When the UN Human Rights Council sends its independent investigators, known as Special Rapporteurs, around the globe to investigate the denial of various human rights, it’s not unusual for governments accused of violating those rights to go pretty far to keep them out.
So when Israeli security personnel detained Professor Richard Falk at Tel Aviv airport in December 2008, imprisoning him in a crowded, filthy jail cell overnight and expelling him the next day, it wasn’t particularly surprising. Falk had recently taken on the role of United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Israel had made clear it had no intention of co-operating with his mandate or of implementing its obligations as a UN member to facilitate Falk’s official missions. As the Occupying Power, Israel has for years responded with outrage to human rights criticism and, with US backing, has increasingly directly repudiated UN authority and legitimacy.
Perhaps it isn’t even so unexpected that Falk – whose work has been scrupulously fair – has been criticised as well by Palestinian factions, including both Fatah and Hamas.
But it’s pretty rare for Special Rapporteurs to face condemnation, insult, attack from high-ranking UN officials, including the Secretary-General, or powerful diplomatic actors from their home country – such as US representative to the UN, Ambassador Susan Rice. Since taking on the mandate nearly five years ago, Falk has faced those attacks and more.
Most of the attacks are the result of pressure campaigns launched by a small Geneva-based right-wing organisation called UN Watch. While hardly known outside of UN headquarters in Geneva, UN Watch has tried to make a name for itself among those bigger players also committed to undermining the United Nations and to uncritically defending every Israeli violation of human rights and international law. Undermining and delegitimising Richard Falk has been an obsession of UN Watch since he became Special Rapporteur.
Attempting to damage reputation
Apparently, without any effort to substantiate the false claims made by UN Watch against Falk (claims that lack not only truth, but also even a shred of relevance to his UN position), and without contacting the Special Rapporteur himself, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, US Ambassador Susan Rice, and others have given in to UN Watch demands by publicly attacking Falk, attempting to damage his reputation, with Rice actually calling for him to be removed from his UN post. (The unpaid job is, we should recall, subject to numerous UN restrictions but no privileges.)
Richard Falk on the Golan clashes
In each of these scenarios, UN Watch lost no time in claiming credit for the attacks on Falk, publicising its successful demands on Ban Ki-moon, Rice and others, and using the resulting attacks to trumpet its “effectiveness” in fundraising appeals.
In each of those earlier cases, virtually all the Palestinian and many Israeli human rights organisations came together to sign joint letters protesting the attacks on Falk and demanding (so far without effect) a public apology. Holding to human rights principles, Falk has refused to step down, despite the pressure that made his work so much more difficult.
But now, UN Watch has had a success even it probably did not expect. Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the most influential international human rights organisations, has itself joined the assemblage of those willing to attack Richard Falk in direct response to a demand by UN Watch. It is particularly ironic given UN Watch’s own history of attacking HRW.
In a December 17, 2012, letter attacking Falk, UN Watch demanded that HRW “remove him immediately” from the organisation’s board. Human Rights Watch acquiesced immediately, clarifying that Falk was not a member of the HRW board, but rather had been a member of HRW’s local support committee in Santa Barbara, California, where he lives, “a position he no longer holds“.
The HRW letter, signed by deputy director Iain Levine, stated that Falk’s removal from the local committee was part of a “longstanding policy, applied many times, that no official from any government or UN agency can serve on any Human Rights Watch committee or its Board. It was an oversight on our part that we did not apply that policy in Richard Falk’s case several years ago when he assumed his UN position”. But it said nothing about UN Watch’s scurrilous accusations, and UN Watch immediately claimed credit for what it called the “expulsion” of Falk from the HRW committee.
For five years, HRW had ignored Richard Falk’s very high-profile role as Special Rapporteur while he continued to serve on the HRW’s Santa Barbara committee. Yet they jumped to respond immediately to the ill-intentioned (to put it politely) demand of a small UN-bashing, anti-human rights, pro-Israel organisation. Maybe HRW was concerned about possible guilt by association if it defended Richard Falk. Or maybe it’s true that, reminded by UN Watch, HRW intended simply to enforce its existing policy of keeping UN officials off its committees – even though Special Rapporteurs are specifically not UN officials, but maintain their crucial independence throughout their tenure.
But whatever their intentions, HRW’s action gave significant undeserved and public credibility to UN Watch, and sent a clear message that the litany of false attacks against Richard Falk is now being taken seriously by one of the most influential human rights organisations in the world.
False accusations made by UN Watch
In response to the Human Rights Watch move, over 40 representatives of major Palestinian, Israeli, US, European, Asian, Latin American and international human rights organisations signed a letter to HRW Executive Director Ken Roth, urging Human Rights Watch “to issue an immediate public apology to Professor Falk, and to clarify that he was not ‘expelled’ as an enemy of human rights’ as UN Watch claimed”.
“Roth’s ‘clarification’ admitted that the UN Watch letter was filled with ‘inaccuracies and falsehoods’.”
The human rights activists and defenders signing the letter made clear to Human Rights Watch that Falk “has carried out his mandate – despite insult, abuse, arrest, expulsion and exclusion – with enormous integrity and courage despite being continually attacked and denied access by Israel, the Occupying Power, to the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. He deserves the support of a human rights organisation, rather than the endorsement of attacks by a group that stands against human rights”.
In his New Year’s Day response to the letter, Roth restated HRW’s claim that it was merely implementing a longstanding position in removing Falk from its committee – but he ignored the concern of the international signatories regarding the false accusations made by UN Watch. Roth refused to confirm that Richard Falk was not “expelled” from the local committee, that he was not removed as an “enemy of human rights” or because he is “anti-Semitic”, all false claims that UN Watch has repeated.
Roth’s “clarification” admitted that the UN Watch letter was filled with “inaccuracies and falsehoods” – but the only inaccuracy he identified was the technical error that Falk had been a member of the HRW board rather than the local Santa Barbara committee, leaving unchallenged the far more serious claims designed to undermine Falk’s legitimacy. And there has still been no public apology to Professor Falk, no public recognition that he would be a welcome and valued member of the local committee for Human Rights Watch when his term as Special Rapporteur expires in two years.
Crucially, despite the grudging statement that HRW “regret[s] that UN Watch … is pursuing its agenda at the expense of Professor Falk”, Human Rights Watch has done nothing to reject explicitly and publicly the defamatory insults issued by UN Watch against Professor Falk, and now being used to pursue its own anti-human rights, anti-UN agenda.
After many years, Human Rights Watch has recently taken on important and principled work to support the human rights of Palestinians being violated by Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. It is unfortunate and disappointing, at the very least, that HRW now appears unwilling to stand with and defend those who are working to promote and defend those very human rights.
Given his Middle East staff’s consistent work, there is no question that Ken Roth and the HRW board understand that human rights criticism of Israeli occupation is well-grounded in fact, and that such criticism remains a crucial element in changing the public, media and policymaking discourse in the United States.
If we are ever to have any hope of changing US government policy in Palestine-Israel towards one grounded in human rights and international law, consistent human rights criticism and a willingness to stand with human rights defenders like Richard Falk when they face attack, remain crucial tools – for all human rights activists, including the leadership of Human Rights Watch.
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.