Syria continues to descend into madness. Statistics released last week by The Syrian Network for Human Rights show that since the commencement of anti-government protests, 30,000 Syrians have been murdered, and a further 28,000 people have disappeared. The Syrian human rights organization Sawasya estimates the figure to be even higher. It has been reported that more than 100,000 refugees have fled the conflict, with most said to be sheltering in Turkey.
Ostensibly, the international community’s response has been stifled by Cold War-era partisanship, the fear of being drawn into another conflict in the region and loyalty to tyrants dictated by strategic and commercial interests. Appalling, but hardly surprising. Rather, it is the inaction of many non-governmental actors, which claim to stand above politics and serve humanitarian interests alone, that is particularly difficult to understand.
Consider, for example Oxfam — which describes itself as “an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 92 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.” It is an NGO (non-governmental organization) “superpower,” with annual revenue of 894-million euro, including about $26-million from Canada. The group’s findings are quoted wholesale by governments, the UN and the man on the street. Its opinions count, and its voice lends credibility to a cause.
At a time when the people of Syria face death, displacement and disappearance, that voice, that ability to rapidly mobilize activists to lobby governments, organize protests and greatly influence the public discourse, has never been more needed. Nor has it been more muted.
Despite Oxfam’s massive budget, which should give it extensive research and advocacy capabilities, not least in the Middle-East, the Director of its Great Britain campaigns and policy division Phil Bloomer admitted that Oxfam’s inaction in Syria is due to the fact that “Oxfam is not working in Syria.” He further revealed that Oxfam lacks “sufficient information from the ground in Syria to develop detailed policy suggestions.”
In fact, there is little ambiguity about what is happening in Syria, and there is ample evidence of human suffering for Oxfam to take concrete action.
Even if Oxfam’s vast network is unable to acquire the information that others can, Syria’s human rights abuses are hardly a new phenomenon. Syria has been a one-party dictatorship with one of the worst human rights records in the world since 1970. Why has Oxfam failed to take measures to promote human rights in Syria since then? And where are the calls to action, the lobbying of the European and U.K. Parliaments for sanctions and arms embargoes, the savvy poster campaigns now?
Perhaps the organization is pre-occupied. Perhaps its priorities lie elsewhere.
In sharp contrast to its inaction on Syria, Oxfam can always be relied upon to direct overwhelming energy and resources to pummelling Syria’s democratic neighbour, Israel.
This week, Oxfam, Crisis Action and other NGOs will send delegations to Brussels to lobby the European Parliament in the political campaign to single out Israel by labelling goods that originate from Israeli settlements on the eastern side of the “Green Line.” This is the 1949 armistice line that arbitrarily marked where Jordanian and Israeli forces were located at the end of the 1948 war, and has no legal significance. This political event is funded by the government of Denmark, whose support for boycotting Israel and failure to implement similar measures against Syrian products reveals the same hypocrisy and poor judgment as the NGOs it’s hosting in Brussels this week.
Crisis Action’s attendance in Brussels and its involvement in anti-Israel boycotts is particularly confusing. After all, this is an organization established to “avert conflicts, prevent human rights abuses and ensure governments fulfill their obligations to protect civilians.” Surely the priority of an NGO concerned with war and conflict should be directed against Assad’s slaughter of his own people rather than ensuring that consumers know which side of a defunct armistice line their basil and carrots are coming from?
Targeting Israel at the expense of genuine cases of injustice is nothing new. During the three-week 2008-2009 Gaza War, Oxfam published 10 statements accusing Israel of using “disproportionate force” and “illegal collective punishment.” It also appears that while Oxfam has failed to produce a single report on human rights violations in Syria, it has issued no fewer than nine policy papers on Israel. Oxfam also was active in lobbying the U.K. Parliament for the cancellation of export licenses to Israel.
Likewise, in response to increased co-operation between the European Union and Israel, Oxfam called on the EU to sanction Israel with “urgent and concrete measures.”
In 2003, Oxfam-Belgium produced a poster of an “Israeli orange” dripping with blood, as a means to promote anti-Israel boycotts, sanctions and divestment (BDS). The caption read: “Israeli fruits have a bitter taste … don’t buy Israeli fruits and vegetables.” (It is interesting to note that in this case, the Belgian branch of Oxfam was advocating a complete boycott of the Jewish State — not just West Bank settlements.)
So Oxfam can certainly not be accused of a general lethargy or inactivity. Their leadership is more than capable of acting when a particular country falls foul of its world view.
Oxfam’s obsessive pursuit of Israel at the expense of genuine humanitarian issues such as those in Syria reveals its highly selective defence of human rights and a disturbing lack of moral clarity.