Categories
The Political Animal

Drones and the Human Agency of War

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This commentary previously appeared in the Algemeiner on May 17, 2013.

Joshua Foust has written at Foreign Policy a misleadingly essay titled  “A Liberal Case for Drones.” I think there is such a case, but this it not it and a case for drones is not even truly the subject of the piece. The actual subject is raised very early by Foust’s question, “Could autonomous drones actually better safeguard human rights?” Not drones, but autonomous drones and their relation to human rights protections in war is the the actual subject of Foust’s considerations.  Why the title misleads you will have to ask Foust and Foreign Policy. That is not my interest here. Neither is the debate in the comments to Foust’s essay about whether there truly are or are likely to be any time soon autonomous drones. My interest is in Foust’s arguments and how they mistake the human problem of war.

Foust tells us that Human Rights Watch

argues that autonomous weapons take humanity out of conflict, creating a future of immoral killing and increased hardship to civilians. HRW calls for a categorical ban on all development of lethal autonomy in robotics. HRW is also spearheading a new global campaign to forbid the development of lethal autonomy.

To narrow the focus still more, then, the issue is lethally autonomous drones. (Or weapons of any kind; the focus on drones here is purely topical.)

“Offensive systems, which actively seek out targets to kill,” Foust quotes Armin Krishnan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso, “are a different moral category.”

Foust then makes the major both practical and moral focus of his essay the relative accuracy and reliability of human versus automated agency in offensive military strikes and killing. He acknowledges moral concerns – not with drones, per se, but with lethal autonomy – but he mistakes them.

Noel Sharkey, a high-profile critic of drones and a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, argued forcefully that machines cannot “distinguish between civilians and combatants,” apply the Geneva Conventions, or determine proportionate use of force.

It is a curious complaint: A human being did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, apply the Geneva Convention, or determine an appropriate use of force during the infamous 2007 “Collateral Murder” incident in Iraq, when American helicopter pilots mistook a Reuters camera crew for insurgents and fired on them and a civilian van that came to offer medical assistance.

Humans get tired, they miss important information, or they just have a bad day. Without machines making any decisions to fire weapons, humans are shooting missiles into crowds of people they cannot identify in so-called signature strikes.

Thus, for Foust, the morality of lethal autonomy in weapons systems is tied essentially to accuracy and reliability.

“If a drones system is sophisticated enough, it could be less emotional, more selective, and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tactical objective with the least harm,” Liles says. “A lethal autonomous robot can aim better, target better, select better, and in general be a better asset with the linked ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] packages it can run.”

In other words, a lethal autonomous drone could actually result in fewer casualties and less harm to civilians.

Implied by all Foust argues is that human moral advancement in the conduct of war – a problematic, though nonetheless genuine notion acknowledged by just war, among other, theories – is exemplified by diminished numbers of casualties, especially civilian and what would amount to more effective winning. This is a seductively appealing argument on the face of it. If we must sometimes fight wars (well, really, we must admit, it is far more often than sometimes) let us at least do it by killing as few people as possible, certainly as few women and children, in the classic formulation, and as few innocent civilians.

These are certainly goals to pursue, and the militarizes of liberal democracies do most of the time pursue them. But I do not think this goal is the essence of human moral advancement in war. First, effectiveness in winning war has never been a problem. Since wars began, whenever exactly that was – two clans fighting over a cave and a fire? – most of the time one side has managed some kind of victory. Warring groups have always been effective at winning.

On the score of diminished civilian casualties, whatever increased human concern with laws of war, through the mid twentieth century it can hardly be argued that humanity had achieved any form of advancement. More effectively lethal weapons produced, in fact, more killing, and more civilian death, on a scale previously unimaginable. Since the the second half of the twentieth century a pronounced characteristic of war, in the lethality of weaponry, has been that of profound technological disparity between warring parties. This has been so in all of the conflicts of the United States, of Israel over the past more than thirty years, of the Soviet Union and of Russia in Chechnya, for example. This has produced markedly lower comparative casualties on one side (not always a clear winner, as in the U.S. in Vietnam or Israel in Lebanon in 2006), though sometimes still comparatively massive casualties, even mostly civilian, as in Vietnam and the Iraq War, on the other. This disparity may be a happy development for the side with low numbers – not necessarily a winner, and not by any inherent necessity deserving of the benefit – but it cannot easily be argued that such a development is an advancement in the protection of human rights in war.

Foust touches on the heart of the matter only at the very end.

The issue of blame is the trickiest one in the autonomy debate. Rather than throwing one’s hands in the air and demanding a ban, as rights groups have done, why not simply point blame at those who employ them? If an autonomous Reaper fires at a group of civilians, then the blame should start with the policymaker who ordered it deployed and end with the programmer who encoded the rules of engagement.

This is far too facile in its moral acknowledgement and in its practical recognitions. In the latter regard, the very first product of technological autonomy will be a flight from responsibility-blame. A coder programming an autonomous offensive weapon according to approved selection criteria, under guidance of established military procedure and national law would be and should be no easy target for the assignment of moral responsibility. Such a chain of abstracted and decontextualized decisions is the very scenario of plausible deniability of responsible agency all around.

Responsible agency, the assumption of moral agency – not mere assignment of blame – is the heart of the matter. While earlier approaching the point, Foust misses it.

[T]he concern seems rooted in a moral objection to the use of machines per se: that when a machine uses force, it is somehow more horrible, less legitimate, and less ethical than when a human uses force. It isn’t a complaint fully grounded in how machines, computers, and robots actually function.

This is, indeed, essential to the more general debate over the use of drones; in the current consideration, though, the matter is not machines using force (really being used for), but machines using force autonomously. Autonomous weaponry removes the human moral agency of killing in war, could remove it, ultimately, from war altogether. Yet if anything can redeem the essential human crime of war, enact justice in the waging of it, it is precisely the complementary human moral agency of it.

Yes, if we must wage war, kill as few people as possible; yes, if we must, kill as few innocents as possible (on both sides). But it is, as Human Rights Watch and others assert, human beings who must take on the burden of that responsibility even if they might exercise it less perfectly than machines. War is the greatest crime against life we commit. It destroys the humanity of the dead and diminishes it of the living who wage and survive it. To reduce the numbers killed by passing off the complete task of killing to machines will not redeem a greater store of our humanity in a just cause, but instead sacrifice the remainder of the humanity we sought to save. To wage war and remain fully, tragically human, we must keep our own fingers poised, we must sight, however remotely, the people we have accepted as our enemies, and we must, with full recognition of what we do, accepting ourselves the burden of what we do, choose to pull the trigger ourselves. Automating war to greater perfection will not protect our human rights; it would diminish our human being. The crime of war is human. The morality in it can only be human too.

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Israel

Mainstreaming Bias

Among the most common complaints of those at the political edges – those on left or right who perceive themselves not to hold the reigns of institutional power – is that the mainstream media, along with other power centers, shapes our perceptions. It shapes and distorts our perception of reality in varied ways, including selection and emphasis.

Remarkably, these natural and even recursive tendencies toward bias are even more pronounced in political fringe representations of reality. Those on the fringe will not acknowledge this, however, or they will rationalize it by redefining bias. Institutional bias, for instance, which is a real and powerfully oppressive phenomenon, will be reordered as the distinguishing characteristic of bias, so that those in any kind of powerless and oppressed condition cannot be meaningfully distinguished themselves as biased.

Alternatively, biased selection and emphasis in reporting will be admitted, but rationalized as a tactically necessary corrective. The most renowned human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, who support principles of international justice against the bulwark and batterings of state power, currently confess to selective emphasis on the purported failings of democratic or other high-profile states, because the organizations believe this focus will garner more in supportive financial contributions and might actually achieve – in contrast to the likelihood with authoritarian regimes – some political results.

The problem with using “high profile” status to help determine the focus of attention is that it introduces that recursive element: it only makes the subject more high profile, justifying further selective attention and the consequent bias of prejudgment. Make such a process programmatic and you have the form of institutional bias. Institutions are not just defined by size and power. They are processes become programs, programs that rationalize and defend themselves against challenges to themselves. One need only consider how responsive are human rights organizations and other NGOs, as well as mainstream news media, to criticism of their work and product. They are not much, just like any national government or corporation.

History has abundantly demonstrated, too, that often when fringe political elements gain power, their corrective to institutional authority and bias is even more authoritarian and biased than the institutions they replace.

It has long been, and is increasingly so that Israel suffers under the burden of a peculiar but comprehensible alliance of fringe and mainstream bias. The fringe here is made up various ideologies, on left or right, defined in part by their reactions against the relatively powerful in favor of the comparatively powerless. The weighting of these variables is a contentless value and an ideology, the latter of which fills in the content. The mainstream and fringe media may be influenced by the ideology and echo the values. It also feeds the recursive process: a prime contributor to judgments of the newsworthy is what is already in the news.

Accordingly, you undoubtedly have read and heard about the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committee’s terror attack on Israeli civilians that killed eight, and Israel’s responses, which killed that group’s leaders and mistakenly killed three Egyptian policeman and thus threatened diplomatic relations, and any civilian deaths that Hamas will claim in Gaza from the Israeli counter attacks, and on and on, day after day, until its seems sure once again, as it has seemed for how many decades now, that the world’s moral center and future prospects hang in tomorrow morning’s balance.

Clearer thinking people have been pointing out for years the sites of political oppression, genocide, and other war crimes that have gone hugely comparatively underreported, even in a world of self-righteous pursuit of international justice.

It is, for instance, more doubtful, that you know of the attacks of the Turkish military on Kurdish rebels at about the same time.

Turkish warplanes bombed suspected Kurdish insurgent positions inside northern Iraq late Wednesday for the first time in a year, news services in Turkey reported, hours after an insurgent ambush on a military convoy in southeast Turkey left at least eight dead.

Or of the continuing toll.

Hundreds of Turkish airstrikes and artillery assaults over the last week have killed at least 100 Kurdish separatists and injured more than 80, an army statement said Tuesday.

In an excellent post at CiF Watch on Sunday the Turk-Kurd and Israeli-Palestinian comparison is well made, but never reported.

Since the Oslo agreements of 1993 the Palestinians have enjoyed a semi-autonomous political status. The Palestinians have their own government and parliament, their own judiciary, independent education and health systems (though many prefer to be treated in Israel – for free as it happens), and the Palestinian Authority manages most of the taxation regime. The Palestinians could also have a free press if only the PA would allow one. And ever since the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, there has even been an entirely free and independent Palestinian entity.

The Kurds in Turkey in contrast do not enjoy their own governmental or judicial organs, they are forbidden their own schools or universities. It is enormously dangerous to belong to any Kurdish political group but then, in Turkey, practically any form of political protest is a criminal offence. In a country with strict laws on “insulting Turkishness”, just refusing to be Turkish (or Muslim) can be considered an insult. Once banned altogether, the use of Kurdish language is strictly prohibited in official business, including mosques. Many Kurds feel that things are getting worse not better.

….

The Kurds have never been offered autonomy by the Turks. The Palestinians instead could have begun building their own state in 1947 and indeed have had several opportunities since, most recently in 2000 at the Camp David talks. The Kurds do not want to annihilate Turkey, just a little autonomous geographical space of their own. Hamas, among others, make no secret of their desire to destroy Israel politically and perhaps also genocidally.

Every day that we read about Israel and the Palestinians, day after day, month after month, year after year, yet read and hear little of the Kurds and their long struggle, in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and fail, then, in understanding both situations better, in part through the comparison, we see bias at work and mainstreamed. We see real injustice enacted.

AJA

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The Political Animal

The Future of the Human Rights Movement

Last week was a momentous one for the human rights movement. You may not have noticed it. The movement itself may not realize it. But it was. The New Republic published Benjamin Birnbaum’s Minority Report: Human Rights Watch fights a civil war over Israel. Birnbaum recounts with greater inside detail than we have had before, the behind the scenes efforts of Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and others on its board, to prevent HRW from going off course over Israel. The effort began with the 2000 vote of the HRW board to support the Palestinian “right of return.”

One must pause to consider this act. In a world of ideological and practical political contestation and dispute, an organization dedicated in principal to promoting certain universally acknowledged human rights – beyond the limiting bounds of interested partisanship that entrap all other parties – endorses one of the historically contestable demands of one party in a decades-long war. How does an organization so lose sight of its very identity?

And, of course, we know, again, that HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division (MENA) is almost entirely staffed by individuals who have in the past been assertive partisans of the Palestinian position, and who continue openly to express positions critical of Israel. Pause and consider this too. Ethics guidelines, if not laws themselves, governing conflicts of interest are premised on knowledge of human nature and the realities of systemic corruption. When news breaks of an office holder’s typical, even sometimes subtle violation of the usual strictures, and the official publicly states that the money, let’s say, had no influence on his vote – what do we all do, if only silently? We laugh. We laugh because we know, as the official knows, that it is not supposed to be about taking anyone’s word for his honesty. (Ah, if only we could.) The rules are intended to make that unnecessary. Recall how the Bush administration, in the wake of 9/11-inspired patriotic trust assured citizens the FBI would not abuse the use of National Security Letters unreviewed by the Justice Department. Of course, their use was abused. No checks: abuse. That is the nature of things.

Who should know better than a human rights organization – promoter of international laws and conventions – that when it comes to human rights, we don’t take people’s and nations’ word for their unconflicted integrity and fealty to ethical guidelines? We seek to require them to abide by the guidelines, and, when challenged, to present evidence of their doing so. And one standard guideline – please, stifle the laugh – is that people with partisan records and positions, advocates, cannot reasonably be watchdogs (Human Rights Watch) over disputes. It is so fundamental, one has to wonder at the level of self-deception.

The loss of bearings is not limited to Israel, though. Bernstein reaffirms what has already been well-established.

HRW officials acknowledge that a number of factors beyond the enormity of human rights abuses go into deciding how to divide up the organization’s attentions: access to a given country, possibility for redress, and general interest in the topic. “I think we tend to go where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction,” rues one board member. “We seek the limelight—that’s part of what we do. And so, Israel’s sort of like low-hanging fruit.”

Bernstein, however, had started HRW primarily to reach for the high-hanging fruit—closed societies where human rights reporting was lacking.

So the focus is on seeking the “limelight,” and this is known to be for promotional purposes, to highlight, in the limelight, the presence, relevance, and effectiveness of the organization, which highlighting is aimed at generating further and increased financial support. The focus is on “low-hanging fruit,” places “where there’s action and where we’re going to get reaction”: in other words, any naturally flawed democracy that may be highly internationally engaged or party to a bitter dispute, which is to say Israel and, post 9/11, the United States. And this becomes HRW’s projected vision of the world human rights situation.

The same decision to highlight what’s in the limelight has motivated Amnesty International (AI) in recent years, for just the same reasons, and so we get AI’s inordinate focus on Guantanamo, and the debacle, now, of its cooperation with the radical Muslim Cage Prisoners organization. The latter led, after much public discourse, to the resignation from AI a bit more than a week ago of  Gita Sahgal, the whistleblower, until then suspended, who originally drew attention to AI’s sordid alliance with Moazzam Begg of Cage Prisoners. In A Statement By Gita Sahgal On Leaving Amnesty International, published in The New York Review of Books, Sahgal explained

The senior leadership of Amnesty International chose to answer the questions I posed about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg by affirming their links with him. Now they have also confirmed that the views of Begg, his associates, and his organization, Cageprisoners, do not trouble them. They have stated that the idea of jihad in self-defense is not antithetical to human rights; and have explained that they meant only the specific form of violent jihad that Moazzam Begg and others in Cageprisoners assert is the individual obligation of every Muslim….

Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste to every achievement on women’s equality by Amnesty International in recent years and made a mockery of the universality of rights. In fact, the leadership has effectively rejected a belief in universality as an essential basis for partnership.

The reference to jihad is to a statement by Claudio Cordone, AI secretary-general, who has resolutely defended the cooperation with Begg.

In the case of AI, what has transpired over the past decade has been the gradual, but systematic erasure in the minds of organization leaders, and many of the faithful, of the distinction between a variety of leftist ideology and Enlightenment-based human values. As Sahgal points out, and as is manifest among some on the Left, this erasure, in apologetics for Islamic radicalism, is now self-conscious, even to the point of rejecting the Enlightenment.

What we see in this are fissures on the left different from those between liberals and those further to the left. The ruptures are taking place among those to that farther left. In March, The Nation published the predictable obfuscatory excuse making article by D.D. Guttenplan & Maria Margaronis, which ended

The butterfly that set this particular tempest blowing beat its wing decades ago in some British inner city. Islamophobia, antifeminism, the mutual mistrust between Muslims and the secular left have all fanned the breeze. If successive governments had not encouraged minorities to define themselves by religion, if they had answered racism and poverty with justice instead of tokenism, Gita Sahgal and Moazzam Begg might not be on opposite sides of this destructive argument.

The mind could twist like a mobius strip at the varied inversions of reality contained in this brief, horrific presentation of an alternate universe, not least at the suggestion that there should be any natural alliance between Islam and the Left. Among the letters in response to the article were these comments

Nobody is saying Amnesty was wrong to defend Begg’s rights—that is a red herring. That is different from getting into bed with his organization by arranging European speaking tours, taking him to Downing Street and describing Cageprisoners as human rights defenders.

Then because I think that many left organizations (in Italy as well as in other European countries)—fearing to be seen as racist and in the effort to respond to the racist attacks of the extreme right—have lost an autonomous, critical, secular point of view and “are spending much time and energy echoing and romanticising the fundamentalists as their allies against imperialism” (as Harsh Kapoor said).

First of all, Amnesty International seems to continue having difficulties in positioning itself in relation to the global problematic of political manipulation and terror in the name of religion. Secondly, Amnesty International’s endemic hesitation to deal with criticism is questionable for an organization of its stature and reputation.

To choose a currently popular term, AI is so misguided in its concern to avoid epistemic closure that it has lost its epistemic foundation. Or, as Oliver Kamm recently put it, more practically

Someone who has suffered the restriction of liberty does not become thereby the friend of liberty. Disastrously for itself and those who depend on its support, Amnesty is no longer the friend of liberty either.

The losses in all this – the going astray of both HRW and AI – begin with the loss to human rights in themselves. The relevance and effectiveness the two organizations sought, in order to more successfully promote human rights, are destroyed by the very methods by which they pursued them. The integrity and commitment to disinterested principle that founders and longtime supporters worked with such idealistic energy to establish, for the sake of a credibility that might save those crushed beneath the wheel of state power – that is gone. Now the Right, and worse, the tyrants, when they do not use these organizations, may justifiably discredit them as merely additional self-interested and ideologically-directed parties to the fray. Which is now what they are.

If these two once noble organizations are ever to recover, the recovery must come under new leadership, reconsidered mandates, and much self-reflection on their decline. In that reflection, last week will be a significant marker to note.

For more, see

Who Will Watch the Watchers I

Who Will Watch the Watchers II

AJA

Categories
The Political Animal

Who Will Watch the Watchers?

Who said, “To err is human, to be defensive about it divinely oblivious”? Oh, that was me. Not exactly the arresting pith of its model, but it begins my point.

It is always bracing to observe the response to criticism of those who devote themselves professionally to the analysis and criticism of others. News organizations, paper, televised, or blogged (they’ll flame your ass) commonly stiffen their prissy irreproachable spines when challenged themselves. Fox News will organize grassroots demonstrations and coordinate memed segments across its infotainment programming report and let you decide.

The other day I referred to developments that are undermining the hard-earned credibility of human rights organizations. One is the imbalance of focus on Israel. The other is the gradually altered and ideologically misdirected, current conception of their mission. Both developments emerge from the same source.

human-rights
“When lying on to paper human rights can hurt”, poster created by Simone Verza, Italy, for the Good project

Most recently, there has been a lot of attention on Human Rights Watch.  The culminating criticism, as I said, was the condemnation by its founder and twenty-year executive director, Robert Bernstein, of HRW’s bias against Israel . Prior to that there was the revelation that HRW’s Mideast military analyst, Mark Gelasco, is a collector of World War II military paraphernalia, with a particular passion for Nazi regalia. Just before coming to HRW, Gelasco served in the Pentagon, where among his duties was that of performing remote guidance of laser-directed bombs to their targets. He told the Washington Post that the transition had not been easy: “It really dawned on me that these aren’t just nameless, faceless targets.” Might HRW better have hired a Mideast military analyst – who has to monitor the military actions of Israel – who didn’t have a fascination with Nazi symbolism, and who hadn’t needed to learn after his military service that those under his fire were not “nameless, faceless targets”?

Still earlier, there had been the controversy over Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, who when she was hired by HRW was serving on the Board of the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee, which advocates for the Palestinian and other Arab positions. In June of this year she published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times advocating the removal of Israeli settlements and compensation to Palestinians for related losses. David Bernstein has highlighted the matter of Whtston’s prejudicial pitch to potential Saudi donors at the expense of Israel. Joe Stork, Whitson’s deputy, has a similar partisan history. Just last year HRW hired in this division Nadia Barhoum, who at Berkeley belonged to Students for Justice in Palestine and vocalized all the fully partisan Palestinian rhetoric. Might HRW more wisely have chosen as it regional director a person who did not have a partisan history regarding the disputes she would monitor, and who would not editorialize in newspapers regarding issues of the prevailing disputes? Not hired every significant figure in this division from among the partisans of one side in disputes these officials would monitor?

Are these questions of propriety not those that would draw cynical consideration from any party in any context – except those who were already partial to the findings of those criticized, and, of course, those criticized?

How does HRW respond to these concerns? With complete defensiveness, acknowledging no error in judgment or practice, just as the many states it sets itself up to judge. How does it respond to Bernstein, its founder, a man of justly earned reputation? It dismisses him in a letter to the New York Times distorting his argument as one calling for Israel to be held to a different standard from that of other countries and for HRW to report only on closed societies. Bernstein made neither argument; however, the argument he did make, that the difference between open and closed societies be acknowledged in the nature of HRW’s work, in order to avoid the kind of moral equivalencies that banish meaningful distinctions – that argument goes disingenuously unaddressed in HRW’s dismissive write off of its founder.

Of course, Bernstein’s concern about moral equivalence is more than justified by reality. It is reflected in the deplorable nature and constituency of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Worse, it is evident in the very nature of the, not indiscriminate, but discriminatory attention paid to Israel, by the U.N, HRW and many others. Part of the argument with Bernstein was over what imbalance may or may not be demonstrable in HRW’s reporting on Israel. Z-Word Blog spared me the completion of an identical search of HRW documents. Note the numbers, and the additional sleights of argument that Z-Word identifies. Note something further: go to the HRW site and do a search on, say, Sri Lanka, or Chechnya. Compare those numbers to Israel’s. Consider that widely varying estimates place civilian deaths during the two Chechnyan wars at anywhere from 50-250,000 thousand. Consider that civilian deaths in Sri Lanka since 2001 are reported as nearly 12,000. Consider that composite estimates of civilian deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 directly attributable to U.S.-led militarypicasso actions ranges from 5,300-8,100. Compare those to the number of civilian deaths in Israeli-Arab conflicts over a sixty year period.

Why, then, the incessant focus on Israel, on even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

It is in the nature of what the major human rights organizations, not just Human Rights Watch, have become, in contrast to what once they were. When Amnesty International was founded by Peter Benenson and six others in 1961, it was to promote organized letter writing campaigns on behalf of those who later would become officially designated by AI as “prisoners of conscience,” individuals who had been imprisoned by their governments because of their attempt to exercise what were already considered in most of the world, outside of closed societies, basic human freedoms. The individual human being in all of his or her natural autonomous liberty crushed beneath the boot of a repressive tyranny and removed from the world to languish in dark obscurity, even until death, forgotten.

But because of AI, if it could help it, not forgotten.

Human Rights Watch grew out of Helsinki Watch, the organization set up to monitor Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Most of the articles governed relations between the participating states. One article, VII, enunciated a “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

These beginnings, for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in comparison to the overreaching ambitions that drive their work today, are almost quaint in the consideration.

About those ambitions, their sources, motivations, and goals, next time…

AJA

Categories
Israel

Israel: A Turning Point

When the infamous 1975 United Nations resolution 3379 declared that “Zionism is a form of racism,” 25 nations sponsored the resolution and an additional 47 voted for it. Thirty-two nations abstained from the voted. Only 36 countries voted against it. It was not until 1991 that the resolution was revoked. Certainly, many nations had experienced a change of perspective, significantly because of the passing of the Soviet Bloc, which was, at the time of 3379, at a Zenith of influence over the postcolonial Third World. It was also true that Israel had never slackened in its contempt for the resolution, a contempt symbolized by then Israeli U.N. ambassador Chaim Herzog’s tearing the document in half following his verbal denunciation of it . More practically – playing the world and one’s measure of power in it, as any country, and Israel, must always – Israel refused to participate in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference without a revocation of 3379. The resolution nonetheless stands as one of the greatest stains on the U.N.’s historical record, alongside the racist 2001May Laws World Conference Against Racism and the historical realities of the defunct U.N. Commission on Human Rights and its successor Human Rights Council. The latter the United States regrettably, foolishly joined under the Obama administration. Some day the U.S. will  have to leave the Council, as it did the Commission.

The point here is that it took 16 years to overcome the official declaration of 3379, and not merely through the turned hearts of U.N. member states. The truth won out because of steadfast  commitment to it and defense of it. Though 3379 was not itself the cause, that zenith of human rights perversion symbolizes a turning point in the political culture that produced it.

Within that historical context, it is necessary to reach some recognitions about the vote of the Human Rights Council to endorse the Goldstone Report. About the shabbiness of the Goldstone commission’s formation, membership, procedures, and predestination I will say nothing. Others are saying it comprehensively and well; you can find links to some of these actors in the “Wish I’d Said That” box to the right. About the human rights records of the Council members I also will say nothing. They are well known, and any who ignore or excuse these records – in themselves or in the context of judgments against Israel, and the concurrent absence of even consideration of so many other conflicts and systemic violators of human rights – are not subject to reason on the topic anyway.

Consider this: of the 47 countries currently serving on the Human Rights Council, only 9 of them were member states that voted against resolution 3379 in 1975. Six members of the Council were not then U.N. member states, and I cannot, in my quick review, account for the votes of two nations. Of the 47 current Council members, then, at least 30 either voted for resolution 3379 or abstained in the vote. (Twenty-one voted for it, nearly half the Council membership.) Thirteen of them either voted against, abstained in, or were conspicuously absent during the 1991 revocation vote.

This is the United Nations Human Rights Council. This is the historical record.

During the past several years, when it has become de rigueur, in the manner of Mearsheimer and Waltz, to complain that one cannot freely criticize Israel without attack and denunciation from the “Israel Lobby,” the reality is that attack on Israel had already become a prevailing manner and subject of left political discourse. Broadsides, campaigns of disinformation, boycotts, openly anti-Semitic blogs and writers dedicated to the termination of a Jewish state, anguished cries, now, from some liberal Jews themselves (and Yaacov Lozowick’s deft dismissal) about the quicksand upon which the reclamation of a Jewish nation now is perceived to stand – all fill the air. So much so that even well-known NGOs and human rights organizations have been long swept up in the current. We have achieved a new Zenith in anti-Israel sentiment, bias, and impassioned obsession and demonization. Read England’s Guardian and its comments and then draw yourself a bath with an abrasive cleanser.

Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu, September 2009 U.N. Speech

But as the anti-Semitic achievement of 1975 was revealed to be, over time, the signpost to a different destination from what was then believed, I think 2009 may come to be seen in the same way. The utter bias of the Goldstone Report, in its very conception, will stand out over time. Consider that while Goldstone accuses Israel of war crimes, British Colonel Richard Kemp, appearing before the Human Rights Council, declares

The IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.

As during the Soviet era, one must ask, who is Winston Smith and who Big Brother? Who seeks to live in peace and who serves the big lie that for Palestinians to live every day at war is better than to live in peace? Who looks for the truth and who into the looking glass?

The voices and forces in opposition to the hatred, as the growing resistance to Goldstone reveals, only increase in reason and steadfastness. Netanyahu’s speech before the U.N. – separated from any predisposition against him, greater for some than any dislike for Ahmadinejad – will increasingly be noted for its own modern commitment to the future and old verities, as well as for its courage sanely to speak the truth in the face of the modern form of an ancient lie.

Hamas
from the Hamas Covenant

The courage of Robert Bernstein in denouncing the bias of the organization he founded and led for twenty years – Human Right Watch – is a critical moment in the history of the human rights movement, which has been derailed, partly by its obsessive focus on Israel and an ideological loss of bearings. And much of the unreason in current considerations of Israel derives, aside from the deep well of anti-Semitism from which there are always those ready to draw, from ideologically misdirected conceptions of human rights.

Wrote Bernstein in his New York Times Op-ed:

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….

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….

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.

About that credibility and its undermining, next time…

AJA