Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

25 Oct, 2009

“Open” societies and democracies commit human rights abuses, too

Originally Published: 25 Oct 2009

On October 21, the International Herald Tribune published a column by the founder and former chairman of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Robert Bernstein in which he criticised HRW for issuing “report after report” criticising Israel. He suggested that it should stick to criticising the autocratic and repressive Arab regimes and Iran rather than free, open and democratic Israel.

The column provided ample proof of the astonishing self-delusion and denial that accompanies one of today’s most significant geopolitical trends – the drip-by-drip conversion of open and democratic societies into increasingly repressive and autocratic societies themselves, even as they portray themselves as the “good guys” with the self-appointed right to trash their own values and violate their own laws, and never be held accountable.

Mr Bernstein said HRW’s criticism of Israel meant that it was shifting away from its core values. He wrote, “At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform. That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and non-democratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights.”

In an noteworthy revelation, he admitted that HRW “wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.”

Mr Bernstein added, “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.”

Very noteworthy is the public admission that the publicity given by HRW under the watch of Mr Bernstein, a Jew, to dissidents like Sakharov and Sharansky, both Jews, was no fluke but part of a deliberate and calculated campaign which ultimately ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, probably the intended objective. Today, an identical campaign is being directed at the Arab world, and Islam at large.

As Mr Bernstein favours “vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform,” he ought to laud the criticism of Israel as being a fine example of exactly that. The true test of free, open, democratic societies is the extent to which they are willing to apply those core values first and foremost to themselves, including the international arena. Hypocrisy and double standards are not a sustainable option in this day and age.

Every autocratic and repressive society has its dissidents like Sakharov, Sharansky and Solzhenitsyn. Living under a repressive Israeli occupation, Palestinians do, too. One such Palestinian dissident is Mazin Mumsiyeh, a professor of Advanced Molecular Biology who lives and teaches in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ and now hemmed in entirely by an eight-metre-high wall built by Israel, a free and open democracy. Let me quote from his regular newsletter.

From the newsletter of 14 October 2009, headlined, “We Shall Overcome”:

“We now have a situation in which every Palestinian town or city has gates that can be locked or opened at the whim of the Israeli army. That Israeli occupation army kidnapped 12 more Palestinians in the West Bank in the past 24 hours.

“Doctors in Gaza report an increased incidence of birth defects (likely related to use of illegal weapons by Israel, polluted water, maternal malnutrition or all of these). In the West Bank, we learn to bathe with a bucket of water (and save it for other uses and do it less frequently!). Farmers are fending off increased settler attacks during the traditional olive harvesting season. Some are denied access to their lands. Homes continue to be demolished.

“Yes, the Zionist movement destroyed 530 villages and built a European style metropolis of connected colonial settlements everywhere here, filling them with imported people brainwashed to believe that the only way to ensure power is to destroy others. But they will never feel at home until they recognize the injustice done to the native people and ask in humility for the return of those they expelled/forced out.”

From the newsletter of September 9, 2009:

“In Israel, a country stolen from the Palestinians, fanatics control the government. One of the fanatics is the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week Netanyahu called for ‘crippling sanctions’ against Iran. Why does Israel want to initiate a war between the United States and Iran?”

From the latest newsletter of 18 October 2009, after the issuance of the Goldstone report on war crimes in Gaza:

“Israeli leaders as before try to intimidate the world into silence and some do comply (the US and some Western Countries also feed this addiction with money and weapons and use of veto power to protect Israel from International law).

“However, ethnic cleansing via state terrorism has become more exposed over the decades and Israeli leaders have been frustrated. They started using other coercive tools to affect the Zionist goal of a Palestine free from Palestinians: economic strangulations, bureaucracy, unjust laws analogous to the Nuremberg laws, etc. The major credit for the decreased effectiveness of slaughter as an instrument of policy is Palestinian resistance (most of it civil resistance).

“In the age of the internet, governments and wealthy racists have less control over information. The public even in the US, Holland, France, England etc is largely aware and disgusted by their governments’ support of ethnic cleansing in Palestine. We need to now translate the public mood and sentiment into change in government policy. That takes determination, energy and opportunity.”

The following excerpt from his experience at an Israeli checkpoint on 18 July 2009:

“While there was the obligatory screaming Israeli woman soldier who seemed to delight in torturing the lined-up families, there was also a nicer young dark-skinned Israeli conscript who tried to help facilitate a bit for a Palestinian family with young children. But the system was getting worse not better.

“On the Jordanian side, individuals are given numbers and they sit until their number is called. On the “Israeli side”, the throngs of people used to line at windows but now are crowded and hoping to get a small (not numbered) ticket for the windows only when the blond Israeli young (maybe 18 y.o.) conscript feels like it. He gave tickets to more western-looking Palestinians than dark-skinned or bearded or veiled Palestinians. I took his ticket and gave it to a young Muslim mother behind me and went back.”

Finally, a verse from a poem Prof Qumsiyeh wrote and circulated on 24 Sept 2009:

Those who claim they need their human right

While not sparing children from their plight

Those who champion International laws

While leaving heavy trails of bloody claws

Those who smile plunging knives in your back

While screaming loudly that they are under attack

Those who use a religious heritage to support overt racism

While defaming anyone who dares to speak out: “anti-semitism”!

Read Palestinian dissident Prof Qumsiyeh’s blog for yourself: www.qumsiyeh.org

They are many more dissidents like him in Palestine. Had Mr Bernstein helped draw attention to them to the same degree as Messrs Sakharov and Sharansky, Palestine would have been an independent state by now. And many innocent victims of Israel’s occupation would have been alive.

Not surprisingly, Mr Bernstein’s pro-Israel bias drew a response from Carroll Bogert, the HRW’s Associate director, who indicated that HRW was in fact sticking to its core values by neutrally criticising both open and closed societies. She said HRW “was saddened to read that our founding chairman, Robert Bernstein, opposes holding Israel to the same standards that we apply to the rest of the world.”

She added, “Human Rights Watch does not believe that the human rights records of “closed” societies are the only ones deserving investigation. If that were the case, we would not work on U.S. abuses in Guantánamo Bay, police abuse in Brazil, maternal deaths in India, or the ill-treatment of migrants in the E.U. “Open” societies and democracies commit human rights abuses, too, and Human Rights Watch has an important role to play in documenting those abuses.”

She said that in April 2009, Mr. Bernstein had “brought his concerns about our work on Israel to a full meeting of the Human Rights Watch board of directors. The board rejected his view that Human Rights Watch should report on only closed societies, and expressed its full support for the organization’s work.”

Well done, HRW. At least someone has the guts to resist the pressure.