Israel Bars UN Human Rights Watchdog From Occupied Territories

News & Politics
"It's important not to view history as a mere creature of geopolitical forces. Popular resistance has altered the course of history. The decolonization movement, the antiapartheid movement, the movements to free the peoples of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination are all examples of struggles that seemed to defy the geopolitical structures that existed."
-Richard Falk

In the course of a scholarly life that has spanned more than five decades and includes fifty-four books and dozens more articles, Richard Falk has received a great deal of criticism--from the right and from the left. Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, is considered one of the world's most prominent critics of US interventionism. This distinction alone would explain why he is disliked by many foreign policy hawks. But some of Falk's positions in recent years--such as his support for the US invasion of Afghanistan and his call for an independent investigation of 9/11--have also drawn the ire of those on the left. More controversial than anything, perhaps, has been his criticism of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. Our conversation addressed all of these issues, homing in on Falk's appointment in March by the United Nations to be the special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories.

Falk is the very model of a distinguished academic. He has a habit of carefully nodding his head as he talks. There is a measured cadence in his speech, which suggests a sense of calm. Falk knows that he won't be The Decider in future peace negotiations, but he hopes that his investigation of Israel's occupation policies will provide the international community, and the next administration, with information that will support those negotiations. Looking ahead, Falk remarked, "The new American President will be challenged by the legacy of the Bush approach to the Middle East but also presented with opportunities to move forward--but only if future policies are based on respect for international law."

In addition to serving on a UN Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestinian Territories in 2001, Falk has been a visiting distinguished professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This past year he also held the Leo Block Professorship at the University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies. I spoke with him after a series of lectures in Denver on academic freedom, global governance and the occupation of Iraq.

Linda Mamoun: Last year you wrote a widely circulated article, "Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust." Since the article's publication you have been assailed for using "extraordinary language" in criticizing Israeli policy, most recently in a BBC interview.

Richard Falk: The BBC interview as it was broadcast eliminated some things I said that were qualifications. The references to the Holocaust and to the Nazi policies were not meant to be literal comparisons but were intended to show that the policies being pursued, in Gaza in particular, had holocaustal implications if they were not changed. And the mind-set of holding an entire people responsible for opposition and resistance embodies a kind of collective punishment psychology that was very characteristic of the way the Nazis justified what they did to the Jewish people. But my intention was based on the feeling that you have to shout to be heard, and perhaps that was not the best way to make the argument. I would be quite prepared to abandon that terminology but not prepared to alter my concern about the character of the policies being pursued.

LM: In your role as special rapporteur, you will report to the new UN Human Rights Council. How do you respond to those who say that this agency is, to quote the April 24 issue of The Economist, "just as politicised, and just as intent on one-sided Israel-bashing, as its predecessor"?

RF: The question implies that John Dugard, the prior special rapporteur, was engaged in "one-sided Israel bashing." But Dugard, a distinguished professor of international law, is admired throughout the world for his nonpartisan professionalism. It is being objective to report the facts as they are and then to interpret them from the perspective of international humanitarian law. If these facts point to the persistent violation of international rules, then their legal interpretation is bound to be one-sided and critical of the violator. It's diversionary to dismiss a critical account of contested behavior because it is not "balanced." If the reality is unbalanced, so must its assessment be.

LM: So you're saying that Dugard's reports were balanced. Is the UN's global approach balanced? More specifically, has the Human Rights Council established itself as an organization that investigates human rights abuses in a broad range of conflict zones, or is there some truth to the assertion that it singles out Israel?

RF: The Human Rights Council is often accused of being overly selective, too critical of Israel, too lenient with respect to a variety of Third World countries. There is no doubt that any political institution will establish priorities based on the concerns of its membership. From this perspective it's not surprising that a focus should be placed on Israel and the Palestinian plight. After all, the UN has a special responsibility for Palestine that goes back to its effort to partition the mandate for the territory in 1947. From the UN perspective this unconsummated effort to address the future of both Palestinians and Israelis is, in a sense, the greatest unresolved issue on the UN agenda. Beyond this, the prolonged Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is unprecedented in international experience and has produced immense Palestinian suffering. It should also be noted that the HRC has appointed special rapporteurs for other situations of severe human rights concern, including North Korea and Myanmar.

It would be unforgivable if the Human Rights Council overlooked charges of Israeli violation of international humanitarian law. Limitations of resources, geopolitical pressures and blind spots help explain why some other situations involving serious human rights abuse are not addressed with comparable seriousness. But my experience suggests that the HRC entrusts its special rapporteurs with complete freedom to report on a given situation and demands that they adhere to professional canons of impartiality in the discharge of their official duties.

LM: In April Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Arye Mekel, reacted to your appointment as special rapporteur, saying, "If he already believes Israel is like the Nazis, how fair will he be?" But the Israeli government and the Bush Administration routinely liken Hamas to the Nazi regime. Just recently, the Bush Administration compared dialogue with Hamas to appeasement of the Nazis. The irony of these statements has not been lost on those witnessing Israel's siege of Gaza, a siege that bears a striking number of similarities to past sieges widely condemned.

RF: Israel has been long relying on various forms of collective punishment to carry out its occupation policy. Collective punishment is not just a response to the Hamas victory in the elections of 2006. It's an extension of that. And it definitely seems in the Gaza case to have the intention of creating a set of political effects that, at minimum, destroy Hamas as a political movement and possibly, more ambitiously, induce Palestinians to give up their struggle by provoking feelings of abject humiliation and helplessness.

LM: What do you hope to achieve as special rapporteur?

RF: My hope, and the reason I accepted what I knew to be a difficult assignment, is to try as best I can to portray the human impacts of the policies being pursued by Israel in the course of the occupation, and to assess those policies by reference to applicable standards of international humanitarian law. And to do this as honestly and objectively as I'm capable of doing. Israel's official response to my appointment is to declare that it will not allow me to enter Israel or the Palestinian territories. This constraint, if it remains in effect, will, of course, limit my exposure to the direct realities. But I think it's quite possible to perform this role without that exposure. Barring my entry complicates my task but doesn't make it undoable.

LM: Do you think that Israel's decision will change?

RF: Well, I hope it will change, but I don't have any present reason to expect the Israeli government to change its position.

LM: This brings us back to the many challenges of global governance. How does the investigation of Israeli policies in the occupied territories fit into the construct of global governance?

RF: Well, I think that it's part of what I would call the normative architecture of world order. There is an attempt to monitor, from a human rights and international humanitarian law perspective, certain sensitive conflict zones in the world. One of the most sensitive conflict zones, perhaps the most sensitive conflict zone, is occupied Palestine. In that sense, one could argue that this is a minimal effort to expose a wider segment of the world to the realities of what this occupation entails.

Global governance is a construct that is understood in many different ways. Certainly one aspect is the assessment of compliance with international humanitarian law. I suppose one way of describing my role is to monitor that compliance or identify areas of violation or noncompliance.

LM: Certain UN organizations seem to be much more successful than others. The World Food Program and the World Health Organization, for instance, have been extremely successful over the years. But human rights efforts, particularly with respect to Israel and Palestine, have historically been quite unsuccessful. Is that a direct result of US influence?

RF: Yes, there is no question that the UN is at its weakest when it encounters important geopolitical opposition, and the United States is responsible for organizing that geopolitical opposition in relation to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So it does expose the UN to vulnerability. A kind of geopolitical veto power exists that definitely limits what the UN can effectively do within its mandate to uphold international human rights.

At the same time, a lot of political developments have occurred that defy the political will of the United States and defied expectations of observers of the global scene. No one anticipated the peaceful transformation of South Africa. No one anticipated the defeat of the United States in the Vietnam War or its defeat in the current Iraq War. It's important not to make the opposite error, which is to view history as a mere creature of these geopolitical forces. Popular resistance has altered the course of history. The decolonization movement, the antiapartheid movement, the movements to free the peoples of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination--all are examples of struggles that seemed to defy the geopolitical structures that existed. So I think it's important to appreciate the obstacles but not to be too intimidated by them.

LM: Do you see a fair resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within your lifetime?

RF: I couldn't predict a just solution for the Palestinian self-determination struggle within my lifetime. On the other hand, some of these historical developments that I've mentioned, I couldn't have predicted either. So I'm quite aware of the limitations of historical foresight. And therefore I believe the struggle to achieve a more just resolution of the conflict is worthwhile precisely because we don't know what will shift the balance of opposed forces in such a way as to make possible what had seemed unlikely, if not impossible, from an earlier point of view.

It's not out of the question for there to be developments in Israel that will make its leadership more receptive to a genuine solution. A lot can happen in a situation as complicated as this that defy our pessimism about what is possible at the present. This doesn't mean that we have any basis for being unduly optimistic. It just means that there is sufficient uncertainty and many reasons to be disturbed by the present set of circumstances. So there is a strong case to be made for doing all that is possible to ensure a better future for the Palestinians and the Israelis.

LM: Although there doesn't seem to be much cause for optimism here in the United States, many of us are wondering if the next administration will forge a new path in its policy toward Israel and Palestine.

RF: I don't see very many positive prospects. Despite the pretensions of being a constitutional democracy, we've basically created a structure of affinity with Israel that disallows mainstream political figures to question that affinity even in constructive ways. So I don't have the political imagination to see how any of these candidates will, when they occupy the presidency, have either the courage or the incentive to challenge this very constraining public opinion. But America is not the world, and there's much more open debate elsewhere, including even in Israel. And one shouldn't underestimate the degree to which the furious response to Jimmy Carter's efforts to engage Hamas is partly an acknowledgment of the importance of what he's saying and doing. One shouldn't endow the hostile reactions with supremacy over the public discourse. And Carter hasn't entirely been shut out in the mainstream media. He was interviewed by Larry King. He was given a lot of coverage in op-eds for the New York Times and the Washington Post. So the reaction to what he's been doing and saying is a much more mixed one, I think.

There is growing uneasiness underneath this unconditional support for Israel. There is a kind of uneasiness that US policy isn't really in America's national interest, and it's not a just policy. This has made the organized pro-Israel forces very nervous, so they are extremely reactive to any sign that the American consensus, on an official level, is being challenged. But I wouldn't exaggerate their success in dominating the public space.

LM: Because of your own statements in the public sphere over the years, you have the honor of being included in David Horowitz's list of the 101 Most Dangerous Academics. Would you say that your statements have had the desired effect?

RF: Well, I hope that they have allowed more people to appreciate some of the neglected and controversial aspects of what is taking place. To the extent that I consider myself a person dedicated to knowledge and to a scholarly life, my statements are guided by a commitment to truth-seeking, both within the university and within society. And this extends especially to issues that are not being addressed truthfully by the media or by the governmental institutions that are responsible for forming national policy.

LM: One such issue: you have said that there is reason to question the government's official explanation for 9/11. How has the left reacted to your skepticism?

RF: I think that there is a great deal of suspicion directed at anyone who is skeptical about the official explanation for 9/11. I have not, in fact, been very much involved with the so-called 9/11 truth movement. By coincidence, I happen to be a longtime friend of a man named David Ray Griffin, a much-respected philosopher of religion, who has become convinced that the official explanation is false. I have a lot of respect for him, and I wrote the foreword to his original book, The New Pearl Harbor. But that's really the extent of my involvement. I don't have an independent view on how best to understand the 9/11 attacks. I haven't looked at the evidence sufficiently to say more than that the 9/11 Commission didn't do a good job of dispelling the several plausible grounds for suspicions that exist. There are unanswered questions that deserve to be answered, and the public should have the benefit of that kind of clarification.

The left particularly is nervous about being seen as supportive of conspiracy theory. And to the extent that there is an incentive to discredit my role--partly because of the Israel/Palestine context-- there's also a tendency to exaggerate my involvement with this set of issues. But if you look carefully at what I've been writing and what I've been doing, you'll see that I've really had very minimal contact, and I've not been involved in the 9/11 movement at all. Some people have tried to get me involved, and I've resisted, not because I don't think it's important to raise these issues but because they're not my own priorities.

LM: Your current priorities, I assume, involve the monitoring efforts in Palestine. In your lectures, you have suggested that a prerequisite for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the resolution of the US war in Iraq.

RF: I wouldn't say that the resolution of the Iraq War is a prerequisite so much as it provides a better atmosphere for diplomacy addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Closer to a prerequisite is a change in the political climate in Israel, particularly a change in the leadership. As far as I can tell, the Palestinian leadership, even the more radical Palestinian leadership associated with Hamas, would be receptive to Israeli diplomatic moves that combined a withdrawal from the occupied territories with the establishment of a long-term cease-fire. Conditions are, in many respects, ripe for creating a better short-term reality for both peoples and better long-term prospects for security and peace.

LM: Last question: how does Afghanistan fit into the geopolitical picture, and is it correct to say that your position on Afghanistan has changed since the US invasion?

RF: As far as Afghanistan is concerned, I wrote some articles after the 9/11 attacks that supported the belief that the Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan posed a continuing threat. In my opinion, this provided the United States with a reasonably convincing rationale under international law for attacking Afghanistan, particularly given the very limited legitimacy that the Taliban government possessed. It was only recognized by three governments in the world, and two of them withdrew their recognition after the 9/11 attacks. The one country that maintained a diplomatic connection, and that only for the sake of convenience, was Pakistan. Other Islamic states had no diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, including Iran. That said, I think the way the war was prosecuted was very disturbing--legally, morally and politically. And I now think that the quick embrace of a war paradigm by the US government in response to 9/11 was a very fundamental mistake in responding to the threats posed by the attacks.

In a broader sense, Afghanistan launched the neoconservative post-9/11 grand strategy. It's important to appreciate that this strategy was not focused on counterterrorist objectives but seemed to focus on establishing American control over the Middle East for reasons of oil, nonproliferation policies, long-term protection of Israel and containment of political Islam. These goals depended on victory in Iraq, which now seems unlikely.

Future policy should promote a regional security framework that includes Israel and Iran, and should be based on a prohibition of all weapons of mass destruction, including those currently possessed by Israel. The policy should move toward a far more balanced approach to peace between Israel and Palestine, an approach that either envisages a single democratic state for both peoples or two equally sovereign states that could come into being only after the Israeli settlements were substantially dismantled and the Israeli security wall totally removed from Palestinian territory.

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