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Amnesty International is primarily motivated not by human rights but by publicity. Second comes money. Third comes getting more members. Fourth, internal turf battles. And then finally, human rights, genuine human rights concerns.
— Francis Boyle, Prof. of International Law and former board member of Amnesty International .
Human Rights organizations used to play an important role raising awareness of human rights abuses, scoring an occasional point with one state or another, and were instrumental in releasing a handful of hapless prisoners. However, they have increasingly abdicated their role as modern-day paladins of justice, to become politically manipulated organizations that are more concerned with fundraising or appearing on TV. Several authors have described how human rights organizations have played a role in priming the propaganda pump prior to war; these accounts make sobering reading, and they dispel preconceptions about some of these organizations .
A recent UN report confirmed that the situation for the Palestinians is desperate and has reached crisis proportions . The report goes so far as to state: “a UN committee monitoring human rights abuses of Palestinians [for the last 35 years] has concluded that the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank was the worst ever last year.” This situation is chronic, and indeed, mass abuses of human rights have been going on for decades. Anyone concerned with justice for the Palestinian people must wonder what position human rights organizations have taken on the issue and what they have reported. In the case of Amnesty International, it is a sorry and dubious record. This article presents an in-depth look at AI’s poor record in monitoring the plight of the Palestinians during the second intifada.
This article is a follow-up to: “AI: Say It Isn’t So” (CounterPunch, Oct. 31, 2002).
1. Insult to injury
The first sentence in AI’s Oct. 13th press release appeared promising: “[AI] condemns in the strongest terms the large-scale destruction by the Israeli army of Palestinian homes in a refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, which made homeless hundreds of people” . It then mentions war crimes but, more specifically, says that Israeli actions “constitute war crimes.” This is better than its previous ambivalent accusations . Some of AI’s previous reports yielded only generic references to war crimes, leaving it unclear whether the perpetrators were Israelis or Palestinians; by any measure such references to war crimes were less than useful . Furthermore, in its latest press release AI used the phrase “strongly condemned” when referring to Israeli actions — this reproach had been thus far usually reserved for Palestinian violence. So far, so good.
However, the remainder of the press release raises many questions. Here is the final sentence: “[AI] condemns the deliberate killings of Israeli civilians by Palestinian armed groups as a crime against humanity.” The reaction of Francis Boyle, a professor of Law, puts this into perspective: “What a joke and a fraud. So those living under the boot of Israel’s genocidal regime are the bigger criminals under international law. Every expert knows that crimes against humanity are far more serious than war crimes, and the precursor to genocide.” Furthermore, it is very odd that AI deemed fit to add this last sentence to a press release dealing with crimes against Palestinians. And finally, while during the second intifada the Palestinians have been smeared with “crimes against humanity” several times now, AI has not leveled a clear accusation of this crime against Israel — although it would be rather apropos . AI has stated that some Israeli actions “may also constitute crimes against humanity,” but this is somewhat ambivalent compared to the accusation leveled against Palestinians.
Perhaps an analogy will clarify the objection. If a man rapes a woman at knifepoint, it would be odd to suggest that the woman should be imprisoned for resisting the rapist. However, at present, Amnesty’s stance favors “punishing the rape victim.”
2. Circumscribing the crimes
A careful reading of any AI statement referring to possible Israeli war crimes reveals another curious bias: the severity of the crimes referred to is restricted and only a fraction of Israeli actions are mentioned. For example, the reference to war crimes in its October 13th press release only pertains to the demolition of houses and property . Thus, the broad array of systematic violations of Palestinian human rights is not part of the war crimes allegation.
A September 3, 2002 press release stated: “unlawful forcible transfer of protected persons constitutes a war crime .” The fact that the homes of the families of the people involved already had been demolished in an act of collective punishment without appeal was not part of AI’s condemnation. Although AI highlights one breach of humanitarian law and names it a war crime, it is curious that it doesn’t encompass a broad array of serious Israeli actions. The circumscription of these crimes lessens the gravity of the accusation.
To continue with our rape analogy: if a man were to rape a woman at knifepoint, it would certainly be odd to condemn the rapist only for not wearing a condom. AI’s accusations of war crimes are the equivalent of “the rapist was not wearing a condom.”
3. Willful neglect
A recurrent problem with AI’s stance on Palestinian human rights is the simple lack of adequate reporting — the long list of massive abuses of Palestinian human rights is mostly neglected. On September 8, 2003, AI released a report on the effects of closures on the Occupied Territories . This report was issued 308 days after its previous report, and in the meantime, 594 Palestinians had been killed . The Israeli policy of closures was already apparent years ago and, to be generous, one can only say that this report was late. Furthermore, this report dealt with an issue that isn’t the most serious threat to Palestinian human rights today. That is, while the closure policy is indeed a deliberate ploy to make the lives of Palestinians miserable, it has been superseded by far more injurious Israeli policies. Most important at present is the construction of the land-grab wall that penetrates deep into the West Bank. This is causing far more misery and hardship than the closures — indeed, the tens of thousands of Palestinians isolated in the enclaves west of the wall are subjected to a form of closure, which is intensified by the knowledge that it is intended to force them to abandon their homes, land and livelihoods. Further, the occupation policies are causing severe malnutrition in a significant portion of the population. Then there are the tens of thousands of maimed Palestinians. AI neglects many topics .
Once again, if a man were raping a woman, it would be unconscionable to delay and, when finally intervening, simply to admonish the rapist that he is making the victim “uncomfortable.” And yet, in the current context, AI waits a long time between reports, and then mentions only a fraction of the abuses taking place — and not necessarily the most egregious ones; it is just mentioning the “discomfort of the rape victim”.
4. The trees for the forest
Any long-term observer of the situation in Occupied Palestine will know that there is a pattern of ethnic cleansing, and that these policies are systematic. Once the scale, intent, and systematic nature are acknowledged, then the next step is to consider naming these “crimes against humanity” — one of the most serious crimes.
Here, again, one can see AI’s bias at work, in its apparent refusal to recognize that there is a pattern and a history of abuse. It is evident from AI’s public record that it discusses individual events, or individual practices, but it is unwilling to declare that they are intentional or systematic in nature. It has a propensity to produce tedious lists of events, but then neglect important context. There is a history of ethnic cleansing, the current Israeli government is led by a war criminal, and current Israeli actions are consistent with some of the more truculent statements made by its leadership or their minions. Viewed in this context, Israeli actions must be deemed intentional and systematic, and this can only mean that serious crimes have been perpetrated — but this is something that AI is not willing to acknowledge.
Again, the rape analogy elucidates the objection. In the case of a serial rapist assaulting a woman, it would be rather odd if the history of the rapist were ignored. In the current context, AI’s statement equates to: “hey you, knock it off.”
5. Calling for a war crimes tribunal
Anyone who has traveled to the Occupied Territories will have been confronted with some difficult questions posed by Palestinians. In particular, questions about international protection are difficult to answer. One recurrent question is why hasn’t the Israeli leadership been indicted for serious crimes. Sharon, Mofaz, Eliezer, Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, and Ya’alon, are some strong contenders to appear in front of a war crimes tribunal. Why this hasn’t happened yet is a good question.
Thus far, AI has refused to issue a call for the institution of a war crimes tribunal for Israel-Palestine. When questioned about this an AI researcher stated: ” but then we would have to do that for everyone.” This answer is curious from an organization that provided counsel at a lawsuit brought against Sharon in Brussels . If Sharon deserves to be indicted for the crimes committed at Sabra and Shatila (in Lebanon), then why not name the people who should be indicted for the crimes committed in Palestine?
AI’s current stance also assumes that the Israel-Palestine conflict is much like other conflicts. However, one should note that Palestinians have been at the receiving end of occupation, dispossession, ethnic cleansing and mass abuses of human rights for decades now. To put it into perspective, consider that Ronnie Kasrils, Minister of Water in South Africa, and a longtime anti-apartheid activist, stated that the conflict in Apartheid South Africa pales by comparison to the Palestinian conflict . During the worst years of the repression in apartheid-South Africa, airplanes or helicopter gunships did not bomb the townships. However, in the Occupied Territories this is all too common. The repression of the Palestinians is worse than that suffered by the black population under apartheid. Thus, Palestine is a case deserving special attention and action. One of the few threats that can have an effect against Israelis is the call for the institution of a war crimes tribunal to prosecute Sharon and his gang.
Until now this is as far as AI is willing to go:
Amnesty International calls on the international community:
–To bring to justice anyone suspected of war crimes or crimes against humanity who may be within their jurisdiction 
Notice the “courage” exhibited here. AI doesn’t name who or which of the parties to the conflict should be brought to justice. It is a generic request — although, as we saw at the start of this article, AI has accused the Palestinians, but not Israel, of “crimes against humanity.”
Again, consider the rape analogy. AI’s stance equates to posting intentionally blurred “wanted” posters of both the rapist and the rape victim. Of course, there will be no name on the rapist’s poster.
6. Geneva Convention — abrogated de facto.
The basic humanitarian law pertaining to Israeli obligations vis-à-vis the Palestinians is the Fourth Geneva Convention. However, the Israelis have long disingenuously argued that this doesn’t apply to them . Furthermore, the actions of both the US and Israel indicate that the Geneva Convention has been abrogated de facto. If so, all AI’s trite recitations of the numerous breaches of this particular Convention are pointless. AI must decide if it wants to go down the legalistic path or to remain a human rights advocate. It is obvious from its actions that it has chosen the former role, and it is using a legal framework that will not be implemented.
7. There is a pattern and a history
AI’s dubious role in relation to Israel-Palestine is not new. During the 1980s AI didn’t list any Palestinian prisoners of conscience ; and similarly, it never referred to incidents of torture . Things changed slightly during the first intifada; AI had no choice but to improve its coverage of Palestinian human rights — the violations were too obvious. By the early 1990s some references were made to torture and a few prisoners of conscience were listed. So it is of interest to determine AI’s current stance on the following key contentious issues: torture, prisoners of conscience, massacre and ethnic cleansing. If these aren’t given sufficient mention, or even not mentioned at all, then a few questions arise.
7a. Prisoners of conscience (POC)
At present, AI only recognizes two Palestinian prisoners of conscience and two “possible” POC . It seems that it is more difficult for AI to bestow POC status on a Palestinian prisoner than for the Pope to canonize a saint. Furthermore, no lists are available of the current Palestinian POCs or what has happened to the ones who were previously imprisoned. AI admits that it “doesn’t make such lists public.” In other words, it is barely doing anything for the thousands of Palestinian prisoners, and therefore it is deemed best not to publicize this tiny list.
It is also seems that the only way for a given Palestinian prisoner to be included in AI’s action list is to lobby the organization. This stands in stark contrast with the adoption of Cuban POCs. There are thousands of Palestinians in prisons, at the notorious secret prison Unit 1391 near Hadera, and even in a concentration camp in the Negev . AI has barely moved pertaining the human rights of these people.
AI’s online archive on torture pertaining to Israel-Palestine contains 43 items, but only 17 actually use the word “torture.” Out of these, six deal with the issue of torture at any length, and the remainder mixes up torture with denial of medical treatment or police brutality outside of prison. All told there are about ten specific cases of torture listed — again, no accurate number can be put on this due to the mixing up of cases dealing with torture, poor prison conditions, denial of medical treatment and the like. AI has not produced a specific report dealing with torture during the second intifada.
One must give AI credit on one count, i.e., it actually named one Israeli torturer, Carmi Gillon, before he became the Israeli ambassador to Denmark. The press release offers some details of the torture techniques and the numbers of prisoners tortured . Despite this exposure, Gillon became Israel’s ambassador, and now attends cocktail parties in the diplomatic circuit — an unrepentant torturer who advocates the use of more torture.
7c. Ethnic cleansing
The phrase “ethnic cleansing” did not appear in AI’s public record during 2002 and 2003. The very best way to describe Israeli policy against the Palestinians is to label it ethnic cleansing. The construction of the grotesque wall deep in the West Bank is a blatant land grab and ethnic cleansing operation. It is throwing thousands of Palestinians off the land, and it clearly amounts to ethnic cleansing, or the precursor to ethnocide. These are true crimes against humanity, yet AI doesn’t mention anything about ethnic cleansing.
It is true that “ethnic cleansing” is a recently-coined term, but today its meaning is well understood, i.e., the expulsion of large numbers of inhabitants from their homes due to violence, intimidation or starvation. The term doesn’t appear in the core humanitarian law, but it conveys the understood reality on the ground. Even Israeli scholars use this term to describe Israeli military practices . AI has a choice of being legalistic or conveying information that is readily available and understood by a broad audience. Its current choice is somewhere in between, and it chooses a legalistic approach when an issue is contentious, e.g., ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Caption: Nov. 5, 2003. An Israeli bulldozer is uprooting the olive trees of Saleh Romi who lost 3.5 dunums of his land to the so-called fence between Bethlehem/Aida refugee camp and the Gilo settlement. In the photo, Mr. Romi tries to impede the destruction of his trees. Jeff Halper, from the Israeli commission against house demolitions, calls this “quiet ethnic cleansing.”
Photo: Musa Alshaer; © 2003