The UN, HRW and Israel
Oct 28, 2009
October 28, 2009
Number 10/09 #08
Today’s Update features three pieces alleging abuses of international law and institutions, as well as human rights norms, with respect to Israel.
First up is academic Dr. Gregg Rickman, who served as the US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism for a number of years, taking on the problem of the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) obsession with Israel. He looks at the make-up of the council and the past record of decision-making in detail, and cites a State Department report asserting that the Human Rights Council, established to replace the counter-productive UN Human Rights Commission a couple of years ago, has “proven to be even more prone to protect serious violators of human rights and more prolific in its criticism of Israel than its predecessor.” He goes on to argue that it is impossible for Israel to receive a fair hearing at the UNHRC. To read his full argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Ed Morgan, Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, looks at the substance of the UN’s Goldstone Report into Gaza and finds it “full of more holes than the tunnel-riddled strip along the Gaza-Egypt border.” He cites numerous examples where the report refused to even consider publicly available evidence that, for example, Hamas had turned mosques and university buildings into valid military targets. He says the sloppiness of the report damages not only peace prospects, but international law itself. For this complete case, CLICK HERE. Other interesting recent comments on Goldstone come from leading American Reform Rabbi and human rights activist Eric Yoffie, British novelist Harold Evans, Canadian columnist David Warren, and Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Anti-Defamation League, Plus, even Israeli human rights groups like the frequently radical B’Tselem have criticised the Goldstone report and its methods.
Finally, the founding chairman of Human Rights Watch (HRW) , Robert Bernstein, has publicly criticised his own organisation’s development of an excessive focus on Israel in recent years. He makes a strong case that the organisation has focussed more on democratic Israel than its totalitarian neighbours, and also puts a case that the “evidence” from Gaza the organisation relies on to condemn Israel is at best questionable. He concludes that if HRW does not return to its founding commitments and humility, “its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.” To read all of this important article, CLICK HERE. Interestingly, many of the attempts by HRW and its supporters to respond to Bernstein appear to rely on overblown straw-man misrepresentations of his positions – see here. Bernstein responds to these arguments here.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Responses to a new Amnesty report on Israeli-Palestinian water issues criticising Israel, here, here, and here.
- New and important interviews with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
- After missing a Friday deadline, Iran continues to dither over its response to the proposed deal to enrich most of its uranium abroad in Russia and France – see here, here and here. Some are speculating that the regime is split on the issue. However, Emmanuele Ottolenghi argues that there is no real split between those who want to take the deal and those who don’t, but a game to buy time. They may also be seeking to re-write the plan in their favour.
- A boatload of Iranian weapons apparently destined for local Shiite rebels reportedly seized off Yemen.
- With Temple Mount violence renewed over the weekend, some comments on the situation from the Jerusalem Post and former Israeli defence minister Moshe Arens.
- A report that foreign militants, even Taliban, may be in Gaza helping make better bombs.
- Anyone interested in the Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan should definitely read the account of his 7 months of Taliban captivity by New York Times reporter David Rohde.
Cutting Edge, October 26th 2009
Last week’s consideration of the one-sided Goldstone Report has once again shown the fecklessness and bias of the Human Rights Council. Israel’s indictment by that body should come as no surprise to anyone who knows the UN. Israel simply cannot receive a fair hearing for any accusations placed against it there. As such, the Human Rights Council, and to be more accurate, the entire UN system is rigged against Israel making the process a kangaroo court.
In June 2008, while decrying the US refusal to continue its engagement with the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, could not avoid pointing out these important facts about the Council explaining, “In its first two years, however, the Human Rights Council has failed to address more than 20 human rights situations that require its attention, eliminated human rights monitoring in places desperately in need of such scrutiny, and adopted a long stream of one-sided resolutions on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories which failed to consider the roles and responsibilities of the Palestinian authorities and armed groups.”
Moreover, according to the Democracy Coalition Project study, “Human Rights Council Report Card, 2007-2008,” while “the Council considered numerous country situations throughout the year, it acted only on a few. It failed to effectively address several unfolding human rights crises, such as Zimbabwe and Tibet, or speak forcefully on ongoing situations as urgent as Darfur. The Council discontinued the mandates on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Group of Experts on Darfur, two areas of the world where gross and systematic human rights violations continue to take place.”
Since its inception, the Council has held 12 Special Sessions, with six directed at Israel. This sounds frighteningly familiar to the Council’s predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission. Between 2001 and when it was disbanded in 2006, the UN Human Rights Commission passed 26 resolutions and one decision that were critical of Israel. The situations in North Korea, Burma, and Sudan warranted a combined total of 11 resolutions and decisions during the same period.
Let’s look at the “special attention” the Council has given Israel in the past few years. Here are the first twelve sessions of the Council and the results of their meetings.
• 1st Special session of the Human Rights Council, July 5-6 2006, yielded a resolution S-1/Res.1: Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory
• 2nd Special session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, August 11, 2006 yielded a resolution S-2/1: The grave situation of human rights in Lebanon caused by Israeli military operations
• 3rd Special session was on Israeli military incursions in Occupied Palestinian Territory, November 15, 2006
• 4th Special session of the Human Rights Council was on the human rights situation in Darfur, December 12- 13, 2006
• 5th Special session of the Human Rights Council was on the human rights situation in Myanmar: October 2, 2007
• 6th Special session of the Human Rights Council focused on alleged rights violations emanating from Israeli military incursions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including the recent ones in occupied Gaza and West Bank town of Nablus, January 23-24, 2008
• 7th Special session of the Human Rights Council was on “The negative impact on the realization of the right to food of the worsening of the world food crisis, caused inter alia by the soaring food prices”, May 22 2008
• 8th Special session of the Human Rights Council: The situation of the human rights in the East of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 28, 2008
• 9th special session of the Human Rights Council: “The Grave Violations of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory including the recent aggression in the occupied Gaza Strip,” January 9, 2009
• 10th special session of the Human Rights Council: “The Impact of the Global Economic and Financial Crises on the Universal Realization and Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights” – Friday, 20 February 2009
• 11th special session of the Human Rights Council: “The human rights situation in Sri Lanka,” May 26-27 2009
• 12th Special Session of the Human Rights Council: “The human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and East Jerusalem,” October 15, 2009 (The Goldstone Report condemning Israel was considered and a recommendation was passed endorsing it.)
Once again, the Council’s preoccupation with Israel is evident. For many years before its abolition, the Commission on Human Rights had a separate agenda item focusing solely on alleged violations of Israel—namely, Item 8, “Question of the violation of human rights in the occupied Arab territories, including Palestine.” This allowed multiple resolutions against Israel, while no other country could have more than one resolution run against it each year. No other country beside Israel had an agenda item exclusively scrutinizing it. This shameful tradition of bias and has been continued by the UN Human Rights Council.
According to the U.S. State Department Report on Global Anti-Semitism of March 13, 2008, “This new institution has proven to be even more prone to protect serious violators of human rights and more prolific in its criticism of Israel than its predecessor. The Council adopted 15 anti-Israel resolutions or decisions in its first 16 months (ending September 30, 2007).”
If one looks at the composition of the Council, it’s easy to see why it is impossible for Israel to be judged fairly. Again, according to the Democracy Coalition Project study, “In addition to these regional groups, there are several cross-regional blocs active at the Council that represent geopolitical alliances, including the European Union (EU), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Group of Arab States [5 states], and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The OIC, with 15 members on the Council during the 2007-2008 cycle, carried more weight than any of the single regional groupings. The OIC frequently spoke and voted as a group, and was joined in its positions on many issues by the African Group, as well as Cuba and Nicaragua.”
Also, they added, “The current style of “bloc” politics at the Council has led to negotiations among regional and cross-regional groups that are increasingly conducted behind closed doors and pursue consensual outcomes. In many cases, this has prevented states from speaking independently and clearly on serious human rights concerns.” Finally, the report states, “The OIC generally supported the African line on opposing country scrutiny with one major exception, the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
The UN system has been turned into a weapon by terrorist states to incite violence and hatred specifically against Israel and generally against the West. Because of this, Israel cannot and will not receive a fair hearing there. As long as we continue to support this corrupt process, we will see more and more of this abuse. A good start would be to end the UN’s kangaroo court we call the Human Rights Council.
Cutting Edge commentator Gregg J. Rickman, Ph.D, served as the first U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism from 2006-2009. He is a Senior Fellow for the Study and Combat of Anti-Semitism at the Institute on Religion and Policy in Washington, DC; a Visiting Fellow at The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; and a Research Scholar at the Initiative on Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.
Toronto Star, October 22, 2009
The Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on Gaza has now been endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council as documenting Israeli war crimes.
But from a legal point of view, the Goldstone report is full of more holes than the tunnel-riddled strip along the Gaza-Egypt border.
Despite its 574-page girth and the heaviness of its potential impact, the actual evidence compiled against Israel is rather thin. Justice Richard Goldstone himself has worried that the UN action on the report is being treated as conclusive when it was never intended that way. “If this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven,” Goldstone told a reporter.
Among its most damning findings, the report states that Israeli forces indiscriminately attacked universities, mosques and civilian areas. Its pages are full of testimony from witnesses, or partial witnesses or, more accurately, non-witnesses who heard stories from their brother-in-law who knows someone who was almost there. As Goldstone has described it, “We had to do the best we could with the material we had.”
A careful read through the seemingly weighty report reveals that, legally, they didn’t have much.
For example, the report describes the Israeli attack on Gaza’s Islamic University, stating: “These were civilian, educational buildings and the mission did not find any information about their use as a military facility.”
Anyone with a normal university campus in mind would agree, unless they were in the habit of watching Palestinian television. The Islamic University was previously featured as the site of clashes between Fatah and Hamas gunmen, with Fatah soldiers identifying it as a weapons laboratory for the new and improved Qassam rockets that Hamas fires by the thousands into Israel. Palestinian Authority television had a full display of the weapons cache found in the Islamic University at the time.
The report also condemns the destruction of several mosques in Gaza by Israeli fire, finding no basis for the Israeli allegations that mosques were used as launching points for Hamas attacks and as weapons storage facilities. Again, anyone with a normal image of a house of worship in mind would have to agree.
But the “fact-finding” mission did not seem to gather all of the facts. Israeli soldiers testifying at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Academy after the war displayed first-hand photographs – not hearsay accounts from a friend of a friend – showing weapons stored in Gaza mosques and Hamas gunmen using mosques as firing platforms. Goldstone has complained that the Israelis did not cooperate with the mission, but the IDF testimony is publicly available for anyone, including the UN’s “fact finders,” to see.
Finally, the report condemns Israel for the many civilian deaths in Gaza. In response to Israeli accounts – again, well photographed – that Hamas forces concentrated themselves in civilian populated areas, the report put its head in the sand: “The mission notes that those interviewed in Gaza appeared reluctant to speak about the presence of or conduct of hostilities by the Palestinian armed groups.”
But if they couldn’t get locals to talk, and if they didn’t want to look at Israeli evidence, they could have paid attention to Hamas spokesman Fathi Hammad, who when interviewed described his organization as being at one with the people of Gaza: “This is why they have formed humans shields of the women, the children, the elderly and the mujahideen, in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine.”
Now that’s a war crime.
There are many tragedies in Gaza that deserve proper investigation, including death and destruction on both sides. But the biggest tragedy of the Goldstone report is the damage done to international law. Goldstone, a renowned jurist, has wasted his reputation on a deeply flawed and biased report. It will undermine faith in the rule of international law for any who, apparently unlike the members of the UNHRC, actually take the time to read it.
Ed Morgan is Professor of law at the University of Toronto.
AS the founder of Human Rights Watch, its active chairman for 20 years and now founding chairman emeritus, I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics. Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.
At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.
That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.
When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies. Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.
Nowhere is this more evident than in its work in the Middle East. The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.
Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.
Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. These groups are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.
The organization is expressly concerned mainly with how wars are fought, not with motivations. To be sure, even victims of aggression are bound by the laws of war and must do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties. Nevertheless, there is a difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally.
But how does Human Rights Watch know that these laws have been violated? In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes. Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers. Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”
Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world. If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.
Robert L. Bernstein, the former president and chief executive of Random House, was the chairman of Human Rights Watch from 1978 to 1998.