We thought we had put the contentious Durban conference to bed for awhile at least, but here it comes rearing its ugly head in President Obama's decision to award Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A number of Jewish groups, AIPAC and some congressmen like Eliot Engel have denounced the president's selection, angered by what they see as Mary Robinson's anti-Israel bias and mismanagement of the World Conference Against Racism -- which indeed did turn at times into an antisemitic spectacle and an anti-Israel hate fest that should never have been allowed under UN auspices. I was there, I saw it.
In part, I'm going to come to Mary Robinson's defense, but in part criticize her and her supporters for what happened at Durban. There is very little space for doing this in a nasty, polarized debate which pits international human rights groups against Jewish groups and friends of Israel, and pits some mainstream and Jewish press against various leftwing bloggers and new media commentators. Yes, Mary Robinson courageously stood up to some antisemites in Durban and should be applauded. But that the Durban conference came to the awful pass it did is due to her refusal to nip the growing debacle in the bud far earlier in the prepcom process, both with the states of the Organization of Islamic Conference and bad actors like Cuba, as well as in liaison with NGOs -- when hostile Arab League states and their supporters and leftist sectarians derailing the process should have been faced down far earlier and more often.
I am not sure of the process by which Mary Robinson was selected for the award, but my sense is that it is an effort to deflect criticism of the United States coming furiously from some leftist groups for the U.S. decision not to participate in the follow-up review conference in Durban in April. It also comes from some members of the international human rights circuit (more on that below) who want to empower their clan with such honorifics. If I were asked to make up a list of people who deserve this award, quite frankly, I would not include Mary Robinson simply because I think it is an award that is better given to those who exhibited personal courage in the face of oppressive circumstances in their country, not UN officials who are sometimes forced to compromise for what they perceive as higher goals (and for which sometimes, they are proven wrong, as Mary Robinson has). Having said that, I would never advocate withdrawing such an award once announced, which is to become like Stalin or Ceaucescu pulling medals and doctoral degrees when an individual becomes politically incorrect. At the end of the day, the Obama Administration chose Mary Robinson because they felt she was one of their own, and if you do not like that choice, you have the electoral process to change it.
First, praise for Mrs. Robinson. If I had to sum up the accomplishments of Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland, I would say this: she stood up to all the great powers, and advocated on behalf of the victims of massive human rights violations. During her tenure, with her office, unlike other parts of the UN mired in paralysis and exigencies of politics and "geographical distribution," she actively took on the Chechnya issue with the Russians; the Tibet issue with the Chinese; the Guantanamo and Iraq issues with the Americans; East Timor with the Indonesians; and many other situations around the world to which she brought hope by invigorating her office's field missions and supporting the special procedures, the investigations into human rights abuses.
I vividly remember an early meeting with Mary Robinson, who was new to the UN bureaucracy, when a group of us eager human rights groups gathered around her with great hope and encouragement but also with pressure to do more. "It's as if I have 192 bosses," she said wearily, referencing all the members of the UN in the General Assembly. "And many don't wish me well." I remember remarking that as High Commissioner, she should see that her office remained "high," serving as a conscience above the fray. I think she mainly tried, but in the face of a constant stream of unhappy diplomats wearing out her waiting room with complaints of bias or neglect or incitement, sometimes she punted.
ACTIONS TO MARY ROBINSON'S CREDIT
In Durban, when we all faced the overwhelming challenges of a raucous and out-of-control meeting in a large cricket stadium (note to world leaders: don't hold events in stadiums, people are never at their best in them), I can say that here, too, Mary showed leadership, and did a number of good deeds:
o Taking the stage at the NGO Forum after a very long-winded and tendentious Fidel Castro who incited the masses to wave hateful flags printed "Cuba Si, Yanqi Non!", Mary Robinson was actually booed by the extreme leftists in the crowd who felt she hadn't done "enough" for Palestine. When she mentioned the racism against blacks in Cuba, some of them went absolutely livid and tried to shout her off the stage. She held her ground and continued her speech.
o When the NGO forum produced its odious document singling out Israel for special attack and repeating hateful and wrongful claims about "an apartheid state" and other invective, she simply refused to accept it. That enraged the hard left, too, but she didn't waver.
o She made an effort to hear all sides of the conflict and told Jewish groups that she felt their pain, even saying in one meeting "I am a Jew," in a statement of solidarity and condemnation of the antisemitic literature and posters littering the Durban grounds.
o After the Durban conference for some years, she continued to meet with both local and international groups, human rights, solidarity, and Jewish groups, hearing their complaints and trying to address concerns, and certainly took the message that Durban II was headed for a road wreck and did what she could there
Yet in all of these courageous and caring actions, there was a kind of shortfall or gap that many found major in retrospective, and which I was troubled about then, as now. And that was the inability to take on the hard left and the sectarians frontally, invoking universal human values, while taking the visible political actions needed to avoid conferring legitimacy on those whose platform was not the liberal value of human rights, but sectarian secular or theocratic ideologies.
understand what I'm talking about, you'll have to get into the weeds a
bit, hear some vignettes from Durban and contemplate some difficult
documents, and see the larger philosophical points. I warn you in
advance the text is long but keep Googling if you would rather find
more dramatic invective.
WHERE MARY WENT WRONG
There were many steps along the considerably long and arduous path to Durban where Mary Robinson could have intervened even in a quietly symbolic way, sometimes by enacting the old adage, "Don't just do something, stand there" -- especially if standing there meant standing on principle. Here are some of them:
o As formal convener of the WCAR, when the Cubans opened the process by distributing a white paper in which they put forth the long-held Marxist analysis that problems like racism were not to be conceived as human rights issues (as the UN configured them) but economic matters merely secondary to the chief problem of capitalism and imperialism, she could have intervened early and explained that the ideological approach, seeking remedy through revolution (especially violent revolution) to change social systems was not the UN way, and that a rights-based approach had to be favoured;
o When Iran -- where Jews are restricted and vilifed and Bahais jailed -- offered to host the regional preparatory conference for Durban and began preparing a tendentious draft document bashing Israel -- Mary Robinson could have simply stayed home, or even urged some of the other regional leaders with a less objectionable human rights record to hold the conference. Instead, not only did she go, she urged NGOs who went to don head scarves in the conference room at the behest of the mullahs and didn't boycott the meeting even when some activist groups were demonstrably not given visas just for their perceived ethnic or political profiles.
o When Palestinian groups known to be frequent inciters of hate began to register under the process widely open at Durban for non-accredited groups, the office of Mary Robinson could have objected. They didn't. The staff were bullied, in some cases by thuggish activists who were later found to be embezzling EU funds and were later de-funded by the Ford Foundation, which also had to do a lot of repair work after Durban. The bullies should have been swiftly and publicly called out and their threats -- also made to non-governmental groups that their work would be "ruined" in the region and no one would work with them because they'd be seen as Israel supporters -- should have been exposed as the unacceptable expressions they were.
o When numerous logistical and political problems began to be visible miles away around SANGOCO, the South African NGO group authorized to convene the NGO forum with old ANC politics in sway and a demonstrative anti-Western and anti-Israel agenda, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights again, could have said "that's not how we do things here" and stressed a rights framework and anti-discrimination work, instead of feeling guilty and politically incorrect about criticizing anybody in a country that had become the poster-boy for human rights and UN success.
o When SANGOCO made the rash decision to invite Fidel Castro; to allow youth groups in UN meetings to wear printed and distributed t-shirts saying "Israel=Apartheid," to participate in hate marches with signs of Hitler speculating "What If I Had Won" and despicably shouting "intifada" at Jewish groups, among many disgraceful actions at the conference, Mary Robinson might have waded in, and said "that's sectarian and polarizing" or "that's not how NGOs should be addressing their concerns". She or some other official from the UN might have done something simple, like noted that groups that did not comport themselves with minimal civility and respect for the values of the UN Charter and tolerance for a variety of views could face review of their registration status. At the UN buildings in Geneva or New York, you cannot shout, carry signs, single out states for abusive rhetoric, or direct hate at any one group or country. In Durban, you could... The UN system is set up to prevent uncivility on its premises; a cricket field was not its premises. Its only means there was to investigate whether a group called for or committed violence or even terrorism, but while EU and the Ford Foundation conducted such investigations, the UN didn't.
o When the EU -- which was all that was left to carry the ball after the U.S. and Israel walked out -- were wavering under African and OIC pressure, she should have used her considerable connections to every EU capital and to delegates on the ground to hold the line on not singling out Israel. Perhaps some day she will write the full story of what she did or didn't do on par. 63, but as an eyewitness myself to the NGO and official meetings, I have to say that she did not stand up to the sectarians on this one. A full account worth reading from the late Congressman Lantos is here.
There is a whole host of other issues around Mary Robinson and her dealings with the Israel/Palestine issue which I won't address here. I'm not an expert on this and many others are shrilly speaking out on the issue everywhere on both sides of the issue. What I will say is that "Jewish lobbyists" who have been portrayed in tones of dripping sarcasm and seething hatred aren't bullying Mary Robinson; Mary Robinson could not sufficiently stand up to the bullies from the Palestinian lobby then or now in part because she doesn't feel like they are bullying. If you Google the topic, you will also come to realize that this "Jewish lobby" with it's "Zionist control of the Western media blah blah" isn't the Borg some imagine -- hundreds of blogs, tweets, newspaper comment sections, etc. all have leftists and liberals busy expressing their ourage at this purported "Jewish Lobby" and indignantly taking Mary Robinson's side. Where's the bully?
HOW ZIONISM=RACISM SNEAKED IN THE BACK DOOR AND GOT VALIDATED AS ISRAEL=APARTHEID
I do think there is a basic issue of logic, UN values, and human rights values here that is constantly misportrayed or neglected, and that is the issue surrounding the actual official documents signed at Durban 1 and again reconfirmed in Durban 2. As I noted in this post earlier this year and a year ago, yes, it's true, the old canard of Zionism=Racism was not recycled in Durban per se -- Secretary General Kofi Annan had earlier dispensed with that old staple of Soviet propaganda by declaring the Zionism=Racism resolution "a low point" for the UN and repudiating it -- the spirit of Z=R was still very much present.
That's why when all the bloggers now castigating AIPAC for mistakingly claiming that the UN at Durban, including Mary Robinson, promoted Zionism=Racism are technically correct -- and yet morally wrong, and why there simply has to be some pushback, because the spirit of Z=R was indeed admitted through the back door into the final documents and enshrined in stone.
Indeed a hateful singling out of Israel, alone among nations, *did* take place in Durban 1, and was reiterated in Durban 2. Israel is the only nation taken to task, although one could argue in Durban in 2001, and in today's world, that the situations in Sudan, Russia's North Caucasus and Chechnya, China, Nigeria, etc. where more people have been killed over the years and this year, should have been mentioned as well. Worse, from the perspective not only of Jewish groups, but those who care about integrity and balance in such international documents, the plight of the Palestinian people was put under a rubric titled "racism," which created the implication that Israel has a deliberate state policy of institutionalized racism against Palestinians the way the white government of South Africa had in apartheid.
And if you feel indignantly that in fact you must argue with me and try to compress all your concerns about Israel violations into that particular trope, let me stop you in your tracks by reminding you that Mary Robinson herself does not use that terminology or make that claim about the state of Israel; she is careful not to do so.
And the fact that individual Israeli officials could have engaged in racist statements or actions, or that Israel has engaged in other human rights violations does not change that interpretation of international law by the international community that Israel is not an apartheid state.
So any political and ideological disagreement about that is indeed political and ideological. It's not a human rights disagreement because no reputable human rights group with credible methodology or UN body has ever made a claim that there is parity in Israel with the South African apartheid government or any institution like apartheid in Israel. That analysis is at the heart of the Durban debacle. It comes down to whether you can make hard leftist, tendentious, sectarian claims in shrill and emotional language to plead your case, no matter how legitimate, which demonizes, dehumanizes and inflames other people, groups, and states. Or whether you will go by the rule of law.
People who make a Fisking technical claim that criticizing Israel for real or perceived wrongs isn't antisemitism haven't seen how that concept works when it is a loud, raucous chorus of sustained hate in a stadium. And so I want to convey some of the flavour of the scene in Durban.
I will never forgot how Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch came up to a group of us to discuss the NGO Forum draft document. The word "apartheid" was circled in a phrase about Israel. Some objected to its use. Reed said "We don't have a problem with the word 'apartheid', we use it for a number of situations like 'gender apartheid'."
I did. In Durban, I got to meet South Africans who experienced apartheid first hand, and had of course had read about and heard speak heroes like Nelson Mandela over the years. These experiences cannot be compared to the Israel/Palestine situation in scope, in scale, and in opportunities for remedy. No credible human rights group had any business using this term, with its precise UN documented meanings, informally against Israel in a document about to become formal. In fact, Human Rights Watch doesn't use this term about Israel but was not about to get into a wrangle with national groups in Durban, since it relies on for logistical, interpretation, and reporting support on the ground during its fact-finding missions.
THE EMPTY INGO TENT
Durban was not the finest hour for international human rights groups. As I have often noted, the INGO tent was empty. All the other regional caucases were busy; the international groups did not enter the fray. They thought they were above all this. They refused to engage in politicking, compromising, platform creation with the other groups there and they were far outnumbered. International groups are small by comparison with national movements of victims or political movements of solidarity around a cause like stopping racism. They work by research and documenting and advocacy around a set of rights principles, not by political awareness-raising around a political cause; indeed, if NGOs are seen as affecting legislation and engaging in the political process, they could lose their 501-c-3 charitable status in the U.S.
Human Rights Watch had said well before the conference when the hateful invective was already visible in the prepcons, when we discussed strategies around Durban advocacy, that antisemitism was not something that could be condemned, as it involved making decisions about suppression of hate speech that not only ran counter to the First Amendment but Article 19. HRW, like other groups, selected less controversial causes to focus on during Durban like the plight of the Dalits or untouchables in India.
YOU'RE EITHER ON THE BUS OR OFF THE BUS
I will also never forget my first moments in Durban when Yuri Dzhibladze, a Russian human rights leader and the head of the Eurasian and East European NGO coalition in Durban, and I got on the bus to go to the hotel. In front of us were seated a middleaged black man and woman from Chicago, wearing African dress. As we listened to them talk, we realized they were radicals and supporters of Farrakhan. At one point, as Yuri and I exchanged startled glances, as the man said to the woman that they could succeed in their radical agenda at Durban "if they could just throw Human Rights Watch". What they didn't realize is that they wouldn't have to do any heavy lifting. No Western human rights group would want to be seen condemning a fellow NGO for their speech, especially if they were victims. In fact, some groups even picked up the theme of amplifying the "voices of victims" that such an international conference could give you, despite everything.
Durban was an international Skokie. The KKK was in a sense allowed to get a demonstration permit. Yet what was lost in this kind of classic human rights stance is that in a civil society, you don't just literally parse the Constitution and ensure that the KKK can march if they get a permit and march peacefully, you also have a counter demonstration in which you say that their ideas are unacceptable and hateful.
And here is where the whole of Durban went wrong because of a hole in the international system that is hard to fill: human rights only take you so far, and then morality, or politics, or religion, or civil governance have to take you the rest of the way. But then each of those fields lends itself to manipulation in such a way that human rights can be violated by invoking them as well, and so human rights groups generally refrain from stepping out of a strict mandate.Yet some believe that in fact human rights can take care of every aspect of life, and in saying that, have already elevated some aspects of rights to a religion or to politics. I'm all for such liberal and moral politics and religions -- let's just not pretend they are still human rights groups.
Faced with other caucases with larger numbers and heavy mobilization, sometimes paid for by states with poor human rights practices and bad ideologies, the international groups were outgunned. They also simply lacked a framework to cope. The concept of "solidarity" is what many local NGOs use to help victims and each other, but it is not one found in the human rights menu; INGOs have preferred to use the guidelines of the human rights treaties and international law themselves, rather than other principles that might be hard to define or divisive.
IN THE BIG TENT
In Durban, I felt my first sense of unease when we were walking to the final NGO forum meeting in the evening, and my colleague, who was African-American and who had lived in Africa for many years, noticed that there was a "roiling" feeling to the street, that people were beginning to clump together and murmur. "And no police in sight," she commented -- although the South African police had been so vigilant around the UN earlier that day that they had demanded I remove a small sign about Chechnya that had been stuck on the back of my knapsack.
Then, approaching the stadium, I saw a Ford Foundation official, looking stricken. He had seen quite a bit of the excesses at the exhibits and the meetings and seemed worried about how the upcoming contentious meeting would go. As we got on to the grounds, the security officer for a South African Jewish group briskly came up to a group of Jewish activists who included some of my colleagues and warned them that they must leave the grounds for their own safety. Information had come down that the organizers were going to try to push through a bad text -- after a raucous round of editing and scurrilous shenanigans that involved even performing sleight-of-hand with stealing computer discs and substituting actual agreed text with the "orgkom"'s language.
The Jewish groups decided to leave, although a few stayed. They were angry and disgusted -- and rightly so. These were Jewish groups that weren't on the right, and didn't boycott Durban -- they had showed up to work within the process and to reach out even to hostile groups.
Once we were all in the tent, SANGOCO organizers violated procedure and the sense of the group by refusing to have a debate and a vote on the entire document and accepting amendments to an already-contentious document as a whole, and instead, in clever sectarian fashion, insisted on an arduous paragraph-by-paragraph vote, ensuring that the entire thing turned into a Christmas tree with myriad decorations of every interest in the room, and grew worse instead of better.
Paragraphs were devised about Israel "the apartheid state" and other hateful language and when the vote came, from our caucus, the East European Group, Yuri Dzhibladze's hand was the sole hand raised in the room voting "opposed". Again, here was an opportunity for the International NGO caucus to act: it ducked. (Had the INGOs convened in their seldom-visited tent, those willing to drop contentious language would have faced an uncomfortable confrontation from those like FIDH that wanted to have harsher inflammatory language about Israel, or "didn't have a problem" with the word "apartheid").
After an exhausting and riotous at times debate, victory for the Palestinian cause seemed near, and someone sent out for sandwiches and sodas -- in the hot tent, not only no police were visible at all, but there were no concessions for miles. When a crate of sandwiches were placed on a table, my colleague from Russia, Tanya Lokshina, who happens to be Jewish, innocently took one, only to have a Palestinian activist leer into her face, "Are you Jewish?!" The sandwiches were only for Friends of Palestine...With people pushing and whistling and jeering, I began to feel as if we were very frail, and yet somehow I must protect my friends. I had been many times in crowd and demonstration and mass disturbances situations, in Russia and abroad and at home, and the situation in the tent was not yet at that "run and hide" stage, but it seemed as if it might turn.
We left soon after, and immediately got to work all night drafting an alternative document to denounce the hateful NGO manifesto and also outline our own concerns, which repeatedly got drowned (we were the ones to mention not only Chechnya and the Balkans, situations with profound racist concerns, but also the ICC's role in combatting racism, which no one in the hustle and bustle of obsession about Israel had thought to include because it wasn't relevant to them.)
TAKING A STANCE AGAINST THE DURBAN NGO FORUM
We immediately got some 30 signatures and eventually got 76. And here, too, the international groups, considerably better resourced and with more easily accessed membership, could have done the same things and could have signed the statement. They didn't. There was a moral job to do here, which was not only to affirm human rights and universality, but to condemn hate as unacceptable in a human rights movement. It seemed an act not only of morality, but of good self-governance -- you have to stand up and say, no, that's not right, procedure and due process matter, and you have to keep documents free of shrill invective and incitement of hatred to demonize states. Indeed, the same kind of moral motivation that is driving some groups now to stand up in solidarity with Mary Robinson as she is criticized by right-wing Jewish groups.
Again, the international human rights groups could have risen to the occasion and denounced the NGO forum and all its works there, on the ground, in the cricket field, and at press conferences the next day -- but they chose not to, preferring to make more general statements urging a focus on the key issues at the official conference.
THE LIMITS OF HUMAN RIGHTS ON SOCIAL CHANGE
And that brings me back to the problem of Mary Robinson.
The fact that Mary Robinson refused to accept the NGO document or reference it in the official meeting -- an act which absolves her of some of the worst criticism for her role -- was not known. She didn't call a press conference or put a statement on the UN website or even make it widely known -- it's a side story of the Durban drama often overlooked (and for which she endlessly took carping from extremist groups years later). That this seminal moment is now being elevated to attention to defend Mrs. Robinson in the presidential medal issue is interesting, given that some doing this now weren't around to stop sectarians in their tracks in Durban II who kept condemning Mary for not accepting "the people's expression".
But while she didn't accept the NGO document hatefully attacking Israel, she didn't denounce where the official document was going. And whatever chits she may have had in the negotiating process, which, by that time were few, she did not insist publicly that the document should not single out only Israel. That's because she likely felt that Israel did deserve criticism of its human rights wrongs, and did not want to risk endlessly later facing a tide of anger from Palestinians and others outraged by Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories who have long had a strategy of invading every single human rights meeting anywhere to rant about human rights violations of one side only. By staying silent on that point, Mary Robinson avoided pressure from groups who felt she didn't do enough for Palestine in Israel, and merely risked some opprobium from some Jewish groups. At the time, in the climate of Durban, even the Israeli government did not object to wording in the official document simply because it was so much better than anything that had preceded it (shows you how standards slip in the bubble of the UN). Then September 11 happened, and everybody forgot about the language used or not used in a far-off contentious UN conference in South Africa, although those of us who lived through both Durban and 9/11 feel as if they are historical events that are intimately connected.
The UN is already notorious as a setting with numerous resolutions, committees, commissions, and fact-finding missions focusing on Israel/OPT excessively, and shorting situations in the world with far more victims and less remedies in the form of interested states and peace talks.
And that brings me to some points I wish to make about the international human rights movement, this prize, and the limitations of human rights and change agents (to paraphrase at an international level the title of Aryeh Neier's book, Only Judgment: The Limits of Litigation in Social Change.
Today, there is an increasingly wider circuit of people who are active in international human rights groups, researching human rights issues in universities, participating in government human rights program, or occupying human rights posts in bodies of the UN. Together, the most active and elite of them make up a kind of international justice jetset that is able to use its power and prestige to shine the spotlight of concern on gross human rights violations -- and do something about them. Soviet dissidents used to write desperately on their appeals, "To People of Good Will" or "To the International Community" -- and the UN threw their pleas in the garbage and only a few individuals or groups responded. Not so any more -- now these "people of good will" exist in large numbers in concerted fashion.
Twenty five years ago, when we worked on human rights in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, or Chile or Guatamala or El Salvador, or South Africa, or at home in the U.S., situations not only seemed grim, as they still do today, it seemed as if there was no means to really change them. After a hopeful start from the Carter Administration, the Reagan Administration didn't balance human rights concerns, and indeed invoked them as cover to back up oppressive regimes. The UN was indifferent or actively involved in backing up those regimes under the guise of the need for peace, too. At times, as a young person working on these issues, I thought the cause indeed seemed bleak. I had to watch as one after another of our colleagues in the Helsinki movement in the USSR were jailed and even tortured; I had to see my colleagues at Human Rights Watch bring back gruesome pictures of horrible torture and murders of peaceful community leaders in Guatamala or Nicaragua. At times I thought in 150 years, some future historian would view us a minor, idealistic cult that appeared at the end of the 20th century and followed the teachings of the prophet Aryeh Neier and various long-forgotten saints like Andrei Sakharov or Jacobo Timmerman.
That was before Vaclav Havel was freed and became president of Czechoslovakia, before Poland's Solidarity was legalized, before Mandela was freed and Pinochet deposed and Clinton elected. Then, the tide of human rights and democracy rose raising all boats, and as not only the USSR collapsed but its clients in Africa were undermined, a UN official explained that now human rights was the new language to replace the old discredited ideals of Marxism.
Today, far from being a cult, human rights, both in its grassroots form and its institutionalized is a burgeoning industry with literally millions of people making a living in it or at least a volunteer vocation, and an elite class representing it that purports to speak as the conscience of humankind, referencing various international agreements and best practices.
Yet at one of the spectrum, this international human rights leadership is tone deaf to concerns about all kinds of world situations crying out for remedy, and at the other end of the spectrum is morally blind about them or even complicit with bad actors. I say "tone deaf" because I think people on this circuit are so surrounded with others like themselves, and so supported constantly in their perception of themselves as beleaguered righteous advocates fighting an abusive and indifferent monolith that they do not stop to see how they look. I saw "morally blind," because the exigency and limits of human rights and humanitarian law mean that in some settings, human rights groups must appear one-sided and appear to be "doing nothing" about the obvious problems everybody near and far sees if they are not squeezed entirely through the human rights sieve: such as a situation like that of the state of Israel, the only democratic state in a region surrounded by hostile authoritarian states. Human rights morality now tells people concerned about too many reports and resolutions on Israel, which is a democratic country whose practices you might expect to change, that they need to keep urging Israel to live up to the law rather than providing them with a wider scope of moral and political action to address the authoritarianism and hostility of Islamic states, too -- which is far, far harder to change as we have seen from events in Iran.
And that's because human rights agreements are signed by states, you criticize states when those obligations are violated, and you don't have a way -- without further violating rights of free speech and association and religion or belief! -- of saying anything about non-state actors. Nothing at all, if you are a UN official at most levels, unless you're fortunate enough to have gotten your list of perpetrators of war crimes on to the short and heavily politicized list attached to this or that negotiated Security Council resolution. Oh, you are not completely deprived of the ability to speak about *abuses* (as distinct from violations) but you are on less solid legal grounds, although Mary Robinson, for example, found a way to say that the perpetrators of the terrorist acts of 9/11 had committed "a crime against humanity" because international humanitarian law can provide some means of addressing such crimes.
But if you are the average local human rights group, you are not likely to criticize the armed rebels of your country for crimes if you do not want to end up a victim yourself, and if you are in a safer place in a Western capital, you will not go out of your way single out the abuses of non-state actors when as a class of people, say an oppressed minority, they themselves are victims of human rights violations. that is, sure, you will have this or that report of "violations of the laws of war by all sides of the conflict" but you do not make it your life's work trying to change the minds and politics of Palestinians. And you will not violate what international human rights activists call among themselves "the 11th commandment" -- criticizing any other human rights group for their choices and actions and opening them up to attacks by the enemies of human rights or even making common cause with perpetrators (it is for the violation of the 11th commandment that some human rights groups are most angry at Jewish groups).
THE HOLE IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM: HUMAN RIGHTS NECESSARY BUT NOT SUFFICIENT
This hole in the international protective system can't remain forever as it grows yawningly bigger everyday. A vivid example of what I mean was seen with the recent outbreak of communal violence in Nigeria, where some 700 people were killed among Christian and Muslim communities. Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu and other "elders" appear to have said nothing --not because they didn't care but because they simply chose not to. Human Rights Watch, widely quoted on the wires everywhere, focused on the one clear-cut human rights thing you could say about this awful bloodshed, which is that the state (the police) should not commit extra-judicial summary executions (by shooting dead the leader of an Islamist sect that incited violence). Nothing wrong with saying that -- states shouldn't do this, and HRW had ample reports from the past showing that past multiple shootings by police were laying the groundwork for more cycles of violence.
But here were 700 bodies on the ground, and those people of good will, that international community could only find a way to say something about one of them. That can't stand. That is at the very least tone deaf; at the very worst it is morally blind. How could it happen that good people could be led to that moral predicament? Because human rights didn't give them easy frameworks or language or institutions to address the morality of such situations.
Moderate Muslims in Nigeria had been calling on police for weeks to do something. They didn't have any company from the international community of any religious faith nor any company from international human rights groups joining their calls. That tells us there is something terribly wrong with the international community and the international human rights movement -- it is insufficient even if its insufficiency is necessary dictated by a desire not to become political or biased or religious.
Yet somebody *does* have to take on the role of condemning insistence of radicals to impose Sharia law -- a topic about which international human rights groups are silent because they cannot appear to be violating the rights to freedom of speech and belief themselves by criticizing how a community would like to organize its governance. Of course, they could reference Art. 30 -- you cannot take away the rights of others in the course of implementing one right like religious belief -- but that's an obscure and little-used device.
Unfortunately, the inability to "say something" about topics like this -- and the reasons that make people perform and celebrate and perpetrate suicide bombings and rocket attacks -- leave human rights groups vulnerable to attacks by those who do see past the literalist exigencies of the rights framework to a larger moral picture. Human rights groups have so internalized their mandate limitations as gospel, that they now perceive any criticism from a moral ground as relativism, as biased, or as driven by some power agenda like funding or political support from a state. That's wrong, regardless of those realities of political life, because the moral quandary remains.
Jewish groups would be the first to concede this, as they believe that political arrangements will bring a resolution to the ongoing human rights violations of Israel/Palestine, and believe that moral support for the state of Israel, surrounded by hostile Arab states who commit far graver violations of human rights, is the right approach.
But they rightly reject the idea that you can hide behind the "rights" lexicon when you grapple with these problems -- a notion which the international human rights groups themselves set everyone up to believe by insisting on strict rights-based mandates.
That's why Mary Robinson is seen as "political" when she goes outside this limited framework to quietly endorse the notion of having only Israel singled out in the Durban document; and why she is seen as "political" when she stays literally inside the rights framework and can't find a systematic public and ongoing way of condemning the oppressive terrorist movement of Hamas not after the fact, but before. A fact-finding mission from the UN to find all the facts committed by both sides of the conflict would be welcome, but would merely give us another carefully-parsed document prepared by people facing incredible pressures from all side and would only become an object of "lawfare" by either side once it was completed and would still not bring the peace. Peace in Northern Ireland, as Mary Robinson knows better than any of us, was not brought about merely by endlessly documenting the human rights violations against the IRA and the lack of due process in IRA trials or the outrage at terrible prison conditions for IRA fighters, as important as they were. It was brought about when the IRA itself renounced violence and stopped committing its violent abuses and joined a political process, that yes, including affirmation of universal human rights, too. Human rights framework, as admirable as it is, and the documentation of human rights violations by all sides of the conflict, as admirable as they are, was not how the peace process began (though they could support it), *politics* were, and politics helped by international "change agents" like Sen. George Mitchell.
The office Mary Robinson's successor has taken on the Nigerian clashes to the extent possible, but again, with the limitations of office, mandate, and law. The main call is on the government to stop arrests and killing. The statement goes wider than Human Rights Watch as recorded on the wires, to express sympathy with the victims, condemn violence on all sides and address “the underlying causes of the frequent religious clashes in Nigeria so that a resolution could be found through dialogue, tolerance and understanding.” When HRW addressed those causes in past reports, it tended to focus on the problem of discrimination against groups viewed as "non-indigenous" and the violation of their civil rights by those viewed as "indigenous" with state support or indifference to violations -- that's the rights framework exigency. But underlying *that* root cause isn't just poverty or fighting over scarce jobs and patronage, it's culture and Sharia law and the clashes between Christian and Muslim cultures. The name of the Islamic group in Nigeria is "Death to Western Education". The UN High Commissioner's office refrained from translating that name. And here rights groups and the High Commissioner duck the political and rights contradictions and sensitives involved in condemning the abusive application of Sharia law and say nothing about it.
I talked about the need for a new movement of international conscience
that is not bound by the mandate and rights exigencies of the human
rights paradigm precisely because the growing institutionalization and
power of that paradigm means that increasingly it becomes more
politicized and less bound itself by its own claimed framework.
I realize there are very few people who want to create a different kind of international community movement that isn't paralyzed by rights but empowered by them, that isn't obsessed with "violations of the laws of war by all sides of the conflict" but takes moral positions about immoral cultural ideas and acts. That's because that rights can be endlessly expanded and those fighting for them can be elevated to a transnational government.
The controversy around the Medal of Freedom is an artifact of a society where there are only two political parties and a Congress that has only a bi-partisan framework, surrounded by numerous groups with 501-c-3 or 501-c-4 status bearing down on that situation. When someday there becomes room for third and fourth parties in the U.S. -- parties with the right to fund their cohorts abroad just like the Green Party of Germany -- we will see a change in the international moral climate. We are still far from that day and the political pressure on human rights groups to serve as moral agents will remain, harming both human rights and morality because human rights are necessary, but not sufficient.