Guarding the Guardians: Norman Finkelstein on Keeping Human Rights Organizations Honest
In an 11-part series exclusive to Byline, Norman Finkelstein subjected Amnesty International’s reports on Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s summer 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, to a forensic critique.
But why is it important to keep organizations like Amnesty honest? Jamie Stern-Weiner, who is co-authoring a forthcoming book, HOW TO SOLVE THE ISRAEL-PALESTINE CONFLICT, with Finkelstein and Mouin Rabbani, sat down with Finkelstein to discuss the politics of human rights organizations, and their role in the struggle for justice in Palestine.
What drove you to write such an exhaustive critique of Amnesty International’s reports on Operation Protective Edge?
The general issue is, if I can slightly reword your question, why do I get so exercised by Amnesty or Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports which, in my opinion, are way off the mark?
Of course, when people profess to be guardians of truth and justice and fall very short, there is always a personal element of disappointment, verging on disgust. But my predominant reaction, as with all my involvements in the Israel-Palestine conflict, is based not on personal anger but an assessment of political consequences.
I’ve been chronicling various aspects of the conflict for more than three decades, and I think I have a pretty clear sense of what works and what doesn’t work in persuading a broad public. In the 1980s, people trying to persuade a broad public on the Palestine issue didn’t have much in the way of raw materials to build their case. The larger part of the academic scholarship was relatively propagandistic, and when it came to human rights issues, there weren’t many sources to lean on. Amnesty had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, which put it on the map as a human rights organization, but for most of the 1980s it was very timid on Israel. HRW wasn’t yet around, and the Israeli human rights groups were marginal. And so trying to persuade a public was very difficult. In fact, people like myself relied at the time on mimeographed translations from Israel’s Hebrew press produced and circulated by Israel Shahak, an organic chemist at Hebrew University who in his private life doubled as a human rights activist and documenter.
After the first intifada, which began in December 1987, there was a significant change in the way human rights organizations in general, and, in addition, newly formed Israeli human rights organizations, chronicled Israel’s human rights abuses. HRW’s Middle East section sprung up, while on the Israeli scene, the principal development was the establishment in 1989 of B’Tselem, the Israeli information center for human rights in the occupied territories. The result, to cut a long story short, was that there were now credible human rights organizations that could withstand most criticism and ad hominem attacks. It simply wasn’t credible, to a broad public, that Amnesty, HRW and B’Tselem were driven by anti-Jewish animus. And, in as much as their reports were pretty accurate, they became an extremely valuable tool for persuading a broad public that Israel was committing human rights violations, and in fact crimes, against the Palestinian people.
Personally, I began to make extensive use of these human rights reports and press releases in public presentations and in my writing, for the simple reason that they were persuasive to a mainstream audience. It was quite clear, in particular from public presentations, that if you can quote Amnesty, HRW and B’Tselem reaching essentially the same conclusion, 95 percent of the audience will be persuaded, while the five percent of Hillel die-hards will typically lower their heads in silence, realizing that it’s not a very prudent tactic to raise your hand and accuse organizations like Amnesty and B’Tselem of being anti-Semitic.
If I can give a brief anecdote: I correspond every once in a while with a fellow who loathes Amnesty, and he berates me for saying anything positive about it. I pointed out to him in a recent correspondence that, had it not been for Amnesty, I could not have written Beyond Chutzpah (2005). He replied that if Beyond Chutzpah was dependent on Amnesty for its findings then it couldn’t have been a very good book. To which I replied, if you’re trying to persuade a broad public, would it have been more convincing if I had cited Mondoweiss, Electronic Intifada and CounterPunch? Would that have persuaded? I might also note that my books don’t persuade a broad public, which is perhaps one reason why no one cites them.
As always in politics, the issue is not what you’d in an ideal world prefer; the issue is choosing between the givens. Of course, politics is also about transforming those givens. But I think you cannot transform a given situation unless you exploit the given situation. It’s a process of simultaneously trying to transform by exploiting what’s given. Maybe I would prefer to have human rights organization that had mainstream credibility and also wrote in my language. But that’s not in the cards. And so you have to make use of what’s there. What’s there is these human rights organizations, and if they start going astray, it’s a real problem. It makes arguing the case much more difficult.
Fortunately there are grounds for hope that Amnesty, at least, can be returned to the path of righteousness. Whereas HRW is largely dependent on big donors, Amnesty is a membership based organization, and therefore relies upon grassroots support. It is therefore sensitive to pressure from below in a way that HRW isn’t.
The major Amnesty and United Nations reports on Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008-9 assault on Gaza, were pretty good. To judge from your critique of Amnesty’s coverage of Operation Protective Edge and your forthcoming analysis of the UN report on Protective Edge, there seems to have been a significant degeneration in both Amnesty’s and the UN’s performance on this issue over the past five years. What’s behind this?
I can’t give a comprehensive analysis. My intuition is, the critical factor has been the sheer aggressiveness of Israel and its supporters, and the magnitude of the threats they’re posing.
Between Cast Lead and Protective Edge you had the Goldstone Report, which evoked hysteria in Israel. Then, in a shocking a development, there was the Goldstone retraction—the Washington Post op-ed by Judge Richard Goldstone, who had chaired the UN inquiry into Cast Lead, which effectively repudiated his Report’s findings. Nobody had expected that; even Goldstone’s three colleagues—the committee of inquiry had consisted of four people—were thunderstruck. He didn’t tell them he was about to publish a retraction, and to this day nobody knows what caused him to do it. (One possibility can, however, be eliminated, namely, the facts: Goldstone’s retraction “revealed” nothing that hadn’t already been revealed, which wasn’t already known to him or which in the least changed the picture of what happened in Cast Lead.)
That was a sobering lesson for people in the human rights community about the power of those who are opposed to these sorts of investigations.
Then, when the UN Human Rights Council composed its committee of inquiry into Protective Edge, there was yet another casualty. William Schabas, who (rightly or wrongly) was very highly regarded in the human rights community, was forced to step down.
So you now had two very high profile personalities who were subjected to public humiliation. Goldstone will never be able to bounce back, even though he had a remarkable capacity for landing on his feet. I don’t know what the fate of Schabas will be, but presumably it will not be one you’d envy if you ran in those circles.
It’s not very surprising, therefore, that people have grown wary of defying Israel and its supporters. They have taken off the kid gloves and are subjecting their opponents to all sorts of pressures, climaxing in public humiliations. We might add that these human rights organizations offer employees a good life. You get paid pretty well while also enjoying the perks and prestige of working in the field of “human rights.” They are also bureaucracies, and bureaucrats are not known for possessing much in the way of spine. So they are, I think, easily intimidated, especially since the costs can be quite high.
How important was Israel’s policy of preventing access to Gaza during and after Protective Edge in shaping subsequent human rights coverage?
First, Amnesty’s most recent report, on Rafah, didn’t seem to suffer much from lack of access. They used all these razzle-dazzle technologies, working with Forensic Architecture, to as they put it “reconstruct” what happened. So when they wanted to investigate, lack of access didn’t seem to be fatal. When they wanted to cite sources other than the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the results of the investigations of their one and in some cases two (depending on the report) fieldworkers, they were able to.
Second, we are conducting this interview through Skype; which is to say, there are all sorts of technologies that enable remote access to witnesses and other data. There are also many on-the-ground human rights organizations in Gaza which have an excellent reputation, and whose reports and findings could be consulted. The UN inquiry did all of this. So, there was quite a lot Amnesty could have done in the absence of direct access. Though to be sure, when you are physically witness to the devastation, it is compelling in a way that hearing or seeing it second hand is not.
With respect to the impact of Amnesty reports on other potentially influential publications (e.g. UN reports) and on future legal proceedings, I can see the value in correcting Amnesty on relatively technical legal issues, e.g. whether a particular action is criticized by it as a “war crime” or merely as a “violation of international law.” But in terms of Amnesty’s impact on public opinion, do these subtle distinction matter? For the average person who devotes no time to researching the Israel-Palestine conflict, and whose opinions about it form through a kind of subconscious osmosis from the general tone and thrust of background media coverage, what matters is simply that when “Israel” is brought up it is typically in connection with “bad things” being done to the Palestinians. The precise nature of those bad things—which particular category of law they are held to violate, the alleged gravity of the violation, and so on—is politically irrelevant; at the level of the broad public, politics works in too blunt a way for such fine distinctions to register.
My motto in life is, I never quarrel with facts, and a subsidiary motto would be, I don’t argue for the sake of argument against strong arguments. There is certainly a large component of truth to what you have to say, and to some extent, my anger at Amnesty is not politically significant. I can see that.
On the other hand, when there is this cumulative misrepresentation, this accretion of misrepresentations, it begins, I think, to falsify what happened, and if it’s not stopped at some point, I do think it will become much more difficult to argue the case in public.
Let me give an example: the legal category, “all feasible precautions must be taken to avoid, and in any event to minimize, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.” My recollection is, in previous human rights reports on major Israeli atrocities, such as the atrocity in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield (2002) and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-9), the category of legal analysis “all feasible precautions” did not play a significant role. The only contexts in which it arose were Israel’s issuing of warnings before its attacks and allegations of human shielding by Hamas. The principal legal categories were, targeting civilians, disproportionality and indiscriminateness. But in the reports on Protective Edge, all of the sudden the major categories of analyses were disproportionality—which, true, also figured in the past—and “all feasible precautions.” It has reached the point of being the default category, and it’s being used in the most ludicrous of circumstances.
Take pages 50 to 52 of Amnesty’s report on Rafah. These passages describe in the most vivid detail atrocities that would make your skin crawl—and then conclude that Israel’s attack “appears to have been undertaken without proper precautions”! What’s most bizarre about the recourse to this category is, they didn’t describe any hostilities going on. The whole point of the category of “all feasible precautions” is, it’s a category that’s used in the context of armed hostilities: did you, in the course of armed hostilities, do everything in your power to ensure that civilians won’t suffer “collateral damage”? But how can you possibly use a category like that when there were no hostilities?
Take another case, described in the UN report on Protective Edge (paras 630-633). On July 16, 2014, Israeli air forces struck and killed four children who were playing hide and seek on a beach. Given that the children were playing in broad daylight, in the line of sight of a hotel filled with international journalists; given Israel’s arsenal of hi-tech monitoring equipment; given that, as the report itself notes, the children were “small in stature” and thus hard to confuse with adults; and given that Israel’s ground invasion hadn’t yet begun and there was no military activity going on in the area—given all this, how can you use, as your category of indictment, failure to take “all feasible measures to avoid or… minimize incidental harm to civilians”?
If there is an accretion of, or a cumulative recourse to, language like that, at some point it will I think end up producing a profound distortion, not to say falsification, of what actually happened, which will have a politically significant impact on how these events are perceived. They will, in the public perception, take on an altogether different coloration. The view will be, Israel committed excesses, but which army didn’t? Whereas in fact, in the compelling language of the Goldstone Report, Israel’s operation aimed to “punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” That language does have political force.
Don’t Amnesty’s failures, its unreliability, illustrate the drawbacks of relying on international law to make the case for justice in Palestine?
As I discussed above, in politics you make the best of what’s available.
It is a matter of public knowledge that there are political differences between myself and the leadership of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But notwithstanding the distance that separates us, on one point there is no substantive disagreement. If you look at the BDS Call from July 2005, its point of departure is international law, and in particular the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the wall Israel is constructing in occupied Palestinian territory. Even they instinctively grasp that, to make a case now before a broad public, there is no other option, no alternative, but to lean on international law.