12 February 2007 - Human rights and conflict resolution
This blog is called “Guide to the Perplexed,” after the treatise The Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic by the great Jewish sage Moses Maimonedes in the 12th century A.D. (or C.E., if you prefer). I have substituted the pronoun “to” in place of “for,” since when it comes to questions of human rights and peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I am just about as confused as everybody else.
What role do human rights have to play in the conflict and its resolution? On an everyday basis, we are confronted with the human rights claims of both sides, which compete for international attention. These include positive claims, such as the right to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights), or the right to freedom of movement (Article 13), for example.
More frequently, both sides make negative claims—claims that their human rights are being violated by the other side. These positive and negative claims serve two purposes. They address the needs and aspirations of individuals in both communities. At the same time, human rights claims are used by each side to promote its own political and territorial goals as against those of the other side.
Amidst all these claims and counter-claims, it can be difficult to sort out truth from fiction. In his essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” George Orwell observed that “atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.”
Human rights advocates, however, tend to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and other conflicts) with a sense of certainty, a faith that victims and perpetrators can be correctly identified. Sometimes human rights groups seem to have decided in advance which side is which, based on the perceived relative strengths of the two sides, or on preconceived notions of who is wrong and who is right in the conflict.
Human rights doctrine, as it has evolved since the Second World War, emphasizes the responsibilities that states must fulfill in relation to individuals. There has been little effort to hold non-state actors, such as terror groups, accountable to the same laws and principles. As a result, human rights advocates tend to hold states to a higher standard than the armed groups or militias that may threaten them.
For example, in the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, human rights groups were accused of taking sides against Israel. Professor Alan Dershowitz, for one, accused Human Rights Watch (HRW) of bias, a charge that HRW former executive director Aryeh Neier disputed in the New York Review of Books. Other groups, such as Amnesty International, have also been criticized.
I visited HRW’s website, and examined its press releases for the months of July and August 2006, the period during which the war was fought. Of 24 documents, I found 15 that seemed targeted at Israel, 7 that referred to abuses by both sides, and only 2 that singled out Hezbollah. HRW did criticize a UN resolution for being one-sided against Israel. But its voice was heard most often in condemnation of Israel.
Perhaps that was appropriate, given that more Lebanese civilians were killed than Israeli civilians. But Hezbollah deliberately put Lebanese civilians in harm’s way, at the same time that it openly tried to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible. And Israel seemed to be trying to avoid civilian casualties when bombing Hezbollah (though evidence of its use of cluster bombs has since weakened such claims).
Human rights issues, in sum, can make a complex conflict even more complicated. And yet it seems possible that human rights could be introduced in a way that helps to manage the conflict and to clarify the reciprocal obligations that each side has toward the other. There is a growing realization among human rights activists that emphasizing conflict resolution may be more effective than simple rights advocacy.
To take one example: I supported the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. A vocal minority of Israelis and Jews opposed it, however. Some did so on religious or nationalistic grounds; others did so for security reasons, arguing (correctly, it turned out) that the Palestinians would use Gaza to stage attacks against Israeli territory. Others opposed the disengagement out of plain sympathy for the settlers.
Very few opposed it on human rights grounds. One who did so was a young man who came to South Africa as part of a delegation of Israeli students, and argued that Gaza should not be made Judenrein—that is, that the settlers should be given the option of staying where they were. If the Palestinians could not be trusted to protect them, he argued, what was the point of making any concessions at all?
A similar argument was made by Natan Sharansky, who resigned from Israel’s government over the disengagement, arguing that “we are repeating the mistakes of the past by not understanding that the key to building a stable and lasting peace with our Palestinian neighbors lies in encouraging and supporting their efforts to build a democratic society.” Only democracies, he believed, could make true peace.
So peace and conflict resolution can perhaps be linked to human rights if human rights and democracy can be strengthened in Israel and throughout the region. But how to do so in the Palestinian Authority, which is governed by terrorists? How to do so anywhere in the Middle East, when the American experiment in Iraq has faltered under the assault of nihilistic mass murderers and fanatical sectarian strife?
At the moment, American diplomacy seems to be moving back to the realpolitik of the past. President George W. Bush is not giving up on Iraq, but he seems to be more interested in facilitating peace deals between Israel and Syria on one front and Israel and the Palestinians on the other. Stability is returning to the fore as a primary goal of U.S. foreign policy; it is, to be sure, the prerequisite for other goals.
But there is still something there, in the concept and doctrine of human rights, that seems important and possibly fundamental to the future of peace efforts in the region. Perhaps it’s the idea of mutual recognition; perhaps its some silly western idealism I’m still clinging to. But I intend to ask the question in the coming weeks and months, as I explore the substance of human rights law and diplomacy.