Amnesty and Human Rights Issues in the Arab-Israeli Conflict
The cycle of death goes on and on…in the west there is a universal shaking of sophisticated heads and a weary, liberal sigh. Tut tut, there they go again….There is nothing civilised and humane observers can do about it, apparently, except perhaps to hope that sooner or later one side (the strong) will annihilate the other (the weak). The beauty of this approach is that it requires no intellectual effort, no analysis, no history, above all no need to distinguish between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor.
Paul Foot, commenting on the Arab-Israeli conflict, "In defense of oppression," The Guardian, March 2002.
Amnesty International (AI) disagrees that "there is nothing civilised and humane observers can do." For that, it has won acclaim. The question is how, or indeed, should, Amnesty be differentiating between the "violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed?" Amnesty has decided to undertake the intellectual effort and analysis that Paul Foot believes is universally lacking and has set itself the goal of "a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." However, without painstaking care to provide balance and context, organizations such as AI are exposing themselves to crossing the mine-filled border between condemnation and politicization. This is bad for the organization and bad for human rights principles. It is far easier, yet considerably less useful, and certainly more dangerous to dwell on surface level "human rights infringements" in situations riddled with complex moral dilemmas. NGO Monitor
believes Amnesty has fallen into these two traps; politicization in apportioning blame and surface level reporting.
Amnesty faces a litany of charges which deviate sharply from its stated goals. As will be shown below, these include: distorting contexts through misleading generalizations and minimizing objective difficulties; the misuse of legal authority (especially international law); selective reporting; critical omissions and unfair and unsubstantiated ‘evidence.’ This has led to the charge that AI is exploiting the label of human rights as a means to pursue ideological and political biases against Israel.
Amnesty International is a household name and styles itself "the world’s largest private human rights organization." Its influence and authority extend far beyond its one million members scattered across 140 countries. 350 staff members with an annual budget of some $30 million produce reports and press releases that go on to pressure government policy makers and inform academics and students. AI’s importance is confirmed by its holding the Noble Prize for peace and the fact that their website attracts more than 10,000 visitors daily. Its on-line library of reports, press releases, campaigns and appeals for action contains more than 20,000 files. In addition to the sophisticated website, AI organizes huge public demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, fundraising appeals, and engages in intensive lobbying in more than 150 countries. Its weight is immense and for that reason it has a responsibility to produce accurate and balanced reporting and live up to its noble mission statement:
"AI is independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion. It does not support or oppose any government or political system, nor does it support or oppose the views of the victims whose rights it seeks to protect. It is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights.
Amnesty’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.
In pursuit of this vision, Amnesty’s mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights."
The legal and organizational structure of Amnesty
AI describes itself is "a democratic movement, self-governed by a nine-member International Executive Committee (IEC) whose members are elected every two years by an International Council representing sections." According to AI’s statute, sections must have demonstrated their ability to follow and implement AI’s principles. AI declares, "the IEC provides leadership and takes decisions for the whole of AI worldwide."
Israel Amnesty www.amnesty.org.il has 900 volunteers and declares that its "apolitical status and non-affiliation to any official or government body, confers the section’s independence….AI Israel is not biased towards the left or the right, towards Jews or Arabs, nor towards Judaism, Islam or Christianity. Its staff, board and members are people who represent all sectors of the population, all political affiliations and all walks of life."
According to Amnesty’s guidelines, the Israel Section does not act on cases of human rights violations within Israel, the Palestinian Authority or other neighboring countries in the Middle East. The Israel section deals with campaigns in China, Myanmar, Turkey, the USA, Central Africa and South America as well as human rights education.
This structure guarantees that any report or campaign is closely monitored and approved by the IEC and that the IEC takes full responsibility for it.
Amnesty asserts that it is "careful about not accepting or seeking funds from governments relevant to their campaigns." A large part of their funding comes from private donors and trusts. Funding is undertaken for the whole organization. Only occasionally are there targeted campaigns. This is problematic because not everyone necessarily agrees with everything that Amnesty does and the level of politicization of Amnesty’s causes varies from region to region. Coverage of human rights in the Middle East is one of the most controversial. This has led to AI receiving numerous complaints from paid-up members and trusts that support Amnesty’s mission statement and principles but are uneasy about its coverage of the Middle East.
Three issues to be discussed in this report
- Charges of distorting context, misleading generalizations and critical omissions
- How Amnesty uses international legal discourse
- The charge of selective reporting and claims of ideological biases
A. Distorting context, misleading generalizations and critical omissions
Amnesty appears to be scrupulous in its research but has attracted attention on account of countless claims that AI reports are economical with the truth. Facts are taken out of context and even when particular facts are accurate, Amnesty is charged with providing inadequate background, which undermines the relevance and meaning of its reports. Distorting context, misleading generalizations and critical omissions can lead to serious politicization in what is increasingly becoming a public relations war.
Many take Amnesty’s reports as gospel truth. They are widely used, quoted and exaggerated by thousands of other (not always reputable) organizations and news outlets. Amnesty’s misrepresentations have been quoted numerous times in divestment and boycott campaigns of Israel, to vent anti-Semitic rhetoric on campuses and to undermine the democratic institutions of a sovereign state. Amnesty in effect has to share some responsibility for these campaigns – contradicting its own mission statement and principles. To date, there has been no evidence of Amnesty tracking down such statements or of it distancing itself from them.
This section will examine five cases of misrepresentations.
1. A classic example is a current item on AI’s website, under the heading: "Israel-Occupied Territories – Stop Destroying Lives."
NGO Monitor believes the terminology and tone of the accounts of suffering of the respective sides presented in this section mislead the uninformed reader:
"Some 1,800 Palestinians have been killed, most of them unlawfully, by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), who routinely use F16 fighter jets, helicopter gunships and tanks to bomb….The victims included more than 300 children and some 80 individuals killed in targeted state assassinations."
Source: Amnesty Website, (Link has expired)
Firstly, the "80 individuals" in the targeted state assassinations were all known terrorists who have taken part in planning or carrying out murderous acts. Why has Amnesty left this fact out?
Secondly, framing the sentence, the "routine use" of F16 planes, helicopters gunships and tanks puts all these weapons on an even footing. F16s are extremely rarely used to bomb civilian areas – certainly not ‘routinely’, and the uses of these other weapons are carried out in a targeted and disciplined manner. The most famous case of the use of fighter planes is the bombing of Salah Shahedeh – whom Israel defined as the most dangerous terrorist in the Gaza Strip, responsible for the death of hundreds of Israeli Jews and Arabs. Regrettably, 14 civilians, were killed in this action and the Israeli intelligence community faced harsh criticism – from within the Israeli establishment – for allowing this attack to go ahead while civilians were in the building. The action was far from routine. Civilians are never deliberately targeted and the Israeli army has undertaken many operations avoiding the use of heavy weaponry, the most famous case being Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin, where ground troops were sent in to reduce Palestinian civilian casualties.
In understanding why there have been relatively high civilian casualties as a result of Israeli military actions, it has to be remembered that Israeli military intelligence has produced considerable evidence pointing to the fact that Palestinian terrorist groups operate in dense civilian areas in order to complicate the efforts of the army to act against them. When the army does bomb or attack such groups, Palestinian civilians inevitably suffer. The rationale for the current Palestinian leadership is that any military success Israel has in catching terrorists is mitigated by a public relations defeat in the form of murder of civilians.
Thirdly, the same report continues to talk of attacks against Israelis:
The victims were killed in deliberate attacks, including frequent suicide bombings in buses, restaurants and other places, which specifically targeted families and other civilians.
Source: Amnesty Website (Link has expired)
While going into details about the machinery available to the Israeli army, the report leaves out the fact that Palestinian terrorists disguise themselves as pregnant women, tourists, even Israeli soldiers, and cause incredible damage by filling their explosive charges with nails and ball bearings to wreck even more havoc. Several times, double bombings have occurred to block main roads deliberately preventing medical teams taking the wounded to hospital. Sometimes the second bombing is designed to kill medical teams. F16s and helicopter gunships can do little to prevent an explosives expert working out of his living room. Israel has ruled out time and time again carpet-bombing, as has been used by other countries in similar situations. It is against Israel’s moral and humanitarian principles. Instead, in order to maintain its humanitarian principles, the army is forced to operate at a fraction of its strength and expend far more resources, both human and material.
This type of information should be included in the report. The fact that Amnesty leaves out such background information casts aspersions on the neutrality of its reporting.
To the report’s credit, it is careful to state that both sides are suffering. Indeed, Amnesty recently came under fire from senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat as reported in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz. Amnesty criticized the Palestinian Authority’s claim that it cannot prevent attacks because its security forces have been severely damaged by repeated Israeli air strikes and demolitions. AI responded "this does not diminish its obligation to take concrete measures to prevent attacks, to conduct thorough and impartial investigations and to bring those responsible to justice." However, the report does not go far enough in providing this type of balance.
At the end of the report there is a section "Take action now – Act now for rights and justice".
This section consists of three studies:
- Killing the Future: Children in the Line of Fire
- Conscientious Objectors
- Administrative detention (cf. Section C Examining the charge of selective reporting)
2. In reference to the first report on child casualties, Amnesty is guilty of critical omissions.
The report ignores recent research shedding new light on plausible reasons for the high casualty rates among Palestinian children. Such studies have revealed, for example, that children are encouraged to participate in violent riots and to put themselves at risk, in a bid to win more international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. One 15-year old was quoted in the Boston Globe newspaper as claiming that the militants had recruited 50 boys like him and divided them into teams of 10 to throw stones and demonstrate near Israeli tanks and army positions.
Instead of including this type of study, the report rather simplistically states that "both sides have inadvertently encouraged the killing of children: Israel by not investigating actions of IDF troops and the Palestinian Authority by not reining in armed Palestinian groups."
The report called on Israel to order its army to respect international human rights standards governing the use of force and to take "prompt and concrete measures to put an end to reckless, random and disproportionate fire by the IDF at residential areas."
3. A third instance of misleading reporting is the charge that "the Israeli army is reckless and undisciplined."
The IDF legal team has made considerable effort in briefing commanders of their responsibilities to respect the human rights of civilians. If not, they face court-martial and imprisonment.
4. The report on conscientious objectors categorically fails to talk about the Israeli judicial system and fails to articulate the Supreme Court’s reasoning on this issue.
Israel implements the principles of the rule of law. As such, legal proceedings can often be time consuming and lengthy. Petitions and counter petitions are presented. At the moment there are specific laws regarding recruitment to the army and there is a widescale public debate on the issue. It is possible that recruitment patterns will change in the near future. It is the responsibility of Amnesty to include this type of background information in their report.
On a similar topic, AI aroused controversy in its dealing with the case of Mordechai Vanunu, who Israel claims damaged state security by divulging information on Israel’s nuclear program. Amnesty called for Vanunu’s release on the basis that his solitary confinement is a violation of human rights. However, there are thousands of similarly situated individuals all over the world. The Israeli Ministry of Justice claims that Vanunu has chosen to remain alone in his cell by twice refusing the offer of a cellmate and has made use on numerous occasions of unlimited access to the Israeli courts to appeal.
5. The Israeli Ministry of Justice issued a public condemnation of the 1995 Amnesty annual report.
The Israeli Ministry of Justice took particular offense at AI quoting Hamas rhetoric as truth. One example found in the report claimed that Hamas was "anxious not to inflict harm on civilians." This statement obviously does not match Hamas’ earlier response to Amnesty, in which Hamas upheld their commitment to terror and violence as a "natural human response" to Israel’s existence. The report went on to mention that Amnesty de facto gives endorsement to the suggestion that terrorism stems from the presence of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. This is obviously misleading because Hamas views the entire State of Israel as land illegally occupied by the Jewish people.
B. How Amnesty uses international legal discourse
AI’s reports on the Middle East make frequent mention of international law, humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions and the charge of ‘war criminal.’ International law is nebulous and largely based on general principles. To be used effectively and accurately, one needs constant referral to treaties, who they were ratified by and in what context. Amnesty repeatedly fails to distinguish between agreements on principles, known as ‘soft law’ (which is not binding) and bilateral or multilateral treaties known as ‘hard law’ (which is binding). AI makes constant reference to International Law without clarifying its various forms.
This section contains two instances of misuse of international law.
1. Amnesty produced a recent press release entitled ‘Israeli Defense Force war crimes must be investigated‘, 4/11/02. The press release refers to the Amnesty report, ‘Shielded From Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus’, which claims "(T)he evidence compiled indicates that serious breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed, including war crimes." It demanded an "immediate inquiry, like the investigations for ethnic cleansing in Bosnia" and calls for Israeli ‘war criminals’ to be punished. Its charges made headlines around the world.
The report does not make use of the latest research on what happened in Jenin (accepted by the UN, the vast majority of the international press and governments) and does not define its terms when talking about international law. Amnesty secretary-general Irene Khan has been quoted on numerous occasions talking of ‘war crimes’ committed by the Israeli army in Jenin. International law is not sufficiently developed to determine what type of conflict is taking place between the Israelis and Palestinians. To sprinkle the vocabulary of ‘war crimes’ in reports is misleading and reveals an ideological bias.
Moreover, there is a disturbing amount of inaccurate and anecdotal evidence used in the report: "In Jenin, there certainly has been mass killing — both of combatants and civilians," said one Amnesty observer. "The local hospital had treated very few casualties. But that only proved how bad things were….’Where are the severely injured?’ the observer said angrily. "They must have died of their wounds. We know, because we can smell the corpses as we walk across the top of the rubble."
Such reports have been exposed as lies and a Palestinian public relations exercise. Why did Amnesty not ask for an independent inquiry into the cult of suicide bombing, or ask how Jenin became a nest for terrorists, styled in Arabic as ‘the capital of the suicide bombers?’ Another apposite question is how could such a suicide bombing campaign happen in a camp administered by a UN relief agency? Amnesty chastised Israel for intercepting of Red Crescent ambulances, but neglected to mention how those ambulances are used to smuggle weapons and fighters.
These are important factors and certainly carry considerable weight in international law. For the moment, it is hard to believe that any non-partisan jurist would make the case that the term ‘war crimes’ are relevant in this particular report.
2. In addition there is a worrying double standard at play. AI does not define as terrorists armed fighters operating in what they themselves unashamedly define as a ‘military campaign of terror.’ AI prefers to call them ‘armed combatants.’
AI carefully states that International law forbids armies from locating military targets in civilian areas and mandates that soldiers must wear distinct garb to set them apart from the civilian population. AI should insist that these rules be enforced among ‘armed groups’ as well, who are operating in civilian areas, both in Israeli and Palestinian-controlled territory. The ‘armed groups’ are fighting in organized, self-defined military structures, often backed-up by the Palestinian Authority, which has many features of a state. It is startling that Amnesty does not believe that Israel has a right to strike, in self-defense, at these so-called ‘armed groups.’
C. The charge of selective reporting and claims of ideological biases
This section produces six examples of selective reporting and evidence of an ideological position.
Apart from critical omissions and spurious use of international law, Amnesty is also accused of selective reporting, which raises suspicion as to whether there is a hidden ideological agenda.
1. Amnesty’s behavior at the UN-sponsored Durban conference against racism aroused large-scale controversy and convinced many that Amnesty has an underlying ideological agenda.
Amnesty endorsed the forum’s resolution document, a "call for the reinstitution of UN resolution 3379 determining the practices of Zionism as racist practices, and to "call upon the international community to impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state…anti-Arab racism is another form of anti-Semitism…that has led to violence and hate crimes." This included a call for business worldwide to divest from the Israeli economy. The motion went on to call for the establishment of a U.N. committee to prosecute Israeli war crimes and the complete isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.
This led Professor Irwin Cotler, President of the Canadian Parliamentarians for Global Action, to term Durban "a festival of hate." Further fury was caused when Amnesty (together with Human Rights Watch), turned a blind eye to a proposal for a motion condemning anti-Semitism and the right of self-determination for the Jewish people. Many Jewish NGO leaders complained of a week of harassment, intimidation and hate-speech and there is extensive TV footage of Jewish youth being jeered, heckled and threatened when attempting to speak at the International Youth Summit.
An Amnesty spokesman said, "Although not accepting or condoning some of the language used within the NGO Declaration, Amnesty International accepts the declaration as a largely positive document which gives a voice to all the victims of racism wherever it occurs." An Amnesty spokesperson said they said they were not ready to equate Zionism with racism at this time, hinting that they may consider producing such a statement in the future.
It took two days for Amnesty along with representatives of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch to hold a news conference criticizing the NGO conference process. The United States and Israel left the government conference after the conference’s clear anti-Israel motives became known.
The Amnesty annual report of 2002 speaks of the Conference success "in highlighting the extent of racism around the world" "such as…the plight of…Palestinians." Prof. Anne Bayefsky, writing in the Jerusalem Post, September 2002, wrote "the post-Durban concoctions of NGOs and the UN divulge two dangerous characteristics: highly selective compassion and willful amnesia."
2. Amnesty has upheld allegations of torture made by Palestinian detainees on anecdotal and scanty evidence. Meanwhile, Israel has ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Humiliating Treatment.
This process involved Israel’s Justice Ministry appointing a special committee to incorporate the convention into Israeli law. The Israeli security establishment declared a need to balance the rights of suspected terrorists against the rights of their anticipated victims, as in other democratic countries. The Landau Commission was set up in response to this and concluded that it is justifiable to use a certain amount of pressure during interrogation in order to obtain vital information that could save lives in the future. A department in the Ministry of Justice – with disciplinary powers – regulates interrogations and examines any complaint.
The UN Committee has praised the fact that "Israel has prosecuted interrogators who have breached domestic standards of conduct and disciplined others." Amnesty neglects to mention any of these elements.
3. Selective reporting leads AI to bold political statements. One such is the mantra for "observers to protect the human rights of persons in the Territories."
The statement, however, neglected to mention that the observers could also prevent suicide bombings from being launched from those same territories.
Amnesty has a tendency to focus on one issue providing no balance or international perspective. One such case is building in Jerusalem.
4. Justus Weiner in his recent publication, Illegal Construction in Jerusalem, talks at length about how AI condemns the Jerusalem Municipality for breaking provisions in International Law whilst other municipalities, including Belfast, Nicosia, Pristina, Sarajevo and Brussels operate in an analogous fashion.
Weiner goes on to discuss how Amnesty chose to employ an Anthony Coon as their expert on town planning. Weiner argues Coon is unsuitable because of his demonstrated commitment to defending illegal Palestinian building. Coon previously worked for two years as an employee of the Palestinian rights organization Al-Haq. Weiner provides evidence of another instance of a former Al-Haq employee writings its reports on the Middle East.
Amnesty’s choice of authors for its reports and their level of objectivity is highly problematic and extremely difficult to verify. AI is accused of irresponsibly commissioning known anti-Israel figures, such as the two mentioned above, to compile sensitive reports.
5. Amnesty has been accused of gross hypocrisy in its recent coverage of the proposed American strike on Iraq. Kamal Samari, a spokesman for Amnesty, told the Washington Post "what we don’t want to see for Iraq or any other country is that the human rights record is used selectively in order to achieve political goals."
National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg in an article entitled Hypocrophobia, 12/6/02, quotes Irene Khan, the head of Amnesty commenting on a British government dossier on Iraqi human rights violations. The dossier includes evidence of torture of political prisoners, including eye gouging, drilling hands, mock executions, and mass-murder. Khan declared that "this…is nothing but a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists." She is saying that such documents cannot justify pressure being put on the Iraqi regime. Amnesty regularly puts considerable political pressure on Israel. http://www.nationalreview.com/script/printpage.asp? ref=/goldberg/goldberg120602.asp
6. Indeed, the introductory paragraph to the regional section of AI’s 2002 annual report states:
The gross human rights violations that took place in many countries include judicial and extra judicial executions, widespread use of torture and unfair trials, intimidation of human rights defenders and restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
Israeli ‘human rights violations’ against Palestinians are the most prominent item on the Middle East regional summary. This places Israel higher than countries with notorious records such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Any interpretation of human rights, which does not take into account the contradictions in economic, social and political life, will miss the distinctive quality of its reality.
Rajini Kothari, Liberating Peace (United Nations University Press, 1987)
The above examples of biased researchers, anecdotal evidence in reports which contradict documented facts and the use of selective reporting, beg the question in what way are organizations the size and influence of Amnesty accountable? Who are they answerable to? Who monitors the organization? Amnesty has fallen into the trap Kothari warned of above; Amnesty misses the distinctive quality of the reality.
Amnesty’s prestige and size means it has a huge responsibility to produce accurate, balanced and contextualized reports. The fact that its reports are so often quoted — recycling the same misrepresentations — is harming the human rights of Israelis and Jews around the world, in contradiction to Amnesty’s mission statement.
Amnesty has made efforts in the last couple of years to redress some of its more outlandish criticisms of Israel. It has also made strides in presenting both sides of the conflict and criticizing the Palestinian Authority. These are positive developments. It is time now to work further on revising misleading and selective reports. There needs to be more focus on the harsh moral dilemmas Israeli policy makers face on an hourly basis. Does one grant the basic right of freedom of movement when that very right to freedom of movement endangers the right of millions more to live a life free from injury?
AI needs to revise their work in light of their mission statement and decide to what extent they want to become politicized. By removing the ‘oppressor and oppressed’ paradigm, Amnesty can start looking at human rights issues in the broader perspective of a complex conflict. It would be a shame for an organization with the potential to do good to allow itself to go down the path of Anne Bayefsky’s description of "highly selective compassion and willful amnesia."