinian people would only expose the severity of Israel’s criminality and the acuteness of Palestinian victimization. The U.S. has also long struggled to be rid of so-called Item 7 of the Human Rights Council devoted to human rights violations of Israel associated with the occupation of Palestinian territories, which overlooks the prior main point that the UN is derelict in its failure to produce a just peace for the peoples inhabiting Mandate Palestine, and the least that it can do is maintain a watchful eye.

 

            –withdrawing from international institutional arrangements, especially those positively associated with peace, human rights, and environmental protection has become the hallmark of what be identified as the negative internationalismof the Trump presidency. The most egregious instances, prior to this move with regard to the HRC, involved the repudiation of the Nuclear Program Agreement with Iran (also known as the JCPOA or P5 +1 Agreement) and the Paris Climate Change Agreement. As with these other instances of negative internationalism this departure from the HRC is likely to hurt the U.S. more than the HRC, reinforcing its myopic willingness to do whatever it takes to please Netanyahu and the lead American Zionist donor to the Trump campaign, Sheldon Adelson. Only the provocative announcement of the planned unilateral move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem last December was as explicitly responsive to Israel’s policy agenda as is this rejection of the HRC, both initiatives stand out as being contrary to a fair rendering of American national interests, and hence a show of deference to Israel’s preferences. Despite this unabashed one-sidedness the Trump presidency still puts itself forward as a peacemaker, and promised to produce ‘the deal of the century’ at the proper moment, even enjoying the cynical backing of the notorious Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who seems to be telling the Palestinians to take what the Trump team offers or forever shut up. Knowing the weakness and shallow ambitions of the Palestinian Authority, there is no telling what further catastrophe, this one of a diplomatic character, may further darken the Palestinian future. A diplomatic nakbamight be the worst disaster of all for the Palestinian people and their century-long struggle for elemental rights.

 

 It should also be emphasized that the U.S. human rights record has been in steady decline, whether the focus is placed on the morally disastrous present policies of separating families at the Mexican border or on the failure to achieve acceptable progress at home in the area of economic and social rights despite American affluence (as documented in the recent report of Philip Alston, UNHRC Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty) or in the various flagrant violations of human rights committed in the course of the War on Terror, including operation of black sites in foreign countries to carry on torture of terror suspects, or denials of the most fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law (Geneva Conventions) in the administration of Guantanamo and other prison facilities;

 

            –it is also worth noting that Israel’s defiance of internatonal law and international institutions is pervasive, severe, and directly related to maintaining an oppressive regime of occupation that is complemented by apartheid structures victimizing the Palestinian people as a whole, including refugees, residents of Jerusalem, the Palestinian minority in Israel, and the imprisoned population of Gaza. Israel repudiated the authority of the International Court of Justice with respect to the ‘separation wall’ that back in 2004 declared by a near unanimous vote of 14-1 (U.S. as the lone dissent) that building the wall on occupied Palestinian territory was unlawful, that the wall should be dismantled, and Palestinians compensated for harm endured. There are many other instances concerning such issues as settlements, collective punishment, excessive force, prison conditions, and a variety of abuses of children.

 

In conclusion, by purporting to punish the Human Rights Council, the Trump presidency, representing the U.S. Government, is much more punishing itself, as well as the peoples of the world. We all benefit from a robust and legitimated institutional framework for the promotion and protection of vital human rights. The claim of an anti-Israeli bias in the HRC, or UN, is bogus diversionary politics. The truer focus would be upon the daily violation of the most basis rights of the Palestinian people. This is the tragic reality that the UN has been unable to overcome. This is all we need to know.

 

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The Private and the Public in Trump’s America on New Year’s Day 2018

1 Jan

The Private and the Public in Trump’s America on New Year’s Day 2018

 

I realize how insensitive I have been in sending messages to a few friends in which I suggested that we should look forward in the year ahead to private satisfactions, while being wary of public hopes given the looming storm clouds of Trumpism. The assumption I glibly made was that the private and public were distinct domains, which is true to some extent for those of use who are not Hispanic, Muslim, African-American, poor, homeless, or somehow vulnerable.

 

Of course, the slogan ‘the personal is political’ is in some profound sense true for all of us, however privileged and shielded from public abuse we happen to be. How we choose to treat others is always a political act for better or worse, and radiates beyond our personal actions, thoughts, and feelings. Yet there is a blandness about such a perception if it does acknowledge the more impinging effects of the political for all those who are forced to live, in some way, at the edge. What Trump has done is to push millions more, who were already experiencing the pains of vulnerability, marginality, and inequality, closer to falling from the precipice. Trump’s Muslim bans, hostility to immigrants, anachronistic nativism, white supremacist and alt-right sympathies create air to toxic to breathe, especially for those already living with daily fears and uncertainties.

 

A related clarifying thought: Trump and Trumpism are only viable because of the opportunistic cowardice of the Republican Party, which has struck the most lamentable of Faustian Bargains—selling their conservative souls for a reactionary social and economic agenda that accentuates the existing distortions evident in American society: nurturing the greed of the wealthy and turning a blind eye to the poor and vulnerable.

 

Additionally, Trumpism gives us ample occasion to weep on behalf of an abused nature, a threatened habitat, even ecological collapse.

 

This leads me to this conclusion on New Year’s Day 2018: the most worthy political resolution of this new year is to resist Trumpism in every way we can, and do so in compassionate solidarity with those whose private spaces have been so darkly encroached upon by the punitive policies and practices of the current political leadership in this country.

Finding Truth in Syria

16 Nov

I have been perplexed by the intense divergences of perception when it comes to the Syrian reality, and the allocation of blame and responsibility for the havoc that has been experienced by the Syrian people.

In ‘the fog of war’ there are many ambiguities that allow ideological predisposition to color what we believe is happening. There is very little basis for trust, and the extraordinary complexity and shifting priorities of the many participants precludes a simple diagnosis.

This makes it all the more crucial not to succumb to explanations that confirm our political outlook, especially by doubting the conclusions that have been confirmed by multiple generally reliable sources of information. George Monbiat, a prominent and respected Guardian columnist supports the view that the main element of the anti-Assad narrative are true, and truer than the contrary interpretations offered by a variety of anti-imperialist commentators and dissident journalists:

<https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/15/lesson-from-syria-chemical-weapons-conspiracy-theories-alt-right&gt;

Charlottesville Through a Glass Darkly

18 Aug

[Prefatory Note: I have been persuaded to remove the words ‘otherwise promising’ before the name of Macron. I paused while writing those words, but in view of his condemnation of France’s conduct in Algeria, I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt, now obviously a premature gesture. And so, belatedly, I censor myself both to express my true feeling and to acknowledge my earlier slip of the digital mind!]

I suggest that Zionists fond of smearing critics of Israel as ‘anti-Semites’ take a sobering look at the VICE news clip of the white nationalist torch march through the campus of the University of Virginia the night before the lethal riot in Charlottesville. In this central regard, anti-Semitism, and its links to Naziism and Fascism, and now to Trumpism, are genuinely menacing, and should encourage rational minds to reconsider any willingness to being manipulated for polemic purposes by ultra Zionists. We can also only wonder about the moral, legal, and political compass of ardent Zionists who so irresponsibly label Israel’s critics and activist opponents as anti-Semites, and thus confuse and bewilder the public as to the true nature of anti-Semitism as racial hatred directed at Jews.

 

There must be less incendiary ways of fashioning responses to the mounting tide of criticism of Israel’s policies and practices than by deliberately distorting and confusing the nature of anti-Semitism. To charge supporters of BDS, however militant, with anti-Semitism dangerously muddies the waters, trivializing hatred of Jews by deploying ‘anti-Semitism’ as an Israeli tactic and propaganda tool of choice in a context of non-violent expressions of free speech and political advocacy, and thus challenging the rights so elemental that they have long been taken for granted by citizens in every funcitioning constitutional democracy. It is worth recalling that despite the criticisms of BDS during the South African anti-apartheid campaign, militant participants were never, ever smeared, despite being regarded as employing a controversial approach often derided as counterproductive in politically conservative circles.

 

And of course it is not only Zionists who have eaten of this poisonous fruit. As a result of Israel’s own willingness to encourage such tactics, as in organizing initiatives seeking to discredit, and even criminalize, the nonviolent BDS campaign, several leaders of important Western countries who should know better have swallowed this particular cool aid. A recent statement by  President of France, Emmanuel Macron: “Anti-Zionism…is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism,” and implicitly such a statement suggests that to be anti-Zionist is tantamount to criticism of Israel as a Jewish state.

 

After grasping this tortured reasoning, have a look at the compelling Open Letter to Macron, written in response by the famed Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand, author of an essential book, The Invention of the Jewish People. In his letter Sand explains why he cannot himself be a Zionist given the demographic realities, historical abuse of the majority population of historic Palestine, and the racist and colonialist overtones of proclaiming a Jewish state in a Palestine that a hundred years ago was a national space containing only 60,000 Jews half of whom were actually opposed to the Zionist project. This meant that the Jewish presence in Palestine represented only about 7% of the total population, the other 700,000 being mostly Muslims and Christian Arabs. The alternative to Zionism for an Israel that abandons apartheid is not collapse but a transformed reality based on the real equality of Jews and Palestinians. Shlomo Sand gives the following substance to this non-Zionist political future for Israel: “..an Israeli republic and not a Jewish communalist state.” This is not the only morally, politically, and legally acceptable solution. A variety of humane and just alternatives to the status quo exist that are capable of embodying the overlapping rights of self-determination of these two long embattled peoples.

 

To avoid the (mis)impression that Charlottesville was most disturbing because of its manifestations of hatred of Jews it is helpful to take a step backward. Charlottesville was assuredly an ugly display of anti-Semitism, but it only secondarily slammed Jews. Its primary hateful resonance was its exhibition of white supremacy, American nativism, and a virtual declaration of war against Black Lives Matter and the African American and immigrant struggle against racial injustice. Jews are doing better than all right in America by almost every indicator of economic, political, and social success. African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims are not. Many of their lives are daily jeopardized by various forms of state terror, as well as by this surge of violent populism given sly, yet unmistakable, blessings by an enraged and unrepentant White House in the agonized aftermath of Charlottesville. Jews thankfully have no bereaved victims of excess uses of force by American police as have lethally victimized such African Americans as Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Jews in America do not fear or face pre-dawn home searches, cruel family disrupting deportations, and the mental anguish of devastating forms of uncertainty that now is the everyday reality for millions of Hispanic citizens and residents.

 

What Charlottesville now becomes is up to the American people, and to some lesser extent to the reactions and responses throughout the world. The Charlottesville saga has already auditioned Trump and Spence as high profile apprentices of white nationalism. Whether an array of Republican tweets of disgust and disapproval gain any political traction remains to be seen, or as in the past they dissolve as bubbles in the air and soon seem best regarded as empty tropes of political correctness. What counsels skepticism about this current cascade of self-righteous pronouncements is the awareness that many of these same individuals in the past quickly renewed their conniving habits behind closed doors, working overtime to deprive the racially vulnerable in America of affordable health insurance, neighborhood security, and residence rights. As is so often the case in the political domain these days disreputable actions speak far more loudly than pious words.

 

If the majority of Americans can watch the torch parade and urban riot of white nationalists shouting racist slogans, dressed for combat, and legally carrying assault weapons, in silence we are done for as a nation of decency and promise. If the mainstream does not scream ‘enough’ at the top of its lung it is time to admit ‘game over.’ This undoubtedly means that the political future of this country belongs to the likes of Trump/Spence, and it also means that a national stumble into some kind of fascist reality becomes more and more unavoidable. The prospect of a fascist America can no longer be dismissed as nothing more than a shrill and desperate ploy by the moribund left to gain a bit of attention on the national stage before giving up the ghost of revolutionary progressivism once and for all.

 

So we must each ask ourselves and each other is this the start of the Second Civil War or just one more bloody walk in the woods?

Remembering Father Miguel D’Escoto: A Voice for Peace and Palestine

20 Jun

[Prefatory Note: The following article was initially published in The Nation on June 15, 2017. It was written jointly with my friend and longtime collaborator, Phyllis Bennis. As suggested in the text below we both worked with Farther Miguel D’Escoto on several occasions in relation to different international issues involving matters of peace and justice. I was especially appreciative of his strong commitment to the Palestinian national struggle, not an easy position to adopt by a prominent UN official living in New York City. Father Miguel was particularly helpful to me during the early years (2008-09) of my work as Special Rapporteur on Israeli Violations of Human Rights in Occupied Palestine. He was a rare example of a top UN diplomat and official who combined religious dedication with progressive politics and governmental service of the highest order.]

 

 

Remembering a Priest, a Diplomat, and a Voice for Palestine

 

Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann was a man who spoke truth to power and expected others to do the same

 

Phyllis Bennis and Richard Falk

UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann speaks after being awarded the solidarity medal by Cuba’s government in Havana, September 3, 2009. (AP Photo / Ismael Francisco, Prensa Latina)

 

Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, who died a few days ago, was a Catholic priest and former president of the UN General Assembly. The Nicaraguan diplomat was also a leading voice of conscience on Middle East peace—as well as a cherished friend, loved and admired by both of us, who became an inspirational figure to many around the world.

 

As much as anyone we ever encountered, Father Miguel lived as he preached. He worked and lived among the poor and struggled for years against dictatorship and injustice in his country. We want to pause not only to mourn this personal loss, but also to call attention to his public role both in his native Nicaragua and as a citizen of the world—an identity expressed most powerfully by way of his devotion to the United Nations.

 

 

 

A PRIEST AND A DIPLOMAT

A Maryknoll priest, Father Miguel became an early and impassioned practitioner of liberation theology. He later gained international fame as Nicaragua’s foreign minister in the Sandinista government during the 1980s, a period during which his small country was plagued by the notorious Contra guerrilla insurgency that had been funded, equipped, and trained by the US government.

 

Years later he was elected president of the UN General Assembly—just weeks before Israel’s Operation Cast Lead began in late 2008. He quickly moved to become perhaps the world’s leading spokesperson for Palestinian rights.

Richard first encountered Father Miguel in the mid-1980s, when he was preparing a historic case before the International Court of Justice against the United States for its role in aiding the Contras and otherwise committing acts of aggression, including the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors. He worked closely with Father Miguel in a New York townhouse on how to proceed at The Hague with a legal argument that might produce a level of international accountability for Washington’s flagrant violations of Nicaraguan sovereign rights under international law.

In a stirring decision reached by the World Court in 1986, the main grievances put forward by Nicaragua were upheld, and although the United States boycotted the proceedings, it ended up complying with major findings of the decision. It was not only a moral and political victory, but a vindication of Miguel’s underlying belief that international law, not violence, was the basis of peace and justice in the relations among nations.

 

After retiring from official life in 1991, Father Miguel was only pulled away from his religious ministry on behalf of the poor when he was elected to head the General Assembly—as an individual, not as a representative of his government.

 

Miguel took on that role, traditionally considered a largely ceremonial position leading a too-often marginalized organ of the UN system, and almost immediately emerged as an influential global voice who spoke powerfully in support of Palestinian rights under international law. He courageously opposed Israel’s brutal Cast Lead military operation, defying the always present geopolitical pressures mounted by Washington on behalf of Israel. In his defense of Palestine throughout those weeks of war, and in his later commitment to forcing the UN to take environmental justice seriously, he aimed to transform the General Assembly into a potent force for global justice.

 

He never gave up this dream, collecting his thoughts in a widely distributed booklet bearing the title Reinventing the UN: A Proposal. The subtitle was a transparent summary of the text: “How to make the UN a functional organization capable of dealing effectively with the great XXI century challenges confronting Mother Earth and humanity.”

 

THE STAKES ARE HIGHER NOW THAN EVER. GET THE NATION IN YOUR INBOX.

 

A VOICE FOR GAZA—AND INTERNATIONAL LAW

 

Within hours of the first airstrikes against Gaza, Father Miguel condemned Israel’s actions as “wanton aggression by a very powerful state against a territory that it illegally occupies.” He insisted it was time for the General Assembly “to take firm action if the United Nations does not want to be rightly accused of complicity by omission.”

 

In following days, the UN Security Council—which under the UN Charter is supposed to take primary responsibility for peace and security issues—discussed and debated and consistently failed to respond to the growing Gaza crisis, mostly because the veto-wielding United States was active in blocking action. Then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the midst of the slaughter of Gazan civilians, famously remarked, “We don’t need a cease-fire yet.”

 

Some urged Miguel to wait, hoping that the Security Council would eventually act and the General Assembly could meekly fall in line. But such a cynical suggestion outraged the priest. As the airstrikes turned into a full-scale ground invasion, he called Israel’s war “a monstrosity.”

We were both working with Father Miguel during that frantic time. As the days passed without an Assembly initiative, his patience waned, and he asked for help drafting a speech to respond to the urgent moment. Afterward he convened a special session of the entire General Assembly and delivered a stirring address condemning the assault, which had already killed over 1,000 Palestinians—a third of them children. “If this onslaught in Gaza is indeed a war,” he said, “it is a war against a helpless, defenseless, imprisoned population.” The small territory “is ablaze,” he lamented. “It has been turned into a real burning hell.”

As the “unlawful” but internationally recognized explained, Israel owed Gazans protection—along with “food, water, education, freedom of religion, and more.” Instead, “Gaza’s civilians find themselves locked inside a lethal war zone behind a wall surrounding their densely populated territory.” Under assault and hemmed in by an illegal Israeli blockade, “they have no means of escape.”

 

In such circumstances, the priest insisted, “it becomes the responsibility of the international community as a whole, represented here in the United Nations, to provide that protection.” Yet he charged that “some of the most powerful members of the [Security] Council”—like the United States—were bent on “allowing the military action to continue” while the façade of a diplomatic process unfolded. That, not coincidentally, “matched perfectly the unambiguous goal of the occupying power.”

 

To that end, Father Miguel urged an uncompromising General Assembly resolution calling for both an immediate cease-fire and an end to Israel’s blockade. Remarkably, he linked those demands not only to international law, but to the international social movements that had emerged to support the same calls under it:

 

Our obligation is clear. We, the United Nations, must call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and immediate unimpeded humanitarian access. We, the United Nations, must stand with the people around the world who are calling, and acting, to bring an end to this death and destruction. We must stand with the brave Israelis who came out to protest this war, and we must stand with those in the frightened city of Sderot who called for “Another Voice” to answer the fear of rocket-fire with reconciliation and not war.

 

We must stand with the hundreds of thousands of people who have stopped the trains, petitioned their governments, poured into the streets around the world, all calling for an end to war. That is our obligation, our responsibility, our duty, as we work, mourning so many deaths, for an immediate ceasefire.

 

Father Miguel will be long remembered and deeply missed by friends and the many lives that he touched forever. He was not only a religious figure, but a truly spiritual presence. So many times we were told at the UN that Father Miguel was not a politician or diplomat, but something far more valuable and rare at the UN, a man of unquestionable integrity and spirituality who fearlessly spoke truth to power and rather innocently expected others to do the same.

 

Interview on Palestine for Middle East Eye with Hilary Wise

17 Oct

Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview published in Middle East Eye and conducted and edited by Hilary Wise, who is very proud that her ‘Hilary’ has only one ‘l’ unlike our current presidential candidate, who with help from several sources, most of all, from her opponent, seems on the road to victory on November 8th. I want above all that Palestine will not suffer the fate of other oppressed people, and be written off as ‘a forgotten struggle,’ or worse, ‘a lost cause.’]

 

“Apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel.” Such a clear and uncompromising statement may be unusual for a high-flying academic and former top UN official, but it is typical of Richard Falk.

With his tall, spare frame, neatly trimmed white beard and quiet, scholarly demeanour, Falk appears the epitome of a retired professor. He is indeed an Emeritus Professor of International Law at Princeton University, but “retired’ is not a word in his vocabulary, even at the age of 85.

His pages-long bibliography on issues as diverse and complex as racism, the Iraq war and climate change bears witness to his intellectual energy and the breadth of his political commitment. Still travelling the world speaking on a wide range of topics, his latest book Palestine Horizon: Toward a Just Peace will be published in a few months’ time.

“Apartheid, annexation, mass displacement and collective punishment have become core policies of the state of Israel”Why Palestine?

As for many of his generation, including Noam Chomsky, the Vietnam war played a major role in Falk’s political education: “Two transformative visits to ‘the enemy,’ North Vietnam, led me to understand the war from the perspective of a low tech society utterly vulnerable to high tech warfare, and changed my commitment from opposition to an imprudent war to the rejection of an unjust and immoral war. It was this basic shift in political consciousness that underpins my approach to Israel/Palestine.”

Responding to the Zionist claim that Israel is unfairly singled out for criticism in a world full of brutally oppressive regimes, Falk points to two distinguishing features. One is the unprecedented role played by the UN, in endorsing the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and in partitioning Palestine.

The second is “the UN’s continuing inability to challenge Israel’s policies and practices that defy Security Council Resolution 242 and the international consensus proposing an independent sovereign state of Palestine”.

Known as an authoritative voice on Palestine from the late 1990s, it was as UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine from 2008–2014 that Falk came to prominence worldwide. It is an unpaid job that few would envy, as the path of opposition to Israel’s policies is strewn with wrecked careers and ruined reputations. But Falk picked up this hottest of political hot potatoes without hesitation.

Part of his commitment stems from the fact that he is both American and Jewish. The US clearly provides Israel with unparalleled political, economic and military support and, “as a Jew it concerns me that this state that claims to be a Jewish state – itself problematic given its ethnic composition – fails to live up to international legal and moral standards”.

For him, being Jewish means being “preoccupied with overcoming injustice and thirsting for justice in the world, and that means being respectful toward other peoples regardless of their nationality or religion, and empathetic in the face of human suffering, whoever and wherever victimisation is encountered.”

The cost of commitment

The vilification Falk has endured is inevitable, given his reputation for combining legal rigour with unflinching candour. From the outset, his appointment as special rapporteur was vehemently opposed by Israel and its supporters. When he arrived to assume his duties, he was put in jail near Ben Gurion airport and has since been excluded from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Like many others who speak out on this issue, he has come up against pro-Israel groups which have sought – generally unsuccessfully – to get events he participated in cancelled, or speaking invitations withdrawn.

On the special venom reserved for Jewish critics of Israel, he recalls: “My worst moment with respect to being Jewish occurred when the Wiesenthal Institute in Los Angeles listed me as the third most dangerous anti-Semite in the world in their annual identification of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in 2013.” He adds wryly, “Although hurtful, such a designation did give me the sense that I must be doing something right in my UN reports to get such prominent attention.”

Even his Turkish-born wife Hilal Elver, herself a highly distinguished academic, found herself in the firing line when she was about to be appointed UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

“UN Watch mounted a vicious campaign accusing her falsely of being a front for my views and sharing my alleged bias toward Israel. She actually had never taken public positions of any kind on political issues and had never published anything critical of Israel except for a short piece that raised some questions about the political uses of Israel’s desalination technology.

In the end, her appointment was approved by the Human Rights Council, but the adverse publicity made it a painful experience, especially for her, but also for me.”

Despite the obstacles, as Special Rapporteur Falk was tireless in monitoring and cataloguing events in the region in scrupulous detail. The conclusions he has drawn, especially in relation to Israel’s multiple violations of international law, are couched in unambiguous language, with terms such as “apartheid,” or “state-sponsored terrorism” and “ethnic cleansing,” being carefully defined and justified. And he has met the voices of his critics from the unconditional supporters of Israel with calm rational rebuttals.

Children bear the brunt

Of all aspects of the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people, the plight of children – be they the thousands killed and maimed in Gaza, or the hundreds detained every year in Israeli jails – has commanded his special attention.

A very recent contribution to the field of Palestinian human rights is Falk’s preface to a heart-rending collection of testimonies: “Dreaming of Freedom; Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak.”

Of the extortion of confessions from children he writes: “In a manner that I encountered in apartheid South Africa, maintaining innocence is usually punished worse than confessions, whether true of false, and thus there is no incentive whatsoever to hold out. What is even more dehumanising is the demand of Israeli officials that these Palestinian teenagers implicate their friends and neighbours.”

“Maintaining innocence is usually punished worse than confessions, whether true of false”
To Israel’s claims that the killing and imprisonment of young Palestinians – largely for the crime of throwing stones at military vehicles – is justified, he counters that physical resistance to many years of oppression, however ineffective, is “a natural and entirely understandable response to the brutalities and indignities of military occupation, especially if carried on in violation of international humanitarian law”.

He calls for the International Committee of the Red Cross “first to study the subject of children under occupation, and then to prepare a draft convention and convene a meeting of governments and legal experts to consider this special challenge of child prisoners in circumstances of belligerent occupation”. Failing that, he proposes that the UN Human Rights Council or the secretary general appoint a commission to prepare such a convention.

On the related question of calling Israel to account for alleged war crimes in Gaza, he admits that the political obstacles to any prosecution are immense: “It seems unlikely that the ICC [the International Criminal Court] will embark on such a politically difficult journey, especially since Israel will not cooperate with any issuance of arrest warrants.” He doubts whether the International Court of Justice would be any more effective: ”Israel would have to agree, which is inconceivable, or at least allow Israeli defendants to be brought before the court in the Hague.“

Another legal route, that of seeking an advisory opinion from the UN General Assembly, such as that issued in 2004, strongly condemning the construction of the separation wall, carries immense moral authority. Admittedly, he says, the latter proved ineffective in reining in Israel’s appetite for settlement and annexation, but the symbolic value of such measures and the encouragement they provide to civil society movements should not be underestimated.

The road ahead

A realist as well as an idealist, Falk sees no likelihood of Israel modifying its policies in the near future: “I do think that Israel is likely to continue mounting periodic attacks on Gaza for a variety of reasons, including the competitive edge gained in the arms market from field testing weapons and tactics.”

“I do think that Israel is likely to continue mounting periodic attacks on Gaza for a variety of reasons, including the competitive edge gained in the arms market from field testing weapons and tactics.”
“Jeff Halper’s The War Against the People makes this argument in a detailed and persuasive way. Halper also shows that these arms connections with more than 100 countries also have diplomatic side benefits, by giving foreign governments incentives not to take strong positions against Israel at the UN or elsewhere.”
Nevertheless, he finds reason for hope. “There have been major shifts of attitudes here in the US, especially among younger people, including Jews. Israel has lost its early image of being an idealistic and dynamic society that is a successful political model in a region that is dominated by military and religious autocracies.”

He also speaks of Palestinian civil society activists and their leaders as “increasingly the most authentic representatives of the Palestinian people,” and strongly supports the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) launched in 2005, which has become the centre of a growing global solidarity movement.

“If the BDS campaign can continue to build support and mount pressure,“ he says, “it has some chance of inducing Israeli political elites to recalculate their interests, and seek compromise and accommodation based on the equality of the two peoples. This is essentially what happened in South Africa, which also seemed like an impossibility – until it happened.”

Against this campaign are ranged the forces of a powerful pro-Israel lobby fighting worldwide to equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Falk finds this understandable: “Israeli think tanks in recent years have accurately concluded that what they call ‘the delegitimation project’ is a greater danger to Israeli security than is the prospect of revived Palestinian armed struggle.”

Clinton hostility to BDS

In relation to the upcoming elections, he is deeply disturbed by Hillary Clinton’s pledge to major Jewish donors that, if elected, she will oppose BDS. For Falk, this is a position that poses constitutional questions of repressing freedom of expression and nonviolent political advocacy. “Criticism of a political movement or of state policies and practices is treated as if it were hate speech – which totally contradicts the idea that citizens in a democratic society have the right and even the duty to follow their conscience with respect to public issues.”

Having witnessed many unforeseen political convulsions and transformations around the world, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Arab Spring, Falk does not despair of an eventual just solution in Palestine. He sees a “settler colonial society” like Israel as a complete anachronism in the 21st century and is certain that “the flow of history is on the side of the Palestinians”.

“The only humane and practical solution,” he says, “is to work out some kind of arrangement that shares Palestine on the basis of equality, whether as one state or two.”

But there is a prerequisite for peace: “To reach such a goal, the Israeli leadership would also have to acknowledge, in an open formal process, the wrongs inflicted on the Palestinians over the years since the establishment of Israel in 1948, starting with the Nakba (catastrophe).”

An impossible dream? Falk refers again to the sea-change wrought in South Africa, with its courageous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “If the regional situation turns against Israel and if the US is not unconditionally supportive, then unexpected changes should not be ruled out.”

A Message to Blog Readers

15 Mar

 

 

I have been very frustrated with the recent drift of blog comments for several reasons:

 

–not meeting my expectations of ‘constructive conversation’;

 

–creating a false impression that this blog is devoted exclusively to Israel/

Palestine concerns, and hosting the most basic settled issues: for instance,

Whether Palestine is ‘occupied’ or not; whether the Geneva Conventions apply

to Israel’s behavior as occupier; whether the two sides are equally responsible for the failure of the Oslo diplomacy; whether the settlements are lawful and

not an obstacle to a negotiated solution; whether Hamas is entitled to represent the people of Gaza, etc., etc..

 

I do not doubt that there are those upholding Israel’s claims are sincere in their convictions. But it is utterly pointless to carry on such a dialogue. I propose a moratorium on all comments dealing with this conflict until the

end of April.

 

We have reached yet another dead end, and it is better to appreciate it than

to waste time and undermine all prospects of useful exchange of ideas. There are numerous alternative outlets for those who want to celebrate Israel as a democratic, humane, and maligned country, and many of these do not allow

critical comments past their filters.