Tag Archives: Human rights

Human Rights, State Sovereignty, and International Law: An Interview

20 Sep

[Prefatory Note: The interview below conducted by my friend, journalist and author C.J. Polychroniou was initially published in the Global Policy Journal, on 11 September 2018, the 17thanniversary of the World Trade Center attacks and the 45thanniversary of the Pinochet coup in Chile that assassinated the elected president of the country Salvador Allende. Had I been asked, I might have commented on the fateful linkage between those two catastrophic events, both giving rise to massive suffering, with the earlier violent and sinister event enjoying the encouragement and possibly participation of the Washington deep state. The text printed below has been slightly modified for style]

 

 

Human Rights, State Sovereignty, and International Law: An Interview

We live in an era where virtually every government on the planet claims to pay allegiance to human rights and respect for international law. Yet, violations of human rights and plain human decency continue to occur with disturbing frequency in many parts of the world, including many allegedly “democratic” countries such as the United States, Russia, and Israel. Indeed, Donald Trump’s immigration policy, Putin’s systematic repression of dissidents, and Israel’s abominable treatment of Palestinians seem to make a mockery of the principle of human rights. Is this because of “faulty” forms of government or because of some Inherent tension between state sovereignty and human rights? And what about the international regime of human rights? How effective is it in protecting human rights?

  1. J. Polychroniou: Richard, you taught International Law and International Affairs at Princeton University for nearly half a century. How has international law changed from the time you started out as a young scholar to the present?

Richard Falk: You pose an interesting question that I have not previously thought about, yet just asking it makes me realize that this was a serious oversight on my part. When I started thinking on my own about the role and relevance of international law during my early teaching experience in the mid-1950s, I was naively optimistic about the future, and without being very self-aware, I now understand that I assumed a moral trajectory that made the future work out to be an improvement on the past and present, that there is ebb and flow, but overall a record of moral progress in collective behavior, including at the level of relations among sovereign states. I thought of the expanding role of international law as a major instrument for advancing progress toward a peaceful and equitable world, and endeavored in my writing to encourage the U.S. Government to align its foreign policy with international law, arguing, I suppose in a liberal vein, that such alignment would promote a better future for all while at the same time being beneficial for the United States, especially given the overriding interest in avoiding World War III.

 

My views gradually evolved in more critical and nuanced directions. As my interests turned toward the dynamics of decolonization, I came to appreciate that international law had been employed to legitimize European colonialism, including the exploitative economic arrangements that were imposed on many countries in the global south, whether or not they were colonies. I realized that the idealistic identification of international law with peace and justice was misleading, and at most only half of the story. International law was generated by powerful governments and economic elites to serve their overlapping interests, and was respected only so long as the vital interests of these dominant states were not being encroached upon.

 

The Vietnam War further influenced me to adopt a more cautious view of international law, and even more so, of the United Nations. I opposed the war at its outset from the perspective of international law, citing the most basic prohibitions on intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states and the core prohibition of the UIN Charter against all recourses to aggressive or non-defensive force. I did find it useful to put the debate on Vietnam policy in a legal format as the country was then under the sway of liberal leadership supposedly responsive to such considerations, but even back then subject to the logic of Cold War geopolitics and its silent partner, global capitalism. The defenders of Vietnam policy, seemingly motivated by Cold War considerations, relied on legal apologetics as well as claims that it was important for world order to contain the expansion of Communist influence throughout Asia, and that the real adversary in Vietnam was China rather than North Vietnam. The legal debate to which I devoted energy for ten years convinced me that international law on war/peace issues was opportunistically subordinated to geopolitics, including by the Western democracies, and besides, legal counter-arguments were always available to governments eager to invoke law to disguise their reliance on geopolitical priorities, especially in the realm of war/peace. In comparison, international law remains useful, effective, and even necessary for many routine transnational activities of people and governments, stabilizing trade and investment relations, but often in ways that favor the rich and influential, meaning that issues pertaining to such questions as maritime safety, international communications, and global tourism exhibit a surprisingly consistent adherence to an international law framework.

 

The U.S. global leadership role is unique in this respect in the period since 1945. In the early postwar period the U.S. seemed to be the champion of a law-regulated world order responsive to the UN Charter framework. This was never an accurate portrayal of American foreign policy as the Cold War prompted a variety of unlawful interventions after World War II, including assassination plots against foreign leaders perceived as leftists. After the Vietnam War the United States Government gradually quietly seemed to recognize that its foreign policy goals could not be achieved by relying on an international law approach, a recognition that became especially clear in carrying out its unconditional political commitment to support Israel however defiant of international norms and UN authority. The moves away from liberal internationalism accelerated during the conservative and nationalistic presidency of Ronald Reagan who was instinctively opposed to adapting American policy to an international law framework.

 

It was during the presidency of George W. Bush that international law was been further marginalized by being put aside or crudely reinterpreted whenever seen as an obstacle to a preferred course of action. The United States started spiraling out of control after the 9/11 attacks in the direction of redefining itself an illiberal democracy, a process reaching new heights during the Trump presidency when even the democratic foundational principles of the republic were increasingly drawn into question. This dynamic of mindless lawlessness has been reinforced by the global rise of ultra-nationalist political movements led by demagogic figures that have gained control of important governments throughout the world. For these movements, nationalist goals are always be given precedence without a second thought about legal or moral consequences. From these rightest perspectives international law should not be allowed to interfere with fidelity to a nationalist agenda. At the same time, the pressures exerted by migratory flows stemming from war torn regions, especially the Middle East and Africa, and from ecologically challenged habitats, have weakened mainstream support for human rights, and especially for those who seek relief by claiming a status of refugee or asylum seeker. Despite neoliberal globalization, and in some respects, as a reaction to it, the state system has become more statist than ever, with a corresponding retreat in humanitarian efforts to protect the human rights of vulnerable peoples, especially if they are regarded as strangers to the ethnic and religious community of a particular nation state.

 

In making this negative assessment, it is important not to overlook the central relevance of international law and human rights to civil society movements for peace, justice, and ecological sustainability. These normative sources of authority give peoples a legitimated discourse by which to oppose oppressive tendencies of the state or international institutions, and to project images of alternative futures that are more benevolent from the perspective of promoting a more satisfying shared destiny for the peoples of the world, with a special emphasis on protecting those who are most vulnerable. It is civil society that has tried to keep the humanside of human rights as integral to the protective mission of law, while governments are again limiting their view of rights to the rightsside as, at most, an entitlement of a national citizenry, especially those who are native born, and even here there is notable slippage by way of surveillance and meta-data scrutiny directed at the internal population.         

 

Q: Human rights are the cornerstone underpinning the rule of law, yet many governments throughout the world violate human rights with frightening frequency. Is there an inherent tension human rights and state sovereignty? Or, to phrase the question differently, do human rights challenge state sovereignty?

A: I believe the premise of your question is somewhat misleading. It may be appropriate to suggest that human rightsshould become the cornerstone of a global rule of law, and that it does function internally in this manner in a genuine democratic state. In international society the basis of an effective rule of law is mutual self-interest and reciprocity especially in the context of commercial and financial arrangemenst, maritime safety, and diplomatic relations. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (UDHR) was drafted, largely under the influence of Western liberal internationalist values, shortly after World War II it was looked upon as a largely aspirational document with non-existent expectations with respect to compliance or implementation. This was partly signaled by labeling the document as a Declaration,which meant that it was without obligatory force. It has been my view that the UDHR would not have won widespread support from leading government had it been negotiated as a lawmaking treaty with the effect of eroding sovereign rights. In this sense, compliance with the norms contained in the UDHR depends on what I have called in the past voluntary international law.In effect, international human rights standards were brought into being only because they were understood to be unenforceable, but this initial cynicism was challenged over time by a series of unanticipated developments.

Several factors altered these low expectations in ways that have given a weak obligatory status to some norms encompassed by the international law of human rights. For one thing, human rights NGOs emerged such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These civil society actors adopted as their mission campaigns to exert pressure by way of naming and shaming to induce compliance with human rights standards by governments. For another, the West found it useful to claim for itself democratic practices relating to human rights that were allegedly absent or deficient in the Soviet Union and East Europe, drawing a propaganda contrast between the free worldand the Soviet blocthat was centered on degrees of adherence to human rights in the liberal sense of individual rights in the political domain. Thus human rights became a valuable propaganda tool to convey what distinguished Cold War adversaries from one another in a self-serving manner. The Soviet Union countered Western allegations by claiming that human rights should be conceived more collectively in relation to societies as a whole and with an awareness of class differences, and thus emphasized adherence to economic and social rights as beneficial for the entire citizenry. This ideological difference, combined with the push for obligatory standards in international law, led to the artificial division of human rights into two parts, and their formulation in two separate treaties: Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and Convention of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). As might have been anticipated, the Western countries give their entire emphasis to civil and political rights, and deny any obligatory force to economic, social, and cultural rights, which are derided as unenforceable and inconsistent with the workings of market economies that sort out winners from losers without efforts to protect those who are victimized by market forces.

 

Against this background two important international developments lent practical political significance to these conceptual issues. First, the efforts of the countries in East Europe to gain freedom from Soviet rule, led to movements of resistance organized around demands for adherence to human rights by the institutions of the state. Secondly, the UN-backed Anti-Apartheid Campaign illustrated that human rights, if widely backed on a global level, can be a formidable instrument of soft power resistance to an oppressive regime of the sort that governed apartheid South Africa. In such contexts, international law and human rights played important roles in struggles by people against repressive conditions, and deserve appreciation by progressives who are otherwise dismissive of hypocritical legalism and moralism as the means by which the rich and powerful hide their reliance on naked power to achieve their selfish ends.

 

These developments suggest the emergence of human rights, but not yet its global acceptance as enforceable law. Particularly over the course of this century human rights have been under intense pressure from a number of sources. First came the American response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that produced a counterterrorist campaign that subjected suspects to torture and indefinite detention without charges or trial. Then came the migration and refugee crises that exerted pressures on various states to close their borders, despite the life-threatening denials of human rights entailed. Finally, came the rise of autocratic leaders who relied on scapegoats and fear-mongering to justify disregard of rights by governmental institutions, especially of all residents who lacked the panoply of credentials relevant to nationality and citizenship.

 

We can work toward a world in which there is a global rule of law that embodies human rights, but such a world does not now exist, and to be fair, never existed. Sovereignty based on territorial boundaries and international recognition, and given emotional content by nationalist and patrioteering ideologies, have all along tended to override human rights concerns whenever the two sources of authority clash. Despite the use of the word humanthe real perception of human rightsremains dependent for implementation on national procedures of implementation, which has meant national bias and selectivity.

 

Q: How does Donald Trump’s immigration policy square with human rights and international law?

A: Trumps behavior on immigration issues proceeds as if international humanitarian law doesnt exist, or at least doesnt count. His approach to Muslim potential immigrants or undocumented Hispanics living in the United States displays a monumental indifference and lack of empathy to whether such an identity should be respected and protected. Trumps sole criterion claims to be whether or not it is good for America with a pragmatic and selective approach to law enforcement (useful with respect to undocumented immigrants) and a total disregard for the values and norms of human rights. Overall, Trump has exhibited contempt for international law treaties that were considered when negotiated as major breakthroughs contributing to peace, security, and a sustainable environment. Among his most notable repudiations of law-oriented approaches to difficult international issues were his withdrawal from 2014 Climate Change Agreement, repudiation of the 2015 Nuclear Program (5 +1) Agreement with Iran, and refusal to take part in international efforts to develop a humane and collective approach to problems arising from global migration and refugee flows. Trumps ultra-nationalist and Islamophobic political agenda is self-consciously and deliberately insensitive to claims advanced on the basis of international law or simple morality. It is a view that accords preferences to geopolitical opportunism in all sectors of international life that give unreserved support to nationalist priorities while arrogantly refusing to take into account considerations of legality or of moral and political legitimacy.

 

Q: Ever since it’s creation as a nation-state, Israel has shown an absolutely brutal face towards the Palestinian people. Why is the so-called international community allowing Israel to continue with its inhumane stance towards the Palestinians?

A: I think the fundamental explanation for this long experience of Israeli oppressive practices and policies with respect to the Palestinian people flows directly from the essential nature of the Zionist project to establish an exclusivist Jewish state in a predominantly non-Jewish society, and to do so during the long twilight of European colonialism. This reality was further shaped by the Zionist insistence on seeking to be a legitimate modern secular state that respects human rights and formally operates as a constitutional democracy. Such Zionist goals meant that to be Jewish and to be democratic led directly to the forcible dispossession of as many as 750,000 non-Jewish residents of Palestine in 1947 in events differentially remembered by the Palestinians as the Nakba, or great catastrophe,and by the Israelis as the War of Independence. My point is that ethnic cleansing was embedded in the establishment of a majoritarian and exclusivist Jewish state from the moment that the  Israel came into being as a sovereign state, which was dubiously admitted to the United Nations. This insistence on being an exclusivist Jewish state was always embedded in the Zionist Project, but it was not acknowledged nor revealed until the passage of the Israel Nation State Law of the Jewish People a few months ago. This law removes any ambiguity, converting the de facto realities of an apartheid state into a self-proclaimed de jure framework.

 

There is a further issue of great importance. The idea of self-determination gained prominence during the period after World War II, gaining momentum as a result of a series of anti-colonial struggles involving countries throughout Asia and Africa. The Palestinian people could not be expected to submit to the Zionist Project without doing all in their power by way of resistance, and archival research has conclusively demonstrated that Palestinian resistance was anticipated by early Zionist leaders. These prospects and realities of resistance generated Israeli responses designed not just to uphold security, but to crush Palestinian hopes and lead to Palestinian submission to an acceptance of what was made to appear to be a lost cause.

The supposed Trump deal of the centuryis a geopolitical reinforcement of Israeli efforts to compel the Palestinians to accept an Israeli victory, and to content themselves with some improvements in the economics of everyday life attainable only under Israels political and cultural domination. Again, the cycle of resistance and repression is mutually reinforcing, and can be expected to continue until Israel is forced by pressure to recalculate its interests so as to reach a political compromise capable of producing sustainable peace based on the equality of the two peoples. This is what happened in South Africa, coming upon the world as a great surprise. It came about as a result of mounting worldwide soft power pressures that led the political leadership to accept the dismantling of the apartheid regime in the country as a lesser of evils. Until Israels political leaders reach such a point, there will be escalating patterns of Palestinian resistance, reinforced by international solidarity initiatives, giving way to interludes of intensified Israeli repression, and on and on, a vicious cycle seemingly without end, but one that will at some point yield to Palestinian pressures.

 

Of course, in the background until recently, was the relevance of the Jewish diaspora as creating a geopolitical situation that shielded Israel from efforts to implement either UN majority views on how to resolve the conflict or to exert inter-governmental pressures on Israel by way of sanctions. Zionism is a non-territorial world movement with a territorial base in Israel since 1948. With Trump in the White House Israel is assured of unlimited political support for its policies of brutality against the Palestinian people as well as for the realization of its maximal territorial ambitions. This development is accentuated by the broader developments in the Middle East that have led to a convergence of primary interests of Arab governments with the regional policies of Israel, which has meant a weakening of regional and international governmentalsupport for the Palestinian national struggle. The failure of the Palestinian movement to achieve political unity contributes further to the current ordeal being daily experienced by the Palestinian people as the excessive Israeli violence at the Gaza border in response to a largely nonviolent protest movement has recently demonstrated so dramatically in weekly killings and massive casualties that has gone on for many months.

 

 

Q: Numerous artists withdrew recently their participation from a music festival in Israel, apparently under pressure from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Given that Israel is not facing the sort of international isolation that apartheid South Africa begun to face years before it’s collapse, is BDS of any concrete benefit to the Palestinian people, or merely a plain irritation for the Israeli government?

 

The growing impact of the BDS Campaign is a sign that global solidarity movement of support for the achievement of Palestinian basic rights is gaining political traction throughout the world. With the UN unable to implement its numerous resolutions based on upholding Palestinian rights under international law and the Oslo peace diplomacyabandoned after falling into a condition of disrepute, civil society has both the opportunity and responsibility to play a central role in creating the preconditions for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in a manner that recognizes the rights and equality of Jews and non-Jews. BDS is the spearhead of this form of coercive nonviolent efforts to obtain compliance with basic requirements of law and morality. It should be kept in mind that BDS was not an internationalist venture, but formed in response to a call for solidarity more than a decade ago by a large number of NGOs based in Palestinians and has continued to be led by Palestinians.

The frantic efforts of Israel and its supporters around the world to criminalize participation in BDS seems an over-reaction to the effectiveness of BDS as a tactic of opposition and a challenge to the legitimacy of Israel as an exclusivist or apartheid Jewish state. Such moves to defame BDS supporters and even to criminalize participation is posing a serious danger to free expression in the West, including at universities. It should be appreciated that BDS tactics are entirely nonviolent, although admittedly militant with a coercive intention, and based on transnational civil society enforcementinitiatives in settings where the institutions and procedures of global governance are unable or unwilling to protect the rights of vulnerable peoples. If such forms of free expression are suppressed it is a huge setback for democratic governance, as well as creating a dangerous precedent for the future.

 

The pronounced efforts to brand BDS as anti-Semiticis particularly regressive and unfortunate. By this insistence in defining anti-Semitism as embracing harsh criticism of Israel it directly challenges freedom of expression and weakens the capacity of society to promote social and economic justice. Besides this, by conflating criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews, Zionist opportunism is confusing the nature of anti-Semitism in ways that obscure real threats of ethnic hatred, which is as unacceptable to BDS supporters as it is to BDS attackers. The definitions of what sometimes called the new anti-Semitismby the U.S. State Department and by the British Labour Party are illustrative of this unfortunate trend.

 

At the same time it is important to appreciate the potential leverage exerted by the BDS campaign. Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, recently called cultural and sports boycotts of Israel by world class artists and celebrity athletes as a game changer.He had in mind at the time the singer Lana Del Ray who had just withdrawn from scheduled concert appearances in Israel and the star Argentinian footballer, Lionel Messi, who captained the national team that cancelled a friendlywith Israel prior to the Moscow World Cup. Waters explains his animating motivation with these words tied to the wider struggle for human dignity:

“And as I say often on stage, when we all got together in 1948 in Paris, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by the then-fledgling United Nations, it declares that all human beings all over the world, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, or nationality, have a natural right to basic civil and human rights, and to the right of self-determination. And I believe that to be true. So this struggle is really only an attempt to implement those brave words from 1948.”

 

The long victimization of the Palestinian people is a stark reminder that the original undertaking to promote human rights in 1948 remains an almost invisible distant goal. In praising those who support boycotts Waters declared that it is simply “the right thing to do.” In so declaring he was explicitly invoking Archbishop Tutu’s influential remark that ‘neutrality in the face of injustice’ is morally unacceptable.

 

It is helpful to remember that most of the positive changes with respect to law and morality generally start on city streets with expression of outrage directed at prevailing policies. This was true of the civil rights movement in America, of the protests against Communist rule in Eastern Europe, of the Arab Spring, of the struggles for gay rights, and indeed it is descriptive of every notable positive development that has occurred during my lifetime. Yet one should not get carried away. We should not, however, uncritically glamorize movements from below. Fascism was responsive to populist frustrations giving rise to demagogues who stir crowds to frenzy with their demonic solutions to the ills of society, and most ominously, we such patterns presently gaining political ground in many countries. 

 

 

Q: You served for many years as United Nations Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights. What has been the role of the UN towards the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and where does international law stand over this matter?

 

My experience at the UN as Special Rapporteur helped me understand why the UN is important, yet extremely limited in its capacity to affect behavior due to its lack of independent political capabilities needed to implement its recommendations. This gap between capabilities and expectations was particularly apparent in relation to the Palestinian issue. In both the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York, the Palestinian struggle to achieve their rights was supported rhetorically by an overwhelming majority of states, yet it was opposed by important geopolitical actors, especially the United States. In concrete terms this UN majority was able to insist on fact finding inquiries into allegations of Israeli wrongdoing and to release reports extremely critical of Israels behavior, but the Organization was blocked as soon as it tried to implement any recommendations that would challenge Israels policies and practices. Such outcomes on the level of behavior give rise to impressions of UN irrelevance that are as misleading as are excessive reliance on the UN, as now constituted, to serve as a reliable vehicle for achieving the values of peace, global justice, and ecological stability.

 

In a positive manner, the UN was a crucial authority with respect to validating Palestinian grievances, and helped Palestine in its effort to win the Legitimacy War with Israel, which is important. Legitimacy Wars are foughtto get the upper hand with world public opinion by appealing to international law and international morality. In the early period of Israels existence, with the cloud of liberal guilt associated with the Holocaust still shaping political consciousness, the wrongs done to the Palestinian people were virtually erased from awareness in the West. In recent years, the soft power balance has been shifting in Palestines favor just as the hard power balance is more weighted in Israels favor than ever before. It should be appreciated that most political struggles relating to self-determination during the last century were won in the end by the side that won the Legitimacy War, and not the side with military superiority. This observation applies not only to the wars against European colonialism, but it also relates to many of the American regime-changing interventions as well as most graphically to the Vietnam War in which the U.S. exerted military dominance and yet lost the political struggle at the root of the conflict in the end. Explaining this apparent paradox would loosen the hold of militarism on the political imagination in this century.

 

Another aspect of my experience as a UN appointee, although not a UN civil servant as the position was voluntary and unpaid, was a bewildering mixture of independence and defamation. Even the Secretary General insulted me on more than one occasion but admitted that he lacked the authority to dismiss me. Only the Human Rights Council could do this if a majority of member states found that I exceeded my mandate. Throughout my tenure at the UN the HRC overwhelmingly supported my efforts as Special Rapporteur. At the same time, ultra-Zionist NGOs, UN Watch and NGO Monitor, were free to roam the halls, and release all sorts of defamatory material about me without losing their accreditation at the UN, and even having an unseemly leverage with several pro-Israeli governments, prompting diplomats representing the U.S., UK, and Canada to echo their attacks almost word for word.

 

My position at the UN was tricky in unexpected other respects, with pitfalls that I discovered only in the course of my experience. Perhaps, most significantly, I came to realize that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which represents Palestine at the UN and originally backed my appointment, pushed hard behind the scenes in my first years in the position to have me dismissed by the HRC, and further put me for awhile under rather intense pressure to resign. I only began to understand this when it became clear that the PA seemed to put greater stress on their rivalry with Hamas than with their struggle for Palestinian self-determination, and as well, were somewhat compromised by their quasi-collaborative relationship with Israel, especially with respect to West Bank security arrangements and access to international aid cash flows. What irritated the PA was my effort to present the role of Hamas fairly, especially as it related to developments in Gaza, and the initiatives taken by Hamas leaders to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. With the passage of time I did work out live and let live workable arrangements with the PA who were ably represented in Geneva and New York by Palestinian diplomats who were dedicated to achieving Palestinian self-determination but believed their effectiveness depended upon accepting UN constraints associated with an acceptance of the reality that it is the U.S. that calls the shots on many issues of concern to Palestine. In other words, I learned to be less judgmental without giving ground on my essential effort to discern and report the truth as I perceived it.

 

Finally, I was forced to accept the fact that although I did my best for six years to express the realities of the Palestinian situation, focusing on the denial of basic rights under international law, including the inescapable relevance of continuous unlawful Israeli encroachments on occupied Palestinian by settlements, the wall, disrupting mobility, and numerous other measures, the Palestinian situation on the ground got worse and worse with the passage of each year. Israel never adhered to international law treaty arrangements that obliged UN members to cooperate with the UN in the discharge of its official undertakings. When I tried to enter Israel at the end of 2008 on an official mission trip, I was expelled and detained in a prison cell for more than 16 hours. Despite this, the UN was itself timid and intimidated,  unwilling to mount a public protest or to secure my access throughout my term.

 

What I did achieve as SR was to facilitate some shifts in the public discourse on the Palestinian struggle within the UN itself and in relation to the NGO community and the attentive media. It became more possible to speak of settler colonialismin relation to the Zionist Project of establishing a Jewish state with the blessings of British Foreign Office in 1917 although the Jewish population of Palestine at the time was less than 6% and to use annexationwith reference to the expansion of the settlements established in violation of international humanitarian law governing belligerent occupation and even to refer to apartheidas the essential character of the manner in which Israel maintained control over the deliberately fragmented Palestinian people. It was these assessments that exerted enough influence to help explain the personal attacks on me as an anti-Semite and political extremist. It also led me to have very positive relations with many of the delegations representing countries supportive of Palestine and to receive private reassurances of support and even admiration from high-ranking UN staff members.

 

Q: If state sovereignty and international protection of human rights are incompatible, what is the way out of this conundrum?

 A: There are two obvious paths to achieve greater degrees of compatibility. The first path would involve stronger regional and global mechanisms to promote compliance with fundamental human rights standards. In a UN context this would require a major reform unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future, the elimination of the right of veto enjoyed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council or at least an agreed renunciation of the veto in situations involving human rights as distinct from peace and security. In effect, this would lead to a weakening of geopolitical leverage within the UN and a corresponding strengthening of the Rule of Law, and more generally, of international law. Since such developments, although morally desirable, are implausible given the present political realities of international life, the best current hope to promote compatibility from withoutmay be at the regional level where shared values and interests are greater and geopolitical interference less pronounced. This regional option seems more available, for example, in Latin America than East Asia, although in the face of the global rise of autocratic patterns of national governance, the prospects for regional implementation of human rights standards are also not currently very bright.

 

The second path to compatibility is via stronger efforts at national implementation. Such a possibility seemed more realistic at times when constitutional democracy seemed the wave of the future. Now with the tide turning in autocratic and ultra-nationalistic directions the resistance to any domestic imposition of international standards seems doubtful if they clash with national policies and practices. To the extent that national political systems embody human rights standards as a matter of national policy the issue of compatibility is minimized, and in such circumstances there are few real tensions associated with the assertion of sovereign rights and national autonomy. When security crises, as in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, push leaders to take expedient measures in the name of counterterrorism, then as was the case in the United States, even torture becomes legalizedon the national level, and international treaty commitments to the contrary are ignored.

As the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Raad al Hussein declared in a speech at the observance of the 25thanniversary of the UN Conference on Human Rights and Development held in Vienna, human rights are experiencing a retreat across many fronts at the present time with few signs of any significant countervailing moves. The illiberal state, which almost everywhere is replacing the liberal state, no longer as a matter of course embraces humane values, with the weakening of a human rights as a result. To the extent that there continue to exist a robust constituency for human rights it is situated in civil society, and its transnational initiatives. In this regard, I would view the BDS Campaign in support of Palestinian grievances as essentially a popular movement dedicated to achieving basic human rights for a long oppressed people.

 

 

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Palestine, Israel, and the UN: A PassBlue Interview

4 Aug

Palestine, Israel, and the UN: A PassBlue Interview

 

 

[Prefatory Note: I am posting an interview with Dulcie Leimbach, the wonderfully

probing editor of PassBlue, an online new service covering the United Nations. PassBlue is sxc r.la nonprofit digitial journalism website covering the United Nations. Check it out: http://www.passblue.com/2018/07/24/richard-falk-on-palestine-israel-and-the-un-in-the-trump-age/

 

The interview was initially published on July 17, 2018, and Dulcie managed to get me to talk more about my personal background than I intended, but here it is for those with curious eyes, although most of the private disclosures were not in the published text. Part of the motivation for the interview stems, I suppose, from the bewilderment of how a Jewish boy from Manhattan’s West Side should become so committed to the Palestinian national struggle. I could evade the issue by insisting that before the Palestinians I was an ardent advocate of the Vietnamese people, the anti-apartheid campaign targeting South Africa, and on behalf of other peoples struggling against heavy odds to achieve their rights, including native Americans and indigenous Hawaiians. I would like to think of my commitments as flowing from a global humanist perspective rather than offering hostile critics an example of an inverted ethnic attachment that marked me at birth, but only seems relevant by referencing the still prevalent markers of a tribalized world order. As a self-proclaimed citizen pilgrim I have sought for myself the markers of an ecologically sensitive and morally attuned citizen pilgrim, and invite others to join this invisible, yet deliberately subversive and potentially transformative, world political movement.]

 

 

 

 

Dulcie Leimbach’s introductory note: Richard Falk is an American academic and writer who from 2008 until 2014 was the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine since 1967, a post that nearly always invites controversy. For Falk, however, the work compelled him to declare, among other things, that Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza in 2008 amounted to “war crimes.” He has been banned from Israel since then.

 

His appointment in 2008 by consensus in the Human Rights Council was criticized at the time by John Bolton, United States Ambassador to the United Nationsfrom 2005-2006, who said,”This is exactly why we voted against the new human rights council,” and that “He was picked for a reason, and the reason is not to have an objective assessment — the objective is to find more ammunition to go after Israel.”

 

Falk, who is 87, was born in New York City and raised in midtown Manhattan. He graduated from the Wharton Schoolat the University of Pennsylvania, in 1952, before completing a Bachelor of Laws degree at Yale. He obtained a doctorate in law from Harvard University in 1962.

 

His academic career started at Ohio State University and eventually landed him at Princeton University for 40 years as a professor of international law. He is now affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara.

 

  1. First things first, what you have been doing since your work ended as the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967? Are you still affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara? You live in the city year-round, but you spend some months in Turkey, where your wife, name tk, is from and where you are right now?

 

Falk: Since ending my role as special rapporteur in 2014, I have continued to write on various international topics, publishing two books on general international relations, Power Shift: On the New Global Order, Zed, 2017) andRevisiting the Vietnam War(edited by Stefan Andersson, CUP, 2018) as well as a book on the ongoing Palestinian national struggle, Palestine Horizon: Toward a Just Peace, Pluto, 2017).  I was also the co-author with Virginia Tilley of a controversial report to the UN Economic and Social Council of West Asia [ESCWA], released on March 15, 2017, as to whether Israel’s practices and policies toward the Palestinian people amounted to apartheid. The report was harshly attacked by Ambassador Nikki Haley with a demand that it be repudiated by the new UN secretary-general, António Guterres. Haley’s rant included an attack on me but without any specific criticisms of either my record or the report. The SG ordered the report removed from the website of ESCWA, but its director [Rima Khalaf, a Palestinian living in Jordan] resigned in protest, explaining her reasons in an open letter to the SG, rather than follow this instruction. Formally, the report has never been repudiated, has been officially archived by ESCWA and was always meant to be an academic study without necessarily pretending to reflect UN thinking with a clear disclaimer to this effect.  Of course, the fury of the attack gave this otherwise obscure report much more attention than it would otherwise have likely received. The text is available on several websites under the title, and has been published in French, Spanish, and Arabic. Here is a helpful link.

“Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, March 15, 2017.

 

I am continuing to live most of the year in Santa Barbara, where my wife and I both maintain an affiliation with UCSB, as research fellows. We do spend several months in Turkey every year, and have some academic and journalistic affiliations there. I am currently completing work on a volume of my collected writings over the years on issues affecting nuclear weapons, as well as struggling with a memoir. All in all, I think I am entitled to claim “an active retirement,” at least from Princeton, where I taught from 1961-2001.

 

  1. What is it like to be in Turkey now, as an American, as the nature of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “executive presidency” becomes apparent?

 

Falk: This had been a period of intense contestation in Turkey, especially in view of the national elections on June 24, the most important in the history of the country, which not only resulted in the re-election of Erdogan as president, but involved implementing the constitutional transformation of Turkey from being a parliamentary system to a presidential system with a very strong concentration of power in the presidency and few of the constraints that we associate with a “republican democracy” (checks and balances, separation of powers, independent judiciary, human rights as beyond governmental reach). At the same time, two things should be kept in mind: the changes have not yet altered state/society relations in Turkey; what had previously been done by Erdogan in a de facto manner over a period of almost 16 years is now given the blessings of law, making it de jure. Also, it should be remembered that before Erdogan and the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] came on the scene, the elected government was subject to a military tutelage system with periodic coups taking place whenever the military leadership felt dissatisfied with the policies pursued by the elected leaders. It should also be kept in mind that when the Turkish government made many changes enhancing human rights in the early years of Erdogan leadership, from 2002-2009, partly to satisfy its ambition to gain membership in the European Union, it received no encouragement; in fact, the opposite. Nevertheless, in the period since the failed coup of July 15, 2016, there has been a serious repression of dissent, affecting freedom of expression in universities, media and the governmental civil service, as well as a clampdown on the Kurdish national movement. There are extenuating circumstances, involving the penetration by the [Fethullah] Gulen movement of all sectors of government, as well as security threats from the conflicts in the region. The Erdogan leadership has delivered many benefits to the more disadvantaged classes in Turkey and public funds for development of the previously neglected eastern part of the country.

 

  1. Your work as the UN special rapporteur was controversial, given the topic of Palestine. The US government, including Susan Rice, as ambassador to the UN, consistently rejected your findings. How did you feel when your work was refuted by the US? Would you have done your work differently, in hindsight?

 

Falk: I felt during the period disappointed by the criticism from high officials in the US government (during the Obama presidency) and that of a few other governments (Canada, Australia, UK), which seemed in all instances to be based on pressures exerted and “information” supplied by ultraZionist NGOs, such as UN Watch and NGO Monitor. These pressures took no account of the substance of my reports but attacked me as biased and unbalanced, misleadingly referring to my supposed views on other issues, taking them out of context and then exaggerating their contentions. I realized when I accepted the position that some of this defamatory pushback came with the territory, but its intensity and personal invective surprised me somewhat, as well as the irresponsible reinforcement by high officials in my own government. I would not report differently in hindsight.

 

I have told journalists that anyone with 10 percent objectivity would come to the same assessment of Israeli occupation policies and practices from the perspective of international humanitarian law. There was no need to be balanced to reach these conclusions, as the realities associated with Israeli control of Occupied Palestine were so clear, and really mostly beyond dispute and often confirmed even by official Israeli sources. I came to the view that this explains why the pushback on criticism of Israel is not substantive, but focuses on killing the messenger while ignoring the message, and even in discrediting the institution rather than refuting the criticisms.

 

  1. What was the most rewarding aspect of your work as UN rapporteur? How can the role of the rapporteur be enhanced and more influential more generally?

 

Falk: I found that despite the attacks that were directed at me, and possibly partly because of them, there was much offsetting appreciation from many governments, including those in Europe that conveyed views privately that were more critical of Israel than the posture taken publicly. Within the UN, my reports did have some effect on changing the discourse with respect to the use of some words that were more illuminating than the standard ways of describing the situation. For instance, talking of “de facto annexation” with respect to the impact of settlement expansion in the West Bank rather than the static term “occupation,” and calling attention to the “colonialist” nature of the dispossession of the native population, which was a long-term phenomenon continued after the mass dispossession in the 1948 War through the “settlements,” which violated Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

 

I also discovered that several important governments relied on my reports to shape their understanding of the situation, and shaped their policies responsively. Perhaps, most importantly, these comprehensive reports that I submitted twice a year (once to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and once to the General Assembly in New York) were relied upon by many influential groups in the NGO world, including religious organizations like the World Council of Churches. The role of special rapporteurs [SRs] has become more recognized in recent years, and receives more attention and respect from the global media. The position is unpaid and voluntary, and as a result, SRs are not formally part of the UN civil service, giving those selected a valuable degree of independence, and this has come to be more widely understood in public spaces concerned with various issues of global concern. Even in the face of my difficult tenure, many excellently qualified persons applied to be my successor, and despite a great effort being made by the US government and Israel to influence the electoral process in the Human Rights Council, which did have some effect in disqualifying suitable candidates, but not enough to avoid the selection of someone who has turned out to be as critical of Israel as I was, Michael Lynk, a widely respected law professor from Canada.

 

  1. What do you see as the most profound changes in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since you stopped being the UN rapporteur?

 

Falk: The advent of the Trump presidency has changed the tone of the relationship between the United States and [Israel] with Washington abandoning any pretense of impartiality, making clear that Palestinian interests and concerns are irrelevant to the US government’s public discourse and concrete policies. This development has been accentuated by the shifts in approach taken by Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have been outspoken in their comments encouraging the Palestinian Authority to accept whatever is offered to them by Washington.

 

In the opposite direction, the BDS [Palestinian-led  and originated Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] Campaign, having its 13thanniversary, has gained momentum in the last year, and governments, including South Africa and Ireland, are moving toward endorsements of boycotts. There is also a sense in the European Union that if a diplomatic solution is to be reached it will require a more balanced intermediary than what the US has provided.

 

In this context, Israel has felt empowered to move to maximize settlement expansion

and legalization (within Israeli law), while using excessive force in response to shows of Palestinian resistance.

 

The most basic development in the last few years has been the marginalization of the Palestinian issue due to the priorities of leading Arab governments, the sense that further diplomacy is futile, and some international acceptance of the Israeli claim that the conflict is essentially over, and a “solution” can be reached only if Palestinians can be persuaded to accept political defeat, abandoning their struggle to achieve the central national goal of self-determination, and some kind of sovereign polity, whether in a two-state or one-state format.

 

  1. Do you think President Trump has an actual peace plan? If so, what do you know about it and how do you think Palestinians will react to it? Some people think Trump will announce the peace plan close to US midterm elections in November to boost the prospects of the Republican party?

 

Falk: My understanding of the Trump proposals is that they are built around the idea of “economic peace,” — support for enhancement of Palestinian material circumstances and daily experience, if and only if the political goal of genuine statehood and the normative pursuit of self-determination are quietly renounced, or nominally satisfied in a way that does not emancipate the Palestinian people from the realities of subjugation. Such proposals are likely to be so unsatisfactory to the Palestinian leaders and public, including from the perspective of the quasi-collaborationist Palestinian Authority, as to be rejected without any effort to negotiate on such a one-sided basis. If this happens, Israel will rejoice, and Trump will almost certainly condemn the Palestinians as “rejectionist,” allowing the Israelis to insist, as they have in the past that they have “no partner” in the search for peace.

 

How this turn of events will play politically in the US prior to the midterm elections is hard to foresee. Trump may get some credit from his base by claiming that he has done his utmost to promote peace, but could not overcome Palestinian rejectionism. Without much doubt, his main Zionist donors will express some gratitude by upping their donations, but whether this will make any tangible difference in an election that is almost certain to be essentially a popularity contest about Trump and Trumpism, even though the November elections are limited to Congressional races. Aside from the balance between pro- and anti-Trump sentiments, the Republican electoral performance will likely hinge on the public perception of economic factors, and may reflect the outcome of the Mueller investigation, especially if the Special Counsel submits his final report in October, as rumored. As Mueller was my senior thesis advisee 52 years ago at Princeton, I have some sense as to his style of reasoning, and believe there are grounds for supposing that he will follow the trail of the evidence wherever it might lead. I attach here the link to my article that discusses what I learned from rereading his thesis a few weeks ago.  https://www.thenation.com/article/robert-muellers-undergraduate-thesis-adviser-wrote-gives-hints-hell-special-counsel/

 

 

 

  1. What do you recommend that the Palestinian leadership – Mahmoud Abbas – do for Palestinians in this increasingly difficult situation, with the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the murders of Gazans during the Great Return March with impunity and zero progress on a two-state solution?

 

Falk: It is a difficult, no-win situation for Abbas and the PA [Palestinian Authority] in this setting. The present posture of public defiance, indicating objections to the embassy move and Israel’s use of excessive force, while collaborating with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] in maintaining West Bank security and suppressing Hamas is not contributing to the legitimacy of Abbas as leader or the PA as international representative of the Palestinian people. Abbas is caught in a swirl of contradictory dimensions of his leadership role, which is itself under attack by Palestinians under the PA administration and throughout the refugee and exile communities.

 

There have been some less-noticed PA initiatives that disturb Israel, such as recourse to the International Criminal Court, and continuing efforts to establish the trappings of statehood via increased diplomatic recognition (over 130 countries), membership in international institutions, and adherence to international treaty arrangements. These formal developments have raised the Palestinian status as a participant in the UN system and generally, but these changes have had no positive effect on the lives of Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps. For Palestinians, their living circumstances have continued to deteriorate.

 

It might be possible, given other pressures for the PA to work out some sort of sustainable reconciliation with Hamas that would give the Palestinian people a more unified and credible representation in international settings. Hamas seems receptive, and has moderated its tactics, ideology and goals in recent years, but this has not led to any lasting cooperation between the PA and Hamas. Israel strongly favors maintaining these existing tensions, which are regarded as contributing some political force to their apparent interest in separating Gaza from the rest of Occupied Palestine, encouraging Jordan or Egypt to resume administrative responsibilities, and thus allay Israeli concerns about “the demographic bomb” if Israel moves toward an Israeli one-state endgame.

 

  1. Why do you think the Trump administration – and Nikki Haley as US ambassador to the UN – are seemingly so averse to remedying the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation? Do you think they have intensified the problem with their rhetoric and actions?

 

Falk: My sense is the Trump administration—and Haley as the lead voice—seek to please their domestic political base by killing two birds with one stone: attacking the UN and siding with Israel as supreme counterterrorist, anti-Islamic ally. In this regard, the policies are not qualitativelydifferent than what was done during the Obama presidency, but more bombastically and belligerently articulated by Trump and Haley, and backed by some tangible reinforcement—especially, the embassy move to Jerusalem while ignoring the massacre at the Gaza border, signaling that so far as Washington is concerned Israel can do what it wants in the name of security and without any regard to international law or UN majority views. There was almost no prospect for a sustainable peace during the Obama years and less than zero now.

 

 

  1. Is the Trump administration’s increasing global isolationism seriously damaging the UN? What do you think are the motives of Trump and Haley for walking away from many aspects and agencies of the UN, such as the Human Rights Council? What do you predict will happen to the Human Rights Council without the US as a member?

 

Falk: It is helpful to realize that the Trump hostility to the UN is part of a broader retreat from American involvement in international institutions and multilateral arrangements. In this regard, the UN posture is fully consistent with the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate  Agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP). Trump questions multilateralism in general as he seems to believe it weakens the bargaining advantages of the US as the strongest state, militarily, economically and diplomatically. For these reasons, Trump is seen as an advocate of transactionalapproaches to international cooperation based on bilateral agreements worked out by threat, coercion and, above all, reflecting disparities of power. One outcome is the unfolding trade war with China, and tension with even close allies in Europe and North America. Another is the great loss of soft power leadership that had been exercised by the US ever since World War II, a reputational decline that leaves the world without much capacity for global policymaking at a time of several urgent global challenges.

 

The Human Rights Council loses some of its stature without the participation of the US, and creates enmity by withdrawing when it could not force its will on this leading UN human rights arena. At the same time, without US obstructionism, the proceedings of the Council should be more amicable and possibly more fruitful and constructive.

 

Q If you had lunch with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, what would you say to him?

 

I would, of course, suggest meeting at the best Portuguese restaurant in New York City.

 

I would express empathy, first of all. It is not pleasant to become secretary-general at

a time during which the UN faces financial pressures and the loss of prestige due to the rise of nationalistic tendencies throughout the world, the bullying diplomacy of Haley/Trump,

the decline of human rights amid a rising tide of migration. Never has the global setting been more averse to the pursuit of UN goals. At the same time, never has the world more needed a robust global problem-solving capability. The UN suffered serious losses of credibility by its failures to protect Iraq against American aggressive warfare in 2003 and its seeming irrelevance to the Syrian strife that has continued since 2011 at great human cost.

 

I think that Mr. Guterres would do well to speak more openly and directly to the peoples of the world, accepting invitations to address influential conferences and set forth the case for a more responsible participation in the activities of the UN. His position as SG [secretary-general] still enjoys prestige as a source of commentary on the human condition — what is encouraging and what it discouraging. Along with Pope Francis, the SG post enjoys the greatest weight with respect to voicing opinions on the morality of international behavior. If Mr. Guterres articulated effectively a positive role for the UN at this stage of world history he could exert a benevolent influence on world public opinion that could affect governmental attitudes and behavior especially if there are swings back to more internationalism in important states in the next few years. In this regard, the US remains the most important national arena with respect to the UN, both because of its funding role and the symbolic fact that UN headquarters and its most important organs are situated within the US.

 

During dessert, I would encourage Mr. Guterres to focus on those issues that affect humanity as a whole, and are not currently contentious as between states. I would thus emphasize the importance of climate change, extreme poverty, nuclear disarmament and the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. The SG has an opportunity to become the most visible exponent of the conscience of the world. I think if this were done imaginatively, with a certain ironic humor, it would have spillover effects allowing the UN to become again more effective in addressing immediate challenges in the domain of war and peace, thereby recovering from its various disappointing roles in the Arab world, including Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.

 

To be effective, considering the UN structure, heavily weighted in favor of the five permanent members of the Security Council [Britain, China, France, Russia and the US], the SG must navigate between the pressures exerted by geopolitical actors and the high ideals and procedures embedded in the UN Charter. This requires skillful navigation, but it also holds out the possibilities of lighting candles that could Illuminate a path to a safer and more sustainable and satisfying future for the peoples of the world.

 

Reading Elisabeth Weber’s KILL BOXES

11 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The purpose of this post is to recommend highly a book by Elisabeth Weber addressing the interrelated issues of torture, indefinite detention, and drone warfare from a perspective that is both humanistic and deeply steeped in European philosophical thought, treating especially the work of Jacques Derrida as illuminating and situating these complex questions of state violence and technology in the special circumstances that unfolded after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Appearing below is a review of the book that appeared in a recent issue of The Huffington Post followed by my Afterword that is printed at the end of Weber’s important book. Kill Boxes can be ordered in the normal ways, including by Amazon, which these days I mention reluctantly as it remains one of the few respected companies that continue to advertise on the Breitbart alt-right website. The publisher’s website with information about how to obtain the book can be found at https://punctumbooks.com/titles/kill-boxes-facing-the-legacy-of-us-sponsored-torture-indefinite-detention-and-drone-warfare/

 

Book Review: “Kill Boxes: Facing the Legacy of US-Sponsored Torture, Indefinite Detention, and Drone Warfare,” by Elisabeth Weber

Rebecca Tinsley, Contributor

Journalist and human rights activist

 

In her timely book, “Kill Boxes,” Elisabeth Weber ironically notes the “long history of images uniting figures of torture and sacredness or divinity.” She explores the use of “no touch” “positional” torture in which the terrified victims are forced to inflict suffering on themselves, leaving no marks. When the Abu Ghraib photos emerged, the media focused on the pornographic aspects and the exploitation of cultural sensitivities. Most commentators accepted that “a few bad apples were to blame,” rather than seeing it as standard CIA and military practice. Yet, despite the 2014 Senate report on the use of torture, those responsible have enjoyed almost total impunity. What’s more, torture is back on the political agenda, and with popular backing, according to opinion polls.

 

Weber, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, explores the writing of Jean Amery, a survivor of the Gestapo during World War Two. He described torture as being let down by one’s own flesh, and experiencing death while still alive, prompting Weber to draw parallels with the paintings of Francis Bacon. With the first blow received from an agent of the state, Amery wrote, a person’s trust in the world broke down irreparably, and with it any expectation of help. Disturbing as some might find torture, evidently the producers of the “24” phased out torture from the show’s plots because it had become “trite” and was no longer a novelty.

 

“Kill Boxes” also traces the post-Abu Ghraib shift from capturing and interrogating suspects to extrajudicial drone assassinations. The NGO Reprieve has counted 4,700 attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, all places where the US is not, officially, at war. Weber writes of the post-traumatic stress experienced by people living in places where the hum of drones overhead is constant, and where concentrating on school lessons or work is impossible if one fears attack at any moment.

 

Drawing on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is transformed into an insect, Weber cites the term “bug splat,” used by drone operators to describe those they kill. As the leading interpreter of Jacques Derrida, she also examines his “two ages of cruelty;” scientifically and technologically sophisticated, and allegedly surgical and precise, as opposed to archaic, indiscriminate and bloody. As Derrida concluded, “One does not count the dead in the same way from one corner of the globe to the other.”

 

“Kill Boxes” concludes with a scorching essay by human rights authority Richard Falk. He recalls Henry Kissinger’s post-Vietnam aim to maximize effectiveness while minimizing the risk to Americans, enjoying invulnerability while the enemy is completely vulnerable. It is, Falk, warns, the surest way to convince young Muslims that only violent resistance can protect their cultural space from American aggression.

********************************************

Afterword

 Richard Falk

The United States emerged from World War II with a triumphal sense that its military power had defeated evil political forces in Europe and Asia, and should not be subject to scrutiny despite causing massive civilian casualties along the way to victory. There were few tears shed as a result of the firebombing of Dresden, an occurrence given a long literary life thanks to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or in reaction to the firebombing of Tokyo, or even in reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two Japanese cities were selected because they had not been previously bombed in the war as they contained no important military targets and would be ideal sites to convey the extent of devastation caused by this new hyper-weapon.

 

There is little doubt that if Germany or Japan had developed the bomb and used it in a similar fashion, and then despite this, lost the war, their leaders would have certainly been charged with crimes and held accountable. What the United States learned from this major wartime experience was that military superiority ensured the triumph of justice as well as gained for the country diplomatic ascendancy and enormous economic benefits. The unpleasant fact that the vehicle for such success included recourse to genocidal tactics of warfare was put aside as irrelevant, or worse, a demeaning of a just war and those who fought it. Ever since World War II there has been this psychotic doubling of moral consciousness that fractures the coherence of law by violating its essential imperative: treating equals equally. The contrary approach of ‘victor’s justice’ is to grant impunity to the victor while imposing accountability on the loser as by way of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials.

 

Visiting North Vietnam in June of 1968 to view what the American Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had described as the most ‘surgical’ bombing campaign in all of history, I was shocked by the indiscriminately devastated cities that had been targeted from air. I was even more shocked by the awareness of total vulnerability of Vietnamese society to the onslaught of what was then almost limitless high tech superiority in weaponry, which translated into total American domination of air, sea, and land dimensions of the Vietnam War. One aspect of this vulnerability of this essentially peasant society, which disturbed me deeply at the time, was the relative helplessness of the Vietnamese to do anything by way of retaliation. In this respect, the war was relatively one-sided, with war thinkers at such think tanks as RAND openly advocating a gradual escalation of the pain being inflicted on Vietnamese society until the political leadership in Hanoi came to their senses and surrender as Germany and Japan had finally done two decades earlier. After lesser forms of punishment failed to achieve their desired result, American political and military leaders pondered whether to bomb the dikes in the Red River Delta that would cause flooding in heavily populated areas, thus likely producing several million civilian casualties, or use nuclear weapons with even worse results, but held back, not because of moral or legal inhibitions, but because they feared a severe political backlash and home and internationally.

 

It would be misleading to suppose that the Vietnamese were entirely helpless. The Vietnamese had the capacity to rely on relatively low tech weaponry and the advantages of fighting in their territorial homeland against a foreign enemy, to inflict significant casualties on American ground forces and even to shoot down American planes now and then, often capturing and imprisoning the pilot. Unable to overcome this Vietnamese resilience and faced with a growing political discontent at home, the U.S. Government began as early as 1968 to search for an exit strategy to cut their losses in Vietnam. The highest priority of American diplomacy was to cover up the startling reality that despite the American military juggernaut, the United States still lost the Vietnam War. This effort also failed as the outcome in Vietnam eventually became clear enough for all to see, although Washington’s effort to save face prolonged the combat for seven long years, causing tens of thousands of superfluous casualties on both sides. Of course, this was not the first time that the political resolve of a mobilized native population shifted the balance against a Western state that enjoyed a decisive military superiority. All the colonial wars after 1945 exhibited a similar pattern, perhaps most spectacularly in India, where Gandhi led a massive nonviolent movement to induce the United Kingdom to abandon its most prized colonial possession.

 

Unlike the European colonial powers that came to understand that the imperial age was over, the United States was not prepared to cut back on its global security role. Instead it made three sets of adjustments to the Vietnamese experience so that it might carry on as previously: (1) it did its best to undermine citizen opposition to non-defensive wars of choice by professionalizing the armed forces, eliminating the draft, and managing the media to minimize adverse comment during the course of a war; (2) it worked hard to find tactics and weaponry that enabled one-sided warfare, avoiding battlefield casualties for American troops while inflicting heavy damage on the adversary; (3) it struggled politically to demonstrate to the American people that its military power could again be efficiently used to achieve geopolitical goals (disguised as ‘security’) and by so doing overcome what Washington policymakers derisively referred to as ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ that is a post-Vietnam reluctance by the citizenry to back a distant overseas war that had nothing to do with self-defense. The United States finally found an ideal war in 1991 to rehabilitate militarism when with UN blessings it restored Kuwaiti sovereignty by forcing an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in the First Gulf War, experiencing more American casualties due to ‘friendly fire’ than from enemy resistance. This reinstatement of American military credibility was further reinforced, again rather brutally, by the Kosovo War (1999) in which NATO achieved its political goals entirely through air power without suffering a single casualty, while causing substantial civilian casualties on the ground in Kosovo. After Serbia withdrew from Kosovo Washington think tanks began boasting about the new tactical wonders of ‘zero casualty wars,’ seeming not to be aware of the vast differences between types of warfare, thus paving the wave for frustrating repetitions of Vietnam in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

 

When approaching Elisabeth Weber’s extraordinary group of essays on how war is being waged beneath the shadows cast by the 9/11 attacks, I find this background relevant. It especially shows how reliance on one-sided warfare was being achieved by technological and tactical innovations at the close of World War II and later by a series of adjustments to the American defeat in Vietnam. There were two important changes between the wars that occurred before and after 9/11. Perhaps, the most important of these changes was the determination and capacity of the militarily inferior enemy to retaliate in ways that inflicted important symbolic harm on their militarily superior adversary and gave rise to fear and anger among the civilian population.

 

In the period between 1945 and 2001 the wars fought could be described as ‘Westphalian Wars,” that is, wars either between territorial sovereign states or within one such state, and mainly wars involving Northern countries seeking to retain their positions of dominance in the South. In these wars the combat zone was confined to the South. After 9/11 the ensuing wars were more properly understood as North/South with reactive violence in the South directed at targets in the North, sometimes with great effect, as in the 9/11 attacks. True, the military superiority, although taking new forms thanks to technological and tactical innovations, remained in the North, particularly the United States, but the other side developed the will and capacity to retaliate, although in a manner that was accurately perceived as immoral and illegitimate, and characterized as ‘terrorism.’

 

The second fundamental change in the nature of warfare, also of a post-Westphalian character, was to make the whole world a potential battlefield including, or even particularly, the homeland. In effect, the United States developed weapons and tactics to hunt for the prey wherever on the planet they might be hiding, including within ‘sleeper cells’ in its own society. Similarly, the adversary used what ingenuity it possessed to find soft spots in ‘homeland security’ and deliver violent blows wherever it might inflict harm and cause fear, a kind of low tech ‘shock and awe.’ The entire world, without much respect for boundaries and sovereign rights, has become a global battlefield in which the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is being waged between two non-Westphalian political entities. On one side is the United States as the first ‘global state’ in history with its network of hundreds of foreign military bases, navies in all oceans, militarization of space, and its many allies among foreign countries. On the other side are a variety of non-territorial extremist networks (Al Qaeda, ISIS) spread across the globe, and capable of attracting followers in the heartland of its enemies who are willing to undertake suicide missions either by following orders or spontaneously.

 

Weber’s brilliant essays shine the bright light of philosophical, cultural, and psychological interpretation on these new patterns of violent conflict that have completely overwhelmed the outmoded Westphalian political consciousness. Her approach is heavily influenced by the complex illuminations of Jacques Derrida, especially his electrifying insights into the inevitability of living together on this planet, his profound application of the auto-immune mechanism to the kind of monstrous political behavior that these post-9/11 shockwaves have produced, and his depictions of the unnerving equivalencies between the sophisticated cruelties of the ‘civilized’ countries and the ‘barbaric’ cruelties of their supposedly primitive enemies.

 

These are fundamental realities that elude the conscience, and even the consciousness, of the political class that devises the war policies for the West, which, above all claims the high moral and legal ground for its counterterrorist campaigns. It is helpful to remember that the consciousness of the politicians and decision-makers has been shaped for centuries by a form of cynical realism misleadingly attributed to Thucydides and Machiavelli that allegedly adopts the simplistic amoral formula of ‘might makes right,’ which has the secondary effect of marginalizing considerations of law. Henry Kissinger, the arch realist of our era, makes no secret in various writings of his annoyance with ill-tutored aides that remind him of legal or moral constraints that should be considered when contemplating policy choices. For the Kissingers of this world, the only considerations that count are effectiveness and the minimization of risks, underpinned by the idea that the principal agency of history is military power the results of which tended to be mostly vindicated by nationally oriented historians, although also challenged by a few historians with revisionist interpretations.

 

What Weber’s essays of exploration help us understand is that this Kissinger worldview directly leads to torture, kill boxes, indefinite detention, and drone attacks in response to the post-Westphalian non-territorial reconfiguration of conflict that currently controls the political imagination in the West. Put more explicitly, the conventional Westphalian geopolitical constructs of deterrence, defense, and retaliation do not work in non-territorial struggles in which the combat soldiers of the enemy engage in suicide missions, lack high value targets to destroy, and do not threaten invasion or occupation. What works, then, is gaining information as to the intentions and location of the potential attackers, places of refuge, and the leaders. Given this understanding, normalized recourse to torture was an irresistibly attractive option for those who saw the world through a realist optic. As well, preventive war and preemptive tactics of taking out anyone deemed by word or deed to pose a threat to compensate for the absence of an effective reactive option; this circumstance contrasts with Westplalian patterns of warfare where the stonger side militarily always retained a retaliatory capability even if the adversary struck first. An exemplary victim of a drone strike was the extra-judicial, presidentially approved killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of delivering extremist radio broadcasts from his Yemen hideout that allegedly inspired ‘homegrown terrorists’ to launch lethal attacks against Americans. The realist mentality has a hard time accepting social science findings that question the utility of torture as the preferred means to gather information, and since there is only lip service given to normative considerations, it is not surprising that torture persists despite being unconditionally criminalized internationally. True, torture is sanitized to some extent for the sake of modern liberal sensibilities by leaving the victim unscarred or transferring the suspect to a CIA ‘black site’ or to a torture-friendly foreign government by way of ‘extraordinary rendition.’ We are perceptively reminded in two of the prior essays how the CIA relied extensively on the secret use torture during the Cold War, having made a great effort to develop methods of torture that did not leave the victim physically disfigured.

 

Another puzzle of these post-Westphalian challenges involves figuring out how to retain the strategic and tactical benefits of military superiority in essentially non-territorial contexts of conflict and political inhibition. The main goal becomes how to find and destroy the enemy while losing as few lives as possible on the technologically advanced side. Drone warfare, at first glance, seems like the ideal solution, a technology that puts to ‘battlefield’ use the information procured through torture and bribery, in a manner that identifies and locates suspects in the most remote parts of the planet, and delivers precise lethal blows with supposedly minimal collateral damage to those nearby. Yet as Weber so well shows the reader, the real circle of devastation is far broader than the ‘kill box’ within which the targeted individuals are closeted. Studies have now shown that the entire surrounding communities are literally terrorized and so acutely alienated as to be receptive to extremist recruitment efforts. It is revealing that a mainstream film, Eye in the Sky, claimed to address the morality of drone strikes by limiting the civilian collateral damage to one young female street vendor in an African town while the use of the drone was justified to avoid a terrorist attack on the local market that would have killed 80 persons. What was occluded from the movie watcher was the realization that the entire community would be indefinitely traumatized by this attack launched from the sky.

 

On further reflection, drone warfare may turn out to be a Pandora’s Box for the United States. Already there are reports of ISIS making use of drone, and unlike nuclear weaponry the idea of a nonproliferation regime for drones is generally dismissed as utterly fanciful. But the seductive short-term appeal of drone warfare seems irresistible even to a Nobel Peace Prize recipient like Barack Obama. What drones offer is a way of ignoring sovereignty and geography without provoking widespread protests likely to erupt if either lots of civilians died (civilian casualties were not even counted in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Rumsfeld Defense Department as a matter of policy and if deaths do not result, while the Obama presidency ignores completely the community terrorization caused by drone strikes) or American pilots were occasionally shot down or captured. It also avoids the Guantánamo range of problems. Drone operators can sit comfortably in their Nevada office complex thousands of miles from the target, and yet have an eerily intimate relationship to the human damage done due to remote visualization technology. Weber’s commentary here tells us much about the paradoxically unnerving relationship between distance and proximity in this new era.

 

The greatest blow to our Westphalian sensibilities is undoubtedly what Derrida describes as the dynamics of the ‘auto-immune response.’ It is here that horror is reproduced by adopting methods to protect the threatened political organism, the homeland, that are no less cruel than what has been experienced. In effect, terrorism begets terrorism, and humane values, always precarious and subject to rights of exception, are explicitly subordinated to the alleged requirements of ‘security.’ The post-Westphalian turn encroaches upon the rights of the threatened society by making everyone a potential suspect, and especially implicates those who share a religious and ethnic identity with the assailants, and become too often designated as secondary targets. Weber shows the rather grotesque equivalence between the suicide bomber and the drone operator, simultaneously inflicting death and situating their bodies outside the zone of retaliatory violence.

 

One of the greatest contributions made by Weber takes the form of indicating the extreme censorship imposed on the publication of poems written by those detained at Guantánamo. The justification given was that poems might transmit coded messages, although it is hard to imagine what useful information could be conveyed by those held in conditions of prolonged captivity. A better explanation might be the reluctance of Guantánamo officials to give these prisoners an opportunity to bear witness to their sufferings and often personal and spiritual aspirations, which would undermine security by ‘humanizing’ terrorists that need to be thought of as ‘the worst of the worst’ to sustain homeland morale. Such a line of interpretation adds weight to Weber’s central claim that the humanist sensibility poses a real challenge, if not a threat, to the militarized mentality that allows the modern forms of cruelty to pass undetected through the metal detectors of ‘civilized societies.‘

 

I think a reading of Kill Boxes is particularly valuable at this time to unmask the inhumane features of post-Westphalian forms of violent conflict. We are left to ponder whether it is too late to wish for a humane future in which there is respect for and deference to the dynamics of self-determination in the non-West. We need also to seek to have the deadly mechanisms of the post-9/11 auto-immune reactive politics pass through ethical filters before carrying out their deadly missions, sometimes in foreign countries that are even remote from the declared combat zones. At the very least, the challenges posed throughout this book point to an urgent need to reconstruct international humanitarian law in light of the realities of these non-territorial patterns of transnational conflict.

 

 

 

 

 

Human rights After the Failed Coup in Turkey

14 Aug

Human rights After the Failed Coup in Turkey

 

[Prefatory Note: This article was first published in openGlobalRights, a section of openDemocracy, on August 11, 2016. It appears here as a post in a modified form.]

 

The July 15th failed coup in Turkey is a momentous occurrence, with uncertain implications for the future of the country, and serious reverberations regionally and with respect to relations between Turkey and the United States and Europe. It has already been designated as a new  Turkish national holiday, and the main bridge over the Bosporus has been renamed ‘15th of July.’ Although many commentators rightly point to the risk to the rule of law posed by the sweeping post-coup suspensions, dismissals, and detentions, too few qualify these criticisms with a recognition that the defeat of the coup attempt was a major unambiguous victory for human rights and democracy, undoubtedly saving the country from a revival of past militarily oppressive tutelage and likely massive civil strife that could have easily become one more devastating multi-stakeholder Middle Eastern civil war.

 

 The US and Western government’s criticisms of post-coup excesses would also carry more weight if important political leaders in the West had shown less ambivalence at the time of the attempted coup, and indicate their acceptance of the now well established allegations that the coup was plotted by a cleric given sanctuary in the US and carried out by those affiliated with a secretive cult headed by Fetullah Gülen. For the harshest Turkish critics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the coup was initially actually portrayed as ‘a counter-coup’ in reaction to the President’s alleged override of the constitutional system through his extra-legal and autocratic assumption of supreme leadership. Such critics often even call the July 15th events ‘a theater coup’ staged by the government to create a favorable political climate to further satisfy Erdoğan’s grandiose ambitions. For supporters of Erdoğan the coup attempt was a confirmation of earlier accusations and anxieties that there existed deeply embedded in the Turkish bureaucracy, including its armed forces and intelligence service, a dangerous parallel political structure that was intent on seizing control of the state without recourse to democratic procedures.

 

Three weeks later, at least within the country, almost all Turkish citizens except those implacably hostile to the AKP government are convinced that it was a genuine military coup attempt by the Gülen movement. Further, there is agreement that its defeat is highly beneficial for the country’s immediate future, and may have created a new set of circumstances in Turkey that could produce a more responsible political atmosphere, including a less polarized political discourse, allowing the opposition parties to play a more useful role in evolving a vibrant democratic political culture.

 

 These potentialities contain extraordinary promise if measured against the poisonous political environment that had existed in Turkey prior to July 15th, with the opposition inalterably opposed  to all aspects of the AKP approach to governance and intensely distrustful of Erdoğan. During the coup attempt the three major opposition parties (including the Kurdish HDP) signed a declaration of unity denouncing the coup attempt and pledging support for democratic procedures, including the rule of law. After this, Erdoğan invited the leaders of the two main opposition parties to the Presidential Mansion (yet unfortunately excluding the HDP) for a meeting to sustain this new spirit of cooperation and also to take an active part in the great national Yenkapı demonstration of August 7th that was attended by several million enthusiastic supporters of the government.

 

This display of unity among politicians in Turkish society is strongly, if cautiously, backed by views prevalent among the citizenry. Despite persisting concerns about  Erdoğan’s leadership, no tears are being shed for the coup plotters. A Turkish consensus exists that July 15th was the sinister work of the Hizmet movement led by Fetulllah Gülen. For years, I had heard a variety of concerns about this movement, operating in secrecy, publicly preaching a doctrine of Islamic moderation while acting with the cultic devotion of political fanatics. It was known that Hizemt was collaborating with and supportive of the AKP until at least 2009 or 2010 after which a widening split occurred, climaxing prior to the coup attempt on December 17, 2013 when the so-called attempted ‘corruption coup’ occurred. The exposure of corruption at high levels of the AKP led to the resignation of four ministers, but did not deeply shake AKP control or greatly diminish public confidence. In many ways July 15th is being interpreted as a violent Gülenist sequel to their failed hopes of December 17th.

 

It’s worth noting that Turkish political culture had passively reacted to prior coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In 2016, the citizenry with Erdoğan’s decisive and dramatic encouragement massively and courageously opposed the effort to engineer a military takeover of the Turkish state. This popular involvement in the defense of constitutionalism is a momentous shift in favor of participatory democracy (defending the elected leaders) and the rule of law (upholding the constitutional paths to political control). It is an occasion of populist empowerment that has been extended in the following period by nightly mass rallies in every medium sized and large city in Turkey.

 

There is an obvious, and intriguing, comparison with events in Egypt over the course of the last five years. Egypt inspired the Arab World in 2011 by the display of the power of a mobilized people to challenge an autocratic and corrupt government, and overthrow a despised, dictatorial leader. The uprising against the Mubarak regime was actually facilitated by the neutrality of the Egyptian armed forces, and its later pledge to guide the country toward constitutional democracy. However, two years later, a military coup with populist backing occurred to overthrow the elected leadership headed by Mohamed Morsi. At present, Egypt is governed by an autocratic leadership that is even more oppressive than what existed during the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. This disappointing return to Egypt’s authoritarian past did confirm the historical agency of ‘the people’ for better and for worse. This is something new in Middle East politics where prior changes in governance almost always resulted from top down challenges reflected tensions within ruling elites. One important exception was the anti-Shah mass movement of 1978-79 in Iran that gave rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 

In Turkey, it was an expression of Erdoğan’s political genius to have recognized at a moment of national crisis that the vast majority of the Turkish people would stand with and fight for the government rather than support the coup attempt; and they did, of course, occupying  key public sites on the night of July 15th, most notably at the Istanbul Airport., and persisting in many encounters as unarmed martyrs in the face of gunfire from coup supporters.

 

 The signals are now mixed as to what will be the effects of the coup on democracy and human rights in Turkey.  On the one side, is the seeming switch on Erdoğan’s part to a more inclusive style of political leadership that had been noticeably absent in recent years. It would be welcome news indeed if Erdoğan abandons the sort of majoritarian democracy that led to his defiant disregard of opposition concerns rationalized as heeding the AKP electoral mandate. Far less encouraging is the seeming over-reaction to the coup attempt expressed by dismissing as many thousands from educational institutions and continuing interference with a free and critical media, although almost all of this journalistic crackdown has been directed at outlets affiliated with the Gülen movement. Unlike the large dismissals from the armed forces and several branches of government, these attacks on the institutions of a free society, do not seem justifiable poat-coup efforts to purge public institutions of dangerous and subversive elements. However, some appreciation of the context is warranted. The Gülen movement infiltrated and transformed the educational system as a way of gaining credentials for its followers to penetrate private and public sectors in Turkey, establishing over the course of decades powerful networks of subversive influence that subordinated their activities to the hierarchical directives of the sect. They also established a large number of media outlets to disseminate their views.

 

There are external dimensions of the post-coup realities that also complicate the picture, especially the feeling among the Turkish public and politicians that the United States was improperly involved in the coup attempt and, at best, neutral about its defeat. This issue of external solidarity is further being tested by whether the formal request of the Turkish government that Fetulllah Gülen be extradited in accordance with treaty obligations will be honored by the United States, enabling his criminal prosecution, and possibly involving the imposition of the death penalty. Extradition faces formidable technical difficulties. The legal defense of Gülen is sure to include several contentions: that he cannot  receive a fair trial in Turkey;  that Gülen’s activity was ‘political,’ and as such non-extraditable; that evidence of his specific intent in relation to the coup attempt is not present in a legally satisfactory form; and  that efforts to restore the death penalty in Turkey to allow a court to decree his execution  would be retroactive, and thus contrary to due process.

 

Despite the legal difficulties of granting extradition, should it be refused or too long delayed whatever the reasons given, Turkish anger will be intense. In Turkish public opinion harboring Gülen can be understood as roughly equivalent to what Americans would have felt if Turkey had given safe haven to Osama Bin Laden after 9/11; it is helpful to recall that the US felt justified in a regime changing military attack on Afghanistan just because the Kabul government was giving sanctuary to the al-Qaeda leadership and permitting its training facilities to take place. Turkish suspicions are inflamed by the realization that Graham Fuller, former CIA bureau chef in Turkey, together with other CIA former officials, sponsored Gülen’s application for ‘a green card’ legalizing permanent residence in the United States since 1999, reportedly visited Turkey shortly before the coup attempt, and published a pro-Gülen opinion piece strongly defending the movement and Gülen’s probable innocence with respect to the July 15th events. Fuller’s portrayal of Gülen flies in the face of many seemingly reliable insider accounts of how Hizmet movement members plotted, subverted, and were obedient to orders attributed to Gülen.

 

 

As of now, despite all the uncertainties, the failure of the coup attempt should be viewed as one of the few success stories of recent Middle East history. Whether this positive impression will soon be erased by repressive developments inside Turkey is uncertain.  Much depends upon whether post-coup political unity is sustained and deepened, and whether a bold initiative is taken to reach an accommodation with the Kurdish movement that has been violently engaged with the Ankara government in recent months. It seems important for outsiders to be patient and to exhibit sympathy with the efforts of the Turkish government and its leaders to rise to these daunting post-coup challenges without unduly compromising human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. The world accorded the United States the benefit of the doubt after 9/11, and it should do no less for Turkey in the aftermath of July 15th. So far the responses from the United States and Europe have been tepid at best, serving to confirm the widespread feelings here in Turkey that somehow the coup attempt was directly or indirectly related to the belief that Washington could more effectively work with Turkey if the country was led by someone other than Erdoğan. No one has speculated on Washington’s Plan B if extradition is denied spurring Turkey to realign with Russia,, Iran, and possibly China. As of now, before the coup attempt, the Turkish foreign policy reset involved moving toward equi-distance diplomacy toward Russia and Iran, offset in its adverse Western strategic perceptions by moves to normalize relations with Israel.

 

Finally, in this period it is probably wise to separate human rights concerns from an appraisal of Turkish constitutional democracy. It is quite possible that present tendencies toward a more inclusive democracy will continue, and at the same time, denials of human rights are almost certain to persist, and justify scrutiny and vigilance.    

 

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Wibisono’s Resignation as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine

6 Jan

th

Commentary on the Resignation of Makarim Wibisono

 

(Prefatory Note: This post appeared on January 5th under a different title in the Electronic Intifada. It is published here in a slightly modified and extended form).

 

Makarim Wibisono announced his resignation as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, to take effect on March 31, 2016. This is position I held for six years, completing my second term in June 2014.

 

The prominent Indonesian diplomat says that he could not fulfill his mandate because Israel has adamantly refused to give him access to the Palestinian people living under its military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“Unfortunately, my efforts to help improve the lives of Palestinian victims of violations under the Israeli occupation have been frustrated every step of the way,” Wibisono explains.

 

His resignation reminds me in a strange way of Richard Goldstone’s retraction a few years ago of the main finding in the UN-commissioned Goldstone report, that Israel intentionally targeted civilians in the course of Operation Cast Lead, its massive attack on Gaza at the end of 2008.

At the time I responded to media inquiries by saying that I was shocked, but not surprised. Shocked because the evidence was overwhelming and the other three distinguished members of the UN fact-finding commission stuck by the finding. Yet I was not surprised because I knew Goldstone – a former judge of the South African constitutional court – to be a man of strong ambition and weak character, a terrible mix for public figures who wander into controversial territory.

 

In Wibisono’s case I am surprised, but not shocked. Surprised because he should have known from the outset that he was faced with a dilemma between doing the job properly of reporting on Israel’s crimes and human rights abuses and gaining Israel’s cooperation in the course of gathering this evidence. Not shocked, indeed grateful, as it illuminates the difficulty confronting anyone charged with truthful reporting on the Palestinian ordeal under occupation, and by his principled resignation Wibisono doesn’t allow Israel to get away with neutering the position of special rapporteur.

 

It is worth recalling that when Wibisono was selected as my successor, several more qualified candidates were passed over. Although the selection guidelines stress expert knowledge of the subject matter of the mandate, Wibisono apparently gained the upper hand along with the acquiescence of Israel and the United States precisely because of his lack of any relevant background.

 

I can only hope that now the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) will redeem its mistake by reviving the candidacies of Professor Christine Chinkin and Phyllis Bennis, both of whom possess the credentials, motivation and strength of character to become an effective special rapporteur.

 

The Palestinians deserve nothing less.

 

Honesty

 

When I met with Makarim Wibisono in Geneva shortly after his appointment as Special Rapporteur was announced, he told me confidently that he had been assured that if he accepted the appointment the Israeli government would allow him entry, a reassurance that he repeated in his resignation announcement. On his side, he pledged objectivity and balance, and an absence of preconceptions.

 

I warned him then that even someone who leaned far to the Israeli side politically would find it impossible to avoid reaching the conclusion that Israel was guilty of severe violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights standards, and this kind of honesty was sure to anger the Israelis.

 

I also told him that he was making a big mistake if he thought he could please both sides, given the reality of prolonged denial of fundamental Palestinian rights. At the time he smiled, apparently feeling confident that his diplomatic skills would allow him to please the Israelis even while he was compiling reports detailing their criminality. He told me that he was seeking to do what I did but to do so more effectively by securing Israel’s cooperation, and thus short circuiting their objections. It was then my turn to smile.

 

It is correct that the mandate itself is vulnerable to criticism as it does not include an assessment of the responsibility of Palestinian administering authorities for violations of human rights, and only looks at Israeli violations. I tried to persuade the HRC unsuccessfully to have the mandate enlarged to encompass wrongdoing by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The arguments against doing so was that it had been difficult to get agreement to establish the mandate, and opening up the issue of its scope was risky, and also, that the overwhelming evidence of Palestinian victimization resulting from the occupation resulted from Israel’s policies and practices. Hence, it was argued by several delegations at the HRC that attention to the Palestinian violations would be diversionary, and give Israel a way to deflect criticism directed at the occupation.

 

Facing the heat

 

What I discovered during my six years as special rapporteur is that you can make a difference, but only if you are willing to put up with the heat.

 

You can make a difference in several ways. Above all, by giving foreign ministries around the world the most authoritative account available of the daily realities facing the Palestinian people. Also important is the ability to shift the discourse in more illuminating directions, instead of limiting discussion to ‘the occupation,’ address issues of de facto annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid, as well as give some support within the UN for such civil society initiatives as BDS and the Freedom Flotilla. By so doing you have to expect ultra-Zionist organizations and those managing the ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the United States to react harshly, including by launching a continuous defamatory campaign that seeks by all means to discredit your voice and will mount inflammatory accusations of anti-Semitism and, in my case, of being a “self-hating Jew.”

 

What both shocked and surprised me was the willingness of both the UN Secretary General and US diplomatic representatives (Susan Rice, Samantha Power) at the UN to bend in Israel’s direction and join the chorus making these irresponsible denunciations focused on a demand for my resignation.

 

Although periodically tempted to resign, I am glad that I didn’t. Given the pro-Israel bias of the mainstream media in the United States and Europe, it is particularly important, however embattled the position, to preserve this source of truth telling, and not to give in to the pressures mounted.

My hope is that the Human Rights Council will learn from the Wibisono experience and appoint someone who can both stand the heat and report the realities for what they are. It is hampering the performance of a Special Rapporteur to be denied Israeli cooperation with official UN functions, which is itself a violation of Israel’s obligations as a member of the UN. At the same time, Israel’s behavior that flaunts international law is so manifest and reliable information easily available that I found it possible to compile reports that covered the main elements of the Palestinian ordeal. Of course, direct contact with people living under occupation would have added a dimension of validation and witnessing, as well as giving some tangible expression of UN concern for the abuses being committed under conditions of an untenably prolonged occupation with no end in sight.

 

Until the day that Palestinian self-determination arrives, the least that UN can do is to keep open this window of observation and appraisal. After all, it is the UN that undertook back in 1947 to find a solution to the Israel/Palestinian struggle that acknowledged the equal claims of both peoples. Although such an approach was colonialist and interventionist in 1947, it has plausibility in 2016 given the developments in the intervening years. The UN may not be guilty in relation to what went wrong, but it certainly has failed to discharge its responsibilities with regard to Palestinian fundamental rights. Until these rights are realized, the UN should give this remnant of the colonial era as much attention as possible.

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Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships

20 Oct

(Prefatory Note: This post is a substantially revised version of an opinion piece published online by Middle East Eye on October 6, 2015; it challenges the geopolitics of impunity from both principled and pragmatic perspectives, and also casts doubts on ‘special relationships’ that the United States has established in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, an effort is made to suggest that there is an alternative based essentially on the practical wisdom in the 21st century of upholding and strengthening the global rule of law.)

 

Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it a powerful monarchy or has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as this precious black stuff lasts. The Saudi comfort zone is also sustained by its special relationship with the United States that provides geopolitical backing of great benefit.

 

This refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for upholding law and morality raised mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights. Recently electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seemed to cross a hereto invisible line. And if that was not enough of an affront to cosmetic morality in the sphere of human rights, the Saudi UN ambassador has been recently selected to chair the influential HRC ‘ consultative panel that recommends to the President of the Council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as right to women, freedom of expression, and religious freedom.

 

This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year, over 2 a day, and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.  In a second representative case, the popular blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to a long prison term and 1000 lashes in public for criticizing the monarchy.  This behavior resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.

 

Additionally, Riyadh like Damascus, seems guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated and indiscriminate targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident of late was an air strike targeting a wedding party on September 29th, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children, but the overall pattern of the Saudi military onslaught has been oblivious to the constraints of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  

 

The Saudi mismatch between stature and behavior cannot be considered, as it appears to be, a grotesque anomaly in the global normative order. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern.  Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. Earlier Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which would have dangerously undermined energy security for Western Europe.

 

In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on keeping Gulf oil flowing at affordable prices. This potential vulnerability was vividly revealed in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War when Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by persuading OPEC to impose an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis unfolded on two levels– a high road revealing Western vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil and a low road of severe consumer discontent in reaction to long gas lines and higher prices at the pump attributable to the embargo.

 

It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be ‘necessary’ for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this ‘never again’ pledge from the custodians of world order, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.

 

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live accord with its values, centering on human rights and democracy, holds his otherwise active tongue when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.

 

If we look beneath the word ‘special,’ which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism in public. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding a beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity. Perhaps none more notable than the embarrassment associated with hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US Government still refuses to release 28 pages of detailed evidence on alleged Saudi connections with Al Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.

 

Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity. 

 

The Saudi special relationship (unlike that with Israel) is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been of crucial help to the American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400% in the 1970s quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated, have been the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms over the years. The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as Saudis protective big brother was convincingly upheld. Of course, in this interest there was a genuine convergence of interests. Western policy as shaped by American foreign policy accorded an absolute priority to keeping Gulf oil in friendly hands.

 

Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in its massive worldwide funding of Islamic anti-Western militancy or jihadism. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.

 

I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11 would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked denials of human rights at home due to the imposition of harsh controls upon freedom of expression, of association, women’s rights, cruel and unusual punishments. More damaging in its political consequences than being the shield of Saudi impunity is the willingness of the US to go along with the anti-Iranian sectarian line that the Saudi leadership relies upon to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the provision of  weapons and money to anti-Assad forces in Syria.

 

Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to an anti-Sunni coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are determined by the threat posed to the stability of the monarchy, and not by their sectarian identity. In this sense Iran is an enemy because it is a regional rival that threatens to impinge upon the role and influence of Saudi Arabia, and not because of its adherence to a Shia variety of Islam. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, despite being of Sunni persuasion, was perceived as as a threat to royal absolutism by its democratizing challenge directed at the Mubarak autocracy. Sectarian identity is distinctly secondary, especially for the Saudi monarchy that is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. At home, the stability of royal governance is sustained by allowing a free rein to the Wahhabi religious leadership that subject the Saudi people to its severe sectarian constraints.

 

Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships among sovereign states. These do not entail exemptions from accountability in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially if used to protect rogue states from international scrutiny. Accountability based on the rule of law is far better for stability, security, and sustainable peace than impunity. It has become increasingly awkward for US Government to validate, in part, its global role by championing human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to the most minimum expectations of accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.

 

I would go further, and argue that such special relationships, although expressions of the primacy of geopolitics (as over against the implementation of a global rule of law), do not serve on balance to uphold national interests in the course of abandoning national values. Contrary to the precepts of political realism, in the Middle East these two special relationships unthinkingly bind the United States and its European allies to a failing foreign policy that has occasioned great suffering for many of the peoples of the region. The migration crisis that is one direct effect of these unfortunate policies, especially military intervention, is finally leading observers to connect some dots, and recognize that what is done in the Middle East has menacing reverberations for Europe. As well, it further damages the reputation of the United States as a principled leader in a global setting that is serving the global public good as well as promoting its national policy priorities.  Perhaps, that reputation is tarnished beyond recovery at this point in any event, making repetitional considerations almost irrelevant.

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Weakening and Discrediting the UN: The Mission of Israeli QGOs

17 Apr

Weakening and Discrediting the UN: The Mission of Israeli QGOs

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is the full text of my presentation at an excellent conference “The Israeli Lobby: Is it good for US? Is it Good for Israel?” National Press Club, Washington, D.C., April 10, 2015; the conference was sponsored and organized by the editorial leadership of the magazine Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, which brings together some of the best writing on the Israel/Palestine struggle, as well as covering other regional issues. I encourage readers of this blog to look at the full conference either at the YouTube website or the audio recording at http://www.israellobbyus.org Although there were many illuminating presentations during the day, and I would call particular attention to the memorable remarks of two highly informed Israelis, Gideon Levy and Miko Peled. The tacit conspiracy of media silence has been well described in a release prepared by Washington Report <http://www.wrmea.org/action-alert-archives/did-media-make-itself-irrelevant-boycotting-the-israel-lobby-conference.html&gt;]

 

 

 

There are no better texts for assessing the damage done to the role and reputation of the UN by the Israeli Lobby than to consider Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statements boasting about the U.S. success in protecting Israel from criticisms arising from its non-fulfillment of responsibilities under international law and as a member of the United Nations. It should be understood that the lobby does not act in a vacuum, and its leverage is greatly enhanced in global settings to the considerable extent that its priorities overlap with the strategic and economic interests of the United States in the Middle East.

 

Despite the tensions with the White House associated with Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress, Kerry proudly informed an ABC TV news boradcast: “We have intervened on Israel’s behalf..a couple of hundred times in over 75 different fora.” [“This Week,” Feb. 28, 2015]. And then when addressing the Human Rights Council Kerry included a statement that could just as well been drafted by AIPAC or Israel’s ambassador to the UN: “It must be said that the HRC’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.” And further, “we will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the UN system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel, not just in the HRC but wherever it occurs.” [Remarks, Palais des Nations, Geneva, March 2, 2015] What is striking about these kinds of statements by our highest ranking government officials dealing with foreign policy is the disconnect between these reassurances of unconditional support and Israel’s record of persistent disregard of its obligation under international law and with respect to the authority of the UN. In addressing an AIPAC gathering a few weeks ago, Representative Lindsay Graham curried favor by telling the audience that as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “I’m gonna put the UN on notice” that he would go after its funding if the Organization takes any steps to ‘marginalize’ Israel.

 

 

During my six years as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine I had the opportunity to observe the manner in which a group of international and national so-called NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are closely aligned with Israel give priority to deflecting criticisms of Israel and discrediting with the temerity to offer critical assessments of Israel’s conduct. I say ‘so-called’ because it is more revealing and accurate to regard these political actors as ‘quasi-government orgnaizations’ rather than NGOs. These covertly aligned entities now hide behind the NGO label to claim a civil society identity for themselves, but in practice they devote their energies and secure their funding because of their singleminded dedication and dogged defense of a particular government’s interests, in this instance those of Israel.

 

There were two features of the campaigns waged within the UN by these quasi-government organizations (QGOs]: attacks directed at discrediting critics of Israel and attacks directed at the UN as such, generally focused on particular organs of the Organization.

           

–with regard to personal attacks, a reliance on repeated defamatory attacks on a particular person being targeted, as biased and even anti-Semitic whenever such a person is addressing some aspect of Israeli policy or is sympathetically reporting on Palestinian grievances. Coupled with this kind of personal attack is an avoidance of the substantive aspects with respect to whether the criticisms or grievances are well grounded in international law and human rights law. The content of these toxic attacks, at least in my case, focused on a distorted presentation of my views on a variety of issues that were made in settings other than the UN and generally did not even pertain to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The intended effect was to shift attention from the message containing the issues about which the UN has a responsibility to consider upon to a controversy about whether the messenger is tainted. With incredible persistence, UN Watch the most aggressive of the QGOs, exclusively used the opportunity of ‘interactive dialogue’ in Geneva sessions of the HRC to give voice to their denunciation of my character and activities. Afterwards UN Watch circulated in the form of an organizational letter these defamatory attacks to prominent international personalities, including high-ranking civil servants in the UN itself, such as the UN Secretary General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a variety of ambassadors of countries friendly to Israel. Characteristically, the letter ended with a demand that I be dismissed from my post as Special Rapporteur.

 

It was particularly disturbing to me that these defamatory attacks were treated as credible on their face by supposedly responsible prominent UN officials and government representative without the slightest effort to conduct an independent investigation or the minimal courtesy of checking either with me or with the sources that were being relied upon to put forward these defamatory assertions. Instead, their endorsement by supposedly responsible public figures was damaging to my reputation, and helped to divert attention from fashioning appropriate responses to the substantive grievances of the Palestinian people, and hence also indirectly damaged the reputation and effectiveness of the UN. As might be expected the Fox News network took such attacks at face value as useful material in relation to their hostile coverage of the UN.

 

On more than one occasion the UN SG Ban Ki-Moon denounced me without making the slightest attempt to assess the accuracy of the views attributed to me in such UN Watch letters that referred in discrediting and misleading ways to material from my blog where I discussed in some detail the 9/11 attacks and the international context of the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon. After the first of these attacks by the UN SG I tried to find out why as someone working without salary on behalf of the UN was not given the opportunity to at least explain my views. When I tried to probe the matter by seeking an explanation, I was told somewhat apologetically by a close associate of the SG that the failure to take account of my actual views was due to the fact that ‘we didn’t do due diligence.’ He added that at the time the UN felt ‘under pressure from the U.S. Congress to show that the Organization were not hostile to Israel.’ It was a sensitive moment as Ban Ki-Moon was seeking U.S. support for reappointment to a second term. In a similar vein, the U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, and later Samantha Power, denounced me as biased, and deserving dismissal. When I sought some explanation from Ambassador Rice my overly polite letter remains unanswered. This experience of mine is important as it illustrates the readiness of public officials in this country and at high levels of the UN to condemn persons accused of bias toward Israel without bothering to find out whether the complaint against the is justified. The Israel Lobby’s basic premise is that any criticism of Israel at the UN is on its face evidence of bias and anti-Semitism, and this is exactly the approach taken by these officials connected with the UN and representing the U.S. Government. The QGOs serve as gatekeepers, signaling to those associated with global policy that it is time to act in support of Israel.

 

What I am trying to explain by reference to my experience is the degree to which these pro-Israeli QGOs stir up trouble for those who are doing their best to document Israel’s flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards. A major purpose of these tactics in response to well-evidenced documentation of Israeli state crime is to mobilize opposition on the part of government officials, especially in the U.S., but also Canada, UK, and Australia, and induce the pro-Israeli media to focus on controversies involving critics, rather than the criticisms, emanating from UN activities. One result of these repeated personal attacks along these lines is, by their mere repetition, useful in making the UN generally, and the Human Rights Council in particular, seem to be arenas dominated by individuals biased against Israel, and even anti-Semitic.

 

I can report that in my experience at the UN, including the Human Rights Council, the Organization has consistently leaned over backward to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. The official reports that I prepared on Israel’s occupation of Palestine over my term were based on essentially uncontested documentation of allegations of severe violations of international humanitarian law, as embodied in the Fourth Geneva Convention and on other authoritative norms. In my opinion, anyone possessing professional integrity could hardly arriving at the same, or similar, conclusions to mine with respect to the legal implications of the continuing occupation of Palestine. What is worth noticing is that this pushback by Israeli lobbying organizations reflects their apparent judgment that it is best to avoid engaging in any form of substantive debate. Undoubtedly, character assassination is proving more persuasive and effective.

 

It is also relevant to point out that my predecessor, John Dugard, a distinguished South African jurist and globally respected scholar, was also subjected to similar defamatory attacks during his period in the HRC as Special Rapporteur on Palestine. This style of defamatory QGO behavior has arguably weakened the role of the Special Rapporteur, which provides the Palestinian people with their only truly independent and potentially influential voice within the UN. My successor was explicitly chosen in 2014 to be Special Rapporteur for Palestine on the perverse rationale that he was more qualified than other candidates because he had no expert knowledge of the subject-matter and was not even shortlisted by the consultative committee of ambassadors that is charged with advising the President of the Human Rights Council on the qualifications of the candidates (it is amusing, although sad in its effects, that lack of qualifications became a crucial qualification in the UN selection process). The person chosen further demonstrated his suitability for the job by expressing a willingness in advance to make every effort to get along with Israel while discharging his office. The results of making this appointment have so far been much less attention to the grievances of the Palestinian people. Even with this corrupting process Israel has still not been willing to cooperate with the UN so as enabling the HRC to carry out the mandate. At present, the Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine continues to be denied entry to Palestine, a situation that has existed ever since I was expelled in 2008. Even in the face of this refusal to allow the Special Rapporteur access to Palestine, the UN is sufficiently intimidated by Israel and the U.S., that it makes only pro forma protests.

 

I should also point out that the experience of Special Rapporteurs for Palestine is not a departure from a broader pattern of defamation of UN initiatives perceived as critical of Israel. When Richard Goldstone, a lifelong Zionist, prominent in Israel, and a respected international civil servant, submitted a report on behalf of a fact-finding inquiry into the Cast Lead 2008-09 attacks on Gaza, he was so savagely attacked by these QGOs, as well as by the top Israeli leaders, that he was induced to back down and retract the most serious allegations concerning Israel’s behavior in Gaza, a reformulation that none of the other three distinguished members of the inquiry group supported. It should be noted that Goldstone, as in the case of Dugard and myself, undertake these UN roles as unpaid volunteers, which does allow us independence and allows us to be sharply criticized without being dismissed.

I can also report that I was privately frequently complimented for the objectivity and persuasiveness of my reports by important UN officials, but were on the defensive in public because the Organization is deemed dependent on U.S. support.

These tactics of seeking to destroy the reputation of the UN as an arena is illustrated by an article prominently published in the NY Times a week ago written by the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, bearing the provocative title “The U.N. War on Israel.” [April 1, 2015] Ambassador Prosor contends “this once great global body had been overrun by the repressive regimes that violate human rights and undermine international security.” He argues that this pernicious influence is made plainly evident by the extent to which Israel is singled out for harsh criticism. He relied in his speech on UN Watch, which he blandly identify as “the Geneva-based monitoring group” to mount his diatribe, singling out the appointment of William Schabas a few months ago to head a commission of inquiry into the Israeli 2014 onslaught against Gaza as indicative of a disqualifying bias. Schabas resigned his post under a barrage of unfair criticism directed at the fact that he had once prepared a short technical report as a legal professional as to whether Palestine was qualified to be a party to the Rome Treaty governing the International Criminal Court. The fact that Proser’s inflammatory article was published in the NY Times, a venue respected for its objectivity and balance is itself reflective of the unhealthy degree of leverage wielded by Israeli lobbying groups.

 

In my experience, the UN rather than being subject to what Proser calls “the tide of hatred aimed at Israel” is a result of American influence within the Oraganization, is increasingly unable to play a constructive role in relation to Israel or by rendering protection to the Palestinian people who have been denied their most fundamental rights for far too long. It is relevant to remember that the ordeal of the Palestinians people, unlike that of any of the other terrible situations afflicting people throughout the world, is one for which the UN has a significant share of past and present responsibility. The UN took over the role played by colonial Britain that had administered Palestine since the end of World War I, after colonial Britain and the League of Nations had encouraged Zionist hopes in 1917 by issuing the Balfour Declaration that looked with favor on the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people.” We need to recall in this connection that the initial partition proposals for historic Palestine in 1947 came from the UN in GA Resolution 181 without any effort to consult the wishes of the then resident population of Palestine, and thus in direct denial of the right of self-determination and against the tide of invalidating colonialist claims. It needs to be remembered that the much of the Palestinian tragedy is a direct result of this UN abandonment of the principle of self-determination in relation to Palestine as aggravated by the long record of Israeli defiance associated with its obligations under international law.

 

Rather than the UN reflecting the supposed hostility of oppressive regimes to Israel, the UN has increasingly been neutralized in any effort to produce after more than 68 years a sustainable and just peace for these two peoples, and the realities on the ground have moved relentlessly in defiance of international law in the direction of an outcome that denies elemental rights to the Palestinian people. It is notable, yet hardly surprising, that Proser makes no attempt to address the substantive charges of human rights and international humanitarian law abuses attributed to Israel, and does not even deny their accuracy. The fault of the UN, according to the lobby and its compromised diplomats, is with the UN as a prejudiced arena, and whatever the crimes of Israel may be, they should be treated as unworthy distractions from this overarching truth.

 

Palestine may be winning the Legitimacy War being waged throughout the world and at the UN to obtain popular support for the Palestinian cause with the peoples of the world, but it is losing the parallel Geopolitical War. Both wars view the UN as a strategic battlefield. The recommendations of the Goldstone Report were never implemented. If indeed the new fact finding commission on Gaza appointed to investigate Protective Edge delivers an appropriately strong report in June 2014 that condemns Israel’s tactics in its military operation of last summer, it is almost certain that its findings and any recommendations will be buried in the bowels of the UN bureaucracy. Israel, with strong U.S. backing, has persuaded the UN to hold a conference later in the year on the dangers of anti-Semitism, which seems almost certain to make the kind of arguments made by UN Watch and NGO Monitor that justifiable criticism of Israel should be dismissed without further consideration as a virulent form of anti-Semitism because it delegitimizes the state of Israel.

 

 

From an Israeli perspective these tactics of deflection makes sense as anyone familiar with the facts and law would certainly hold views that are critical of Israel’s policies and practices, and the UN endorsement of such a conclusion clearly adds weight to the global solidarity movement that is influenced by persuasive findings that confirm the illegitimacy of Israel’s policies and practices in relation to the Palestinian people. The Israeli settlement project has been almost universally condemned, the separation wall built on Occupied Palestine has been declared unlawful by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice, the severe and continuing collective punishment of the people of Gaza is unconditionally prohibited by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the annexation of a unilaterally enlarged Jerusalem defies the international legal consensus to name just a few of the salient issues of substance that Israel wants the world, and especially the UN, to ignore, while with the help of the United States, shifting as much attention as possible to issues of bias and anti-Semitism in relation to the UN and those who represent it.

 

In conclusion, I would say that the QGOs along with Israeli and American diplomats have managed to intimidate and neutralize the UN as a foundation of support for the justifiable grievances of the Palestinian people. In so doing, rather than overdoing its emphasis on Israeli violations of human rights and international law, the UN has increasingly allowed itself to be used by geopolitical actors to shield Israel from criticism and to deflect such stronger initiatives as sanctions designed to produce a just and sustainable peace for the two peoples. Israel on its side has adopted a pragmatic dual approach to the UN, complaining in public settings about bias and disproportionate emphasis, and behind the scenes using its direct and indirect leverage to influence the selection of personnel bearing on its interests and to push the agenda in directions that correspond with its worldview.