North Africa, West Asia

The 'weaponization' of human rights

Most human rights organizations who have taken a negative position on the Prawer plan have done so, not because they wish to advance Bedouin human rights but rather because they have become enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are using human rights issues as weapons in that conflict.

Efraim Perlmutter
10 December 2013

A couple of days ago I took part, mostly by listening, to a conversation that was mainly between two of my neighbours. One of them is of the left wing political persuasion and the other is several generations down, on the right. The topic of discussion was the Prawer Plan and both are opposed to it. For those readers of this screed who are not aware, the Prawer plan is the final version of several plans that have been produced over the years which have sought to reorganize and legalize Bedouin land holdings in the Negev as well as making it possible to supply twenty-first century services to that sector of the Israeli citizenry.

My two neighbors both oppose the plan but for different reasons. My left-wing neighbor has listened to the various human rights organizations who have claimed that the plan violates the human rights of the Bedouin. These include the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay who said:  

“As citizens of Israel, the Arab Bedouins are entitled to the same rights to property, housing and public services as any other group in Israel. The Government must recognize and respect the specific rights of its Bedouin communities, including recognition of Bedouin land ownership claims.” 

My right-wing neighbor, who has worked with local Negev Bedouin for the past six years on an informal basis, argued that the plan should be scrapped and all Bedouin land claims should be adjudicated and settled in the courts. He made this argument knowing that most of the Bedouin land claims are not legal according to Israeli, British mandatory or Ottoman law, so they would be rejected.

That my right-wing neighbor feels that the Bedouins are being offered too much under the Prawer Plan does not particularly surprise me. What does surprise me is that neither my left-wing neighbor nor anything that I have heard from the human rights groups, including the honorable Ms. Pillay, address themselves to the problems that Israeli Bedouins face today.

It seems to me that this latter phenomenon arises out of what I prefer to call the Weaponization of Human Rights or WHR. (I cannot claim credit for this term as I heard it first from an interlocutor on another internet forum.) WHR may have begun with the Arab-Israeli conflict as it played out in the old UN Commission on Human Rights and its successor the UN Human Rights Council. Long ago it was explained to me that investigations of human rights violations in conflict situations are not restricted to one side or the other but are focused on human rights violations wherever they may take place. However, over the years, in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights inquiries have been informally and formally restricted to Israeli actions. As a consequence the violations of Arab human rights by Arab governments and proto-governmental organizations have been mostly ignored. This may be one of the reasons why the outbreak of the Arab Spring caught so many observers by surprise.

At any rate, when human rights become weaponized, like weaponizing technology, it usually does no good to any human being in the vicinity. This seems to be the situation when it comes to the Negev Bedouin. I happen to think that the Prawer Plan is a reasonable approach to bringing the Bedouin into the mainstream of twenty-first century Israeli society especially when it comes to providing government services. I believe that I am in agreement on this with the majority of the Bedouin population in the Negev and in particular with a majority that desires to exploit the advantages offered by modern Israeli society.

Let me provide an example of why I think so. This past Thursday the first rains of the winter fell. If enough rain falls during the rest of the winter, in the spring the wild grasses that are typical of our area will cover the ground. Despite being a desert, in the spring the land turns from yellow-brown to green and looks very much like photos of Ireland that I have seen. The grasses grow very thick and can reach a height of twenty to thirty centimeters. However, a few kilometers to the south far less rain falls and the grasses grow very sparsely and short; perhaps two or three centimeters in height with a centimeter or two of space between each blade.

The government allows the Bedouin to graze their flocks on state land in our area. However in order to do this a permit must be issued on condition that the owner of the flock opens a file with the Income Tax and Value Added Tax authorities. Most Bedouin either open the required files or already have existing files and easily acquire grazing permits. Other Bedouin prefer to remain invisible to the tax authorities and choose to graze their flocks on the inferior grazing lands to the south where no permit is needed. This is not a consequence of Bedouin culture, tradition or education. It is simply an economic calculation. However, Bedouin who prefer not to pay taxes and do without government services are far more likely to oppose the Prawer plan on the basis of the same sort of economic calculation, than Bedouins who pay taxes and get government services.

My example does not apply to all Bedouin nor am I going to argue that the Prawer plan is not without its problems. But I will argue that most of the human rights organizations who have taken a negative position on the plan have done so, not because they wish to advance Bedouin human rights but rather because they have become enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are using human rights issues as weapons in that conflict.

Let us all pray for rainy weather in the Negev this winter. 

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