Monday, March 09, 2009

Getting human rights wrong

From Haaretz, 8/3/09, by Dan Kosky*:

...Amnesty's treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict has long been troubling. Its statements about the Gaza operation were highly critical of Israel, and although its recent report highlighted Hamas' brutal treatment of political opponents, this does not detract from the one-sided tone of Amnesty's commentary.

Last week, the organization released "Fueling Conflict," its first substantive report on the Gaza operation, which purports to analyze the legality of weapons used by both Israel and Hamas. Yet the report is tantamount to placing Israel on trial in a kangaroo court, where Amnesty plays both prosecutor and judge, providing a paucity of evidence in the process. "Fueling Conflict" should prompt Amnesty's members, including those in Israel, to ask serious questions regarding the organization's moral fiber in a world where warfare is increasingly complex. The blurring of lines between combatant and civilian requires that government decisions are judged with an understanding that the best choice is often the lesser of two evils.

The report itself accuses Israel of having committed "war crimes" in Gaza, and subsequently calls for an international arms embargo. Amnesty also demands the same restrictions be placed on Hamas, yet this is entirely irrelevant for a terrorist organization with no official trade links. The real problem is that "Fueling Conflict" constitutes nothing more than an inventory of weapons used. There is no doubt that there were civilian casualties in Gaza, but Amnesty mistakenly treats this fact as proof of Israel's criminality, when it really is nothing of the sort. International law accepts civilian deaths as a tragic reality of war, particularly when fighting an enemy that has intentionally embedded itself in densely populated areas. The question of legality, however, rests upon whether an operation's expected casualties outweigh its perceived military advantage.

"Fueling Conflict" tells us plenty about the weapons used by the Israel Defense Forces, and carefully documents where shells were found weeks after the conflict, sometimes in houses and schools. Yet, despite its dramatic claims, Amnesty leaves us none the wiser over the critical factor that would determine whether Israel's actions were legal or not and whether war crimes were committed. Are these the same houses and schools from which Hamas launched rockets or where it stored weapons, something that would have transformed them into legitimate military targets? Amnesty provides no answer and has seemingly failed to ask the organization that would likely be most able to shed light on the issue, the IDF.

Despite the inconvenient lack of evidence, Amnesty rules that Israel is guilty as charged and calls for an immediate "UN Security Council arms embargo on Israel." Almost half the report is devoted to detailing Israel's arms imports. Were Amnesty to focus solely on Israel's alleged use of controversial weapons, such as white phosphorus, the report might contribute to a valuable debate. Yet amazingly, it details Israel's procurement of aircraft, tanks, light weapons, ammunition and electronic equipment, all of which would presumably also be subject to Amnesty's suggested boycott. What emerges is an unspoken but shocking conclusion that in Amnesty's view, Israel is unfit to possess weapons and thus should be stripped of the right to self-defense.

Amnesty appears to subscribe to a fairy-tale worldview in which all non-combatant deaths and the use of all weapons under any circumstances are by definition immoral, wrong and illegal. Were the organization's stringent standards to be enforced, there would be no such thing as a just war and all democratic leaders who seek to defend their citizens against aggression and terrorism, as is their responsibility, would be deemed "war criminals."

Possibly in the forlorn hope of appearing even-handed, Amnesty often appears at pains to condemn both Israel and its enemies in equal measure, however contorted the calculation involved may be. "Fueling Conflict" is no different and although it devotes 12 of its more than 30 pages to Israel's "misuse" of conventional arms, compared to one page describing Hamas' unlawful rocket attacks, it concludes with parity that "Both Israel and Hamas used weapons supplied from abroad to carry out attacks on civilians - thus committing war crimes." This creates a dangerous and dishonest moral equivalence between Israel, which makes every effort to avoid civilian deaths and is apologetic when they occur, and Hamas, which regards the spilling of innocent blood itself as a victory. But to conclude with anything other than a manufactured evenhandedness would require Amnesty to make an ethical judgment - which it is reluctant to do.

For their work to have meaning, human rights organizations are by definition required to display moral clarity rather than hide behind a convenient veneer of impartiality. They must be able to clearly distinguish between legitimate and illegal use of arms, ethical warfare and terrorism. If it seeks to remain relevant, Amnesty must engage in the increasingly complex realities of asymmetric warfare and global terrorism and move beyond simplistic condemnations of war and conflict.

*Dan Kosky is communications director of NGO Monitor (, an organization monitoring human rights NGOs in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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