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Thursday, November 18, 2010

MUST READ: Robert Bernstein's fantastic speech

UN Watch published the full version of a speech given by Robert Bernstein, founder of Human Rights Watch, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha on November 10 on the subject of Human Rights in the Middle East.

It is long but it is a must-read.

Here are some parts:

You may wonder why a man just shy of his 88th birthday would get up at 5 in the morning to fly to Omaha to give a speech. Frankly, since accepting this kind offer, I’ve wondered myself. Here’s why. Having devoted much of my life to trying to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights come alive in many places in the world, I have become alarmed at how some human rights organizations, including the one I founded, are reporting on human rights in the Middle East.


In reading about the discussions and actions of students on American campuses, I learned, of course, that the Israel-Palestine issues were very polarized, sometimes hostile, and that a lot of the hostility was by students angered over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the endless process of trying to establish a second state.

I know we all believe in free speech. We believe in equality for women. We believe in tolerance of each other’s religious beliefs and in an open campus. When I go back to New York, tomorrow night, I will be attending the 150th anniversary of Bard College, a college very involved in the Middle East, as it has a combined degree program with Al-Quds, the Palestinian university in Ramallah. Here is what Leon Botstein, Bard’s President, says about education: “Education is a safeguard against the disappearance of liberty, but only if it invites rigorous inquiry, scrutiny, and the open discussion of issues.”

Believing in all these values and the others of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what is taking place on American campuses puzzles me. It seems to me that the State of Israel has all the values we just outlined. It is surrounded by 22 Arab states occupying 99-1/2% of the land in the Middle East and these states do not share these values. Israel, which occupies less than ½ of 1%, does share these values. There is a battle about two things: First, the size of the 23rd state, the new Palestinian state, which at present has many of the same values as the other 22 states. Secondly, the claims of many Arab states, Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, about the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. I don’t think human rights organizations alone can solve this mess but I do wonder about the discussions on many campuses, particularly about Israeli abuses, regardless of what you believe about them, and whether they are constructive. I don’t see how discussions of Israeli abuses can take such precedence over the kind of state that will be next to Israel. That is, not only internally, although human rights advocates should care about that more than they do, but in its foreign policy toward its neighbor Israel.

During my twenty years at Human Rights Watch, I had spent little time on Israel. It was an open society. It had 80 human rights organizations like B’Tselem, ACRI, Adalah, and Sikkuy. It had more newspaper reporters in Jerusalem than any city in the world except New York and London. Hence, I tried to get the organization to work on getting some of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly free speech, into closed societies – among them, the 22 Arab states surrounding Israel. The faults of democratic countries were much less of a priority not because there were no faults, obviously, but because they had so many indigenous human rights groups and other organizations openly criticizing them.

I continued to follow the work of Human Rights Watch and about six years ago became a member of the Middle East North Africa Advisory Committee because I had become concerned about what had appeared to me to be questionable attacks on the State of Israel. These were not violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but of the laws of war, Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law. There has been an asymmetrical war – you might call it a war of attrition in different ways involving Israel – not only with Palestinians but sometimes involving other Arab states, but of course, involving Iran and its non-state proxies Hezbollah and Hamas. In reporting on this conflict, Human Rights Watch – frequently joined by the UN – faulted Israel as the principal offender.

It seemed to me that if you talked about freedom of speech, the rights of women, an open education and freedom of religion – that there was only one state in the Middle East that was concerned with those issues. In changing the public debate to issues of war, Human Rights Watch and others in what they described as being evenhanded, described Israel far from being an advocate of human rights, but instead as one of its principal offenders. Like many others, I knew little about the laws of war, Geneva Conventions and international law, and in my high regard for Human Rights Watch, I was certainly inclined to believe what Human Rights Watch was reporting. However, as I saw Human Rights Watch’s attacks on almost every issue become more and more hostile, I wondered if their new focus on war was accurate.

In one such small incident, the UN Human Rights Commission, so critical of Israel that any fair-minded person would disqualify them from participating in attempts to settle issues involving Israel, got the idea that they could get prominent Jews known for their anti-Israel views to head their investigations. Even before Richard Goldstone, they appointed Richard Falk, professor at Princeton, to be the UN rapporteur for the West Bank and Gaza. Richard Falk had written an article comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in the Holocaust. Israel, believing this should have disqualified him for the job, would not allow him into the country. Human Rights Watch leapt to his defense, putting out a press release comparing Israel with North Korea and Burma in not cooperating with the UN. I think you might be surprised to learn the release was written by Joe Stork – Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch Middle East Division – whose previous job for many, many years, was as an editor of a pro-Palestinian newsletter.

Following this, Richard Goldstone resigned as a Board member of Human Rights Watch and Chair of its Policy Committee to head the UN Human Rights Council investigation of Gaza. Human Rights Watch has been, by far, the biggest supporter of the UN Council, urging them to bring war crimes allegations against Israel – based on this report. I don’t believe Human Rights Watch has responded to many responsible analyses challenging the war crimes accusations made by Goldstone and also challenging Human Rights Watch’s own reports – one on the use of phosphorous, one on the use of drones and one on shooting people almost in cold blood. A military expert working for Human Rights Watch, who seemed to wish to contest these reports, was dismissed and I believe is under a gag order. This is antithetical to the transparency that Human Rights Watch asks of others.

After five years of attending the Middle East Advisory Committee meetings, seeing the one board member who shared my views leave the organization, another supporter on the Middle East Advisory Committee who had joined at my request being summarily dismissed, and having great doubts about not only the shift in focus to war issues but also the way they were being reported, I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times questioning these policies. To me, the most important point in my op-ed was the following: “They (Human Rights Watch) know that more and better arms are flowing into Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet, Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.”

A Human Rights Watch Board member told The New Republic that they go after Israel because it is like “low-hanging fruit.” By that, I think he means that they have a lot of information fed to them by Israel’s own human rights organizations and the press, that they have easy access to Israel to hold their press conferences, and that the press is eager to accept their reports. The organization, most would agree, was founded to go after what I guess you would call “high-hanging fruit” – that is, closed societies, where it is hard to get in. Nations that will not allow you to hold press conferences in their country. Nations where there are no other human rights organizations to give you the information.

It has been over one year since the op-ed appeared. Little has changed. For example, within hours of the flotilla incident, Human Rights Watch was calling for an international investigation pointing out that any information coming from the Israeli Army was unreliable. That was before any of the facts were known. I spent the first week of October in Israel seeking out as many different views as I could. I was privileged to meet Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I spent a day at Al-Quds, the Palestinian university in the West Bank, with the university’s President Sari Nusseibeh, his staff, and students. I also met with NGOs including Jessica Montell of B’Tselem, passed an evening with my dear friends Natan and Avital Sharansky, and spoke with many journalists and government officials. I visited S’derot, the town most shelled by Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza. I came back convinced more than ever that Human Rights Watch’s attacks on Israel as the country tried to defend itself were badly distorting the issues – because Human Rights Watch had little expertise about modern asymmetrical war. I was particularly concerned that the wars were stopped but not ended – so they became wars of attrition.

...When I was in Israel, I went to the Gaza border and I learned that since the beginning of 2010, more than 11,000 patients with their escorts exited the Gaza Strip for medical treatment in Israel. Surprisingly and sadly, this policy has risks. I was told the Israelis make the Palestinians change cars at the border because cars had been rigged to explode. A woman on crutches was changing cars. She fell down. Three Israeli soldiers ran to help her get up. She blew herself up, killing the four of them. The Hamas government is preaching genocide of Israel, yet Israel is treating Gaza’s sick. It struck me as bizarre that in an asymmetric war of attrition, which we’re still learning about how to fight, a nation cares for the sick of a neighbor that is preaching genocide to its people and the only human rights comment has been that they are not doing it well enough.

This is only a small sample. Read the whole thing, now.