Tag Archives: Phyllis Bennis

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

20 Jun

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Phyllis Bennis and Richard Falk

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

A PRIEST AND A DIPLOMAT

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A VOICE FOR GAZA—AND INTERNATIONAL LAW

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Wibisono’s Resignation as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine

6 Jan

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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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