The dark knights of human rights (Itai Reuveni)
Just over two weeks ago, there was a report about a Jewish woman in Iran who, for years, had been harassed by her Muslim neighbors who demanded that she evacuate her home to make room for a mosque. The woman was ultimately stabbed to death, and her body dismembered.
About a month ago, an Iranian human rights activist of Arab descent was tortured to death at a notorious Iranian prison. Add to that the testimony of a senior Revolutionary Guards officer who defected to the U.S., indicating that every woman who is sentenced to death in Iran is first raped so that she won’t enter heaven a virgin.
These are just a handful of examples out of thousands of human rights violations in Iran. This raises a disturbing question: Where are the human rights organizations? Where are the condemnation campaigns and calls for boycotts? Where are the threats to take senior Iranian officials to the International Court of Justice? Where are the enormous budgets? Shouldn’t there be lobbies crowding the halls of the U.N. and EU institutions?
The concept of “human rights” — founded on universal principles — has lost its moral significance and has now become merely a tool utilized by nongovernmental organizations as a means of obtaining political objectives. This exploitation, compounded by the blatant disregard for any facts that do not fall into line with the activists’ views, encourages nations like Iran to keep doing what they are doing. Human rights organizations have been commandeered by a handful of extremists who seek to advance a political ideology rather than protecting the world’s citizens, whether they are Iranian or Syrian, Palestinian or Israeli.
Iran is usually mentioned in the context of a security threat. The various organizations are only reminded of Iran in the context of Israel. There are nearly no campaigns for human rights in Iran — you can count the ones that do exist on the fingers of one hand. And so Iran, where, according to its president, there are no homosexuals or lesbians (and if there are, they are hanged in the city square), and where acid is squirted on protesters, and where men and women are raped in prison, and where the national sports are soccer and stoning people, keeps on abusing human rights. For their part, the human rights organizations argue that they don’t have the resources to take action within a closed society. Why take a risk when you can protest in Bil’in in the morning and have a beer in Tel Aviv that same afternoon?
These organizations fail to realize that human rights are inextricably linked to the strength of a society, even when said society exists under a sadistic tyrannical regime. Many people may find this surprising, but there is a strong, flourishing civil society in Iran, with a long, rich history of organizing: from the 1890 Tobacco Protest to the struggles over the constitution and the country’s oil, through to the 1979 Islamic Revolution all the way to the 2009 Iranian Election Protests and the creation of the Iranian Green Movement. This is a country with a rich social history and with a fascinating language and culture. But its freedom-seeking citizens have been abandoned by the knights of human rights, the knights who populate those organizations with the enormous budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and with worldwide infrastructure and with ideologically motivated activists. These organizations allocate a large portion of their resources to the one-sided cheerleading squad for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in complete disproportion to all the other human rights violations around the world.
For example: Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, harshly criticized the very organization he founded in a New York Times op-ed several years ago. Bernstein criticized the organization for ignoring human rights violations in closed societies, for its anti-Israeli bias and for “issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” He wrote this op-ed after a 2009 fundraising event in Saudi Arabia, organized by Human Rights Watch, in which anti-Israel rhetoric was used to raise money. That same year, a senior organization official visited Libya and praised Moammar Gadhafi’s son, calling him a reformer and leader of the Libyan Spring.
Today, international Human Rights Day, the human rights organizations need to do some soul searching and really check whether the allocation of their resources truly reflects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the U.N. on Dec. 10, 1948). They need to ask themselves whether the concentration of efforts to bash Israel and the disregard for violations in other countries truly contributes to the human rights of any group, or rather serves to alienate the public, to belittle the concept of human rights and to encourage rights violations in places like Iran.
If we honestly care about human rights, we must liberate the concept from the hands of those who have tried to commandeer it.
Some of you may recall that a few months ago Robert Bernstein attacked Human Rights Watch – an organization that he founded – for going off course in the Middle East.
A lot of people thought that was the end of Bernstein and that he’d never be heard from again. But at 88, Bernstein has the energy of a much younger man. He’s starting a new human rights organization that will do it his way.
In late February, Bernstein launched Advancing Human Rights, a new organization meant to act as a corrective, one that hopes to return human rights to what Bernstein thinks are its forgotten fundamental principles. Among its board members are Yelena Bonner, the Soviet dissident and wife of Andrei Sakharov, and Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian minister of justice.
Natan Sharansky, the onetime jailed refusenik and human rights activist who is now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is an old friend of Bernstein’s. When Bernstein was head of Random House, he published Sharansky’s memoir, “Fear No Evil.” And the two share the assessment that human rights organizations have gone astray.
“It’s not every day when someone at the age of 88 realizes that the child he brought up has betrayed him, and decides to raise a new child,” Sharansky said.
The stated mandate of the new group is broader than Bernstein’s initial complaint, though it stems from it. AHR will be focused on the struggles of dissidents in closed, autocratic societies, like those in the Middle East and China. Bernstein wants the group to more closely promote those rights enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — specifically women’s rights and free speech — as opposed to the Geneva Convention and the other laws of warfare, which he thinks should be outside the purview of a human rights organization.
But underneath this new mandate, the clear motivating factor for Bernstein’s new initiative is his concern for Israel. It rises to the surface as soon as he is asked about the point of starting yet another human rights organization: Israel, as a democratic, open society, should not be under constant investigation by human rights groups, he said. The country and the way it wages war need to be better explained and defended.
Read the whole thing. Note that in this post, I don’t have to talk about human rights in scare quotes.