teleSUR, 9 February 2015 **** Front Page

'No Position for or against the War'

Reflections on HRW and Amnesty International.

By Bruno Jäntti

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has just published its 25th annual report. World Report 2015 runs 644 pages, reviewing human rights situation in over 90 countries.

HRW's Executive Director Kenneth Roth laments what the organization labels as a “circle-the-wagon approach to human rights.” According to Roth, “Human rights violations played a major role in spawning or aggravating many of today's crises,” highlighting that “[p]rotecting human rights and ensuring democratic accountability are key to resolving them.”

Fine. Considering the report's analysis on the human rights climate in the Middle East, however, one cannot but notice how HRW is quite careful in dealing with the subtleties of advocating for respect for human rights, on one hand, yet conveniently dismissing the issue of U.S. power in the region, on the other.

Although its clout is in decline, the U.S. is the most influential external power operating in the Middle East. Besides the immensely destructive U.S. invasion of Iraq, the military footprint of the U.S. in the Middle East is substantial. The U.S. has a permanent deployment of its military personnel in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Saudi-Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.

For an American NGO seeking to raise the profile of human rights, one obvious question regarding the U.S. and the Middle East could be, for starters: How much is there room for improvement in the region's human rights climate if the U.S. continues to back states that it deems sympathetic to U.S. foreign policy interests — such as Saudi-Arabia, Israel and Egypt — and which happen to be among the worst human rights violators in the world?

The question of the legitimacy of U.S. power in the Middle East is of primary importance. Here are some basic factors to consider.

First of all, as far as one can tell from the available data and research on public opinion in Middle Eastern countries, there is little popular support for, and quite a bit of opposition to, U.S. hegemony. Secondly, economic wealth and political power are highly concentrated and the degree of militarization and the number of armed conflicts is exceptionally high in the Middle East. Thirdly, most of the regional powers are close U.S. allies which are able to continue to breach human rights partly due to massive U.S. backing.

This might lead to the conclusion that the U.S. influence in the region is not a bed of roses. But despite its startling simplicity, this equation is nowhere to be seen in the domestic U.S. political discourse, not even in the human rights camp. HRW is indeed able to criticize particular aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including its foreign policy in the Middle East, but HRW avoids touching the overriding issue of the legitimacy of U.S. clout in the region. Nonetheless, given the realities outlined above, it is a no-brainer that the U.S. cannot under any stretch of the imagination maintain such clout without being in fundamental conflict with realization of human rights and democratic principles.

No state has been able — nor probably willing — to exercise power in an area outside of its borders against the will of the area's population while simultaneously respecting and enforcing human rights. This should be obvious. Hence, an American human rights organization that merely demands that U.S. adheres to the principles of human rights ends up lacking credibility, for such a demand rings hollow if the broader question of U.S.-imposed influence is not addressed.

After the Second Intifada had erupted, I became one of Amnesty International's (AI) country coordinators on Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. Before I joined the AI team, I had come to the conclusion that conventional human rights work would serve the cause of Palestinian self-determination. I was wrong.

Our group, and AI as a whole, was calling on Israel to abide by international law. I still agree with that. But the Israel-Palestine conflict is a political conflict and highly political topics may or may not be resolvable by the mere enforcement of human rights and international law. To illustrate, rather than demanding an immediate end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, AI simply asks Israel to respect human rights in the territories. But to ask a state which maintains a military occupation of an area against the will of the people in that area to merely respect human rights seems absurd — somewhat as useful as asking a mugger to be polite.

I still tried to make it work. Everything will be fine if we all just adhere to the law, respect human rights and never breach anything that the Fourth Geneva Convention states.

Then I began to notice stumbling blocks that were completely unjustifiable. AI would be quite willing to accuse Palestinian armed groups of crimes against humanity, yet letting Israel off the hook with just the “excessive use of force” accusation. Observing this was a turning point.

In 2004, for example, AI's press release stated on attacks carried out by armed Palestinian groups:

"Such deliberate attacks against civilians, which have been widespread, systematic and in furtherance of a stated policy to attack the civilian population, constitute crimes against humanity, as defined by Article 7 (1) and (2)(a) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal."

How come AI was so reluctant to use the same terminology when describing Israel's conduct? To this day, no satisfactory answer has been provided since no satisfactory answer exists.

Since I left the AI country coordinator team, not much has changed. AI and HRW still produce top-notch research on human rights violations and legal aspects of various wars and conflicts, yet their political analysis remains as inadequate as it was back in the days when I was at AI.

To conclude, here is what HRW's Kenneth Roth wrote about U.S. invasion of Iraq:

“Human Rights Watch ordinarily takes no position on whether a state should go to war. The issues involved usually extend beyond our mandate, and a position of neutrality maximizes our ability to press all parties to a conflict to avoid harming noncombatants. — Because the Iraq war was not mainly about saving the Iraqi people from mass slaughter, and because no such slaughter was then ongoing or imminent, Human Rights Watch at the time took no position for or against the war.”

I rest my case.


The archive: Bruno Jäntti, Middle East, Ramzy Baroud, Noam Chomsky, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Moshé Machover


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