Thursday, November 30, 2006
Human Rights Watch has lost its moral bearings
An Excellent Piece
By Jonathan Cook
".....Yet Western observers, and the organisations that should represent the very best of their Enlightenment values, seem incapable of understanding what might drive a grandmother to become a suicide bomber. Their empathy fails them, and so does their humanity.
Just at the moment Fatma was choosing death and resistance over powerlessness and victimhood -- and at a time when Gaza is struggling through one of the most oppressive and ugly periods of Israeli occupation in nearly four decades -- Human Rights Watch published its lastest statement on the conflict. It is document that shames the organisation, complacent Western societies and Fatma’s memory.
In its press release “Civilians Must Not Be Used to Shield Homes Against Military Attacks”, which was widely reported by the international media, HRW lambasts armed Palestinian groups for calling on civilians to surround homes that have been targeted for air strikes by the Israeli military.
Noting almost as an afterthought that more than 1,500 Palestinians have been made homeless from house demolitions in the past few months, and that 105 houses have been destroyed from the air, the press release denounces Palestinian attempts at non-violent and collective action to halt the Israel attacks. HRW refers in particular to three incidents.
In language that would have made George Orwell shudder, one of the world’s leading organisations for the protection of human rights ignored the continuing violation of the Palestinians’ right to security and a roof over their heads and argued instead: “There is no excuse for calling [Palestinian] civilians to the scene of a planned [Israeli] attack. Whether or not the home is a legitimate military target, knowingly asking civilians to stand in harm’s way is unlawful.”
There is good reason to believe that this reading of international law is wrong, if not Kafkaesque. Popular and peaceful resistance to the oppressive policies of occupying powers and autocratic rulers, in India and South Africa for example, has always been, by its very nature, a risky venture in which civilians are liable to be killed or injured. Responsibility for those deaths must fall on those doing the oppressing, not those resisting, particularly when they are employing non-violent means. On HRW’s interpretation, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela would be war criminals.
HRW also applies a series of terrible double standards in this press release.
It refuses Palestinians the right to protect homes from attack, labelling these civilians “human shields”, even while admitting that most of the homes are not legitimate military targets, and yet it has not said a word about the common practice in Israel of building weapons factories and army bases inside or next to communities, thereby forcing Israeli civilians to become human shields for the army.
And HRW prefers to highlight a supposed violation of international law by the Palestinians -- their choice to act as “human shields” -- and to demand that the practice end immediately, while ignoring the very real and continuing violation of international law committed by Israel in undertaking punitive house demolitions against Palestinian families.
Israel, unlike the Palestinians, benefits in both these respects. After four decades of reporting on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, HRW has covered all of Israel’s many human rights-abusing practices at least once before. The result is that after a while most violations get ignored. Why issue another report on house demolitions or “targeted assassinations”, even though they are occurring all the time? And, how to record the individual violations of tens of thousands of Palestinians’ rights every day at checkpoints? One report on the checkpoints once every few years has to suffice instead.
So HRW chooses instead to equivocate. It ignores most Israeli violations and highlights every Palestinian infraction, however minor. This way it makes a pact with the devil: it achieves the balance that protects it from criticism but only by sacrificing the principles of equity and justice.
Women vounteering to surround a mosque become the equivalent of the notorious incident in January 2003 when 21-year-old Samer Sharif was handcuffed to the hood of an army Jeep and driven towards stone-throwing youngsters in Nablus as Israeli soldiers fired their guns from behind his head. According to HRW’s approach to international law, the two incidents are comparable.
Context: The actions of Palestinians occur in a context in which all of their rights are already under the control of their occupier, Israel, and can be violated at its whim. This means that it is problematic, from a human rights perspective, to place the weight of culpability on the Palestinians without laying far greater weight at the same time on the situation to which the Palestinians are reacting.
The press release denouncing the Palestinians for choosing collectively and peacefully to resist house demolitions, while not concentrating on the violations committed by Israel in destroying the houses and using military forms of intimidation and punishment against civilians, is a travesty for this very same reason.
Common sense: And finally human rights organisations must never abandon common sense, the connecting thread of our humanity, when making judgments about where their priorities lie.
This shameful imbalance, both in the number of reports being issued against each party and in terms of the failure to hold accountable the side committing the far greater abuses of human rights, has become the HRW’s standard procedure in Israel-Palestine.
But in its latest release, on human shields, HRW plumbs new depths, stripping Palestinians of the right to organise non-violent forms of resistance and seek new ways of showing solidarity in the face of illegal occupation. In short, HRW treats the people of Gaza as mere rats in a laboratory -- the Israeli army’s view of them -- to be experimented on at will.
HRW’s priorities in Israel-Palestine prove it has lost its moral bearings."