When more is less – Israel-Palestine and human rights scrutiny

Jessica Montell
10 March 2014

A central component of the concept of human rights is its universalism: all human beings are entitled to the same rights, and all states should be scrutinized according to an identical standard to ensure they are respecting the rights of people under their jurisdiction. Deviation from this conception of universalism undermines the human rights movement as a whole. It is clear that this is indeed a global problem; the realpolitik of international power influences the enforcement of human rights standards, with major powers shielded from scrutiny and certain countries receiving the lion's share of international attention.

Israel is one of those places.  At global human rights meetings, Israel-Palestine inevitably wins the "popularity contest".  In contrast to many other human rights crises around the globe, everyone is interested in Israel-Palestine, and everyone has an opinion, and usually a visceral, extremely emotional engagement with the issue of human rights in Israel-Palestine.

Ironically, this is one issue on which both supporters and critics of Israel agree: there is a bias when it comes to Israel. Of course, they differ on what they mean by this. Supporters of Israel argue that the international community is biased against Israel, while Israel’s critics argue that the world is biased in Israel's favor.

In my line of work, I hear both points of view argued passionately. Sometimes in the same day I will meet with two different groups from abroad who come to hear about B'Tselem's work to defend human rights in the Occupied Territories. In the morning, I might speak with a group of Palestine solidarity activists and hear that the western media, the United Nations and the international community as a whole is blatantly biased in favor of Israel. In the afternoon, I might speak with a group of European Jewish community leaders who argue just as fervently that the international community is unfairly holding Israel to a much higher standard than that applied elsewhere.   

In fact, both sides have persuasive arguments. Take the United Nations (UN) system, for example. On the one hand, the US repeatedly uses its Security Council veto to block resolutions unfavorable to Israel, including condemnation of settlements in the West Bank and other human rights-related issues. On the other hand, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has displayed obvious bias in the opposite direction, with a permanent agenda item regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territories (the only country-specific permanent item) and a permanent Special Rapporteur on Israeli violations (the only expert mandate with no year of expiry). It is true that these mandates do not address human rights issues in Israel itself (pre-1967 borders), but only in the occupied territories. In fact, the human rights situation inside Israel does not receive greater scrutiny than any other country. Further, a case could be made that the prolonged occupation warrants unique scrutiny. Yet this can only partially explain the level of attention given. It certainly does not justify the fact that the HRC has passed more and harsher resolutions regarding Israel’s occupation than it has passed on China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and all of Africa put together.

UN member states certainly advance their political agendas through expressions of concern for human rights. But the United Nations is only one example of this phenomenon. From my vantage point, it seems clear that the international press also devotes a disproportionate amount of its coverage to Israel-Palestine. Of course, the political conflict is a topic of keen international attention. Perhaps this is the reason that even relatively localized cases of abuse – the detention of a single Palestinian minor, an Israeli soldier abusing a Palestinian labourer – will be reported in media outlets around the world.

However, it is not only the case that Israel receives a disproportionate share of criticism. Certainly in Europe and the United States, Israel receives a disproportionate share of benefits. Israel enjoys a preferential trade relationship and cooperation with Europe unique for any non-European country. The scope of US financial and military aid to Israel is unparalleled. Is it surprising then that these countries would be more interested and engaged with Israel, and that their media would follow Israel more closely? In fact, disproportionate criticism may be a direct result of such disproportionate benefits. It seems wholly appropriate that a close ally should receive greater scrutiny – not least because the closer relations may increase the impact of such scrutiny.  

So where does this leave us? There are many factors at work and it is hard to do justice to this complicated issue in a short post. I am inclined to think that the disproportionate attention to Israel – both positive and negative – does indeed do a disservice to the international human rights movement. It takes a lion's share of resources and shifts attention away from other important issues. It also threatens to warp international tools. The cause of universal jurisdiction for the most serious international crimes, for example, has been severely undermined by the attempts to pursue cases against Israelis and by the counter-strategies to block such cases, whether in other countries or before the International Criminal Court.  

Of course the solution is not to ignore Israel's human rights violations. Israel must be scrutinized, criticized and held to account – the same way we expect every other state to be treated. Those individuals, groups and states with a stronger relationship to Israel are quite justified in strengthening their human rights demands as well. On the other hand, UN bodies and other organizations tasked with safeguarding the universal human rights message must be diligent in carrying out their task universally.  

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