Bahrain human rights defender Maryam Al-Khawaja has pulled out of a UNESCO human rights conference that is honoring her father, political prisoner Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, because the same event is honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Amnesty International considers Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and other Bahrain rights activists held in prison “to be prisoners of conscience, held solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly” and has called for their immediate, unconditional release.
Maryam Al-Khawaja was scheduled to speak in her father’s place at the 13th Annual UNESCO Chair & Institute of Comparative Human Rights Conference at the University of Connecticut on 23 October, titled “Legacies Of Human Rights Leadership And Struggles.”
“Whilst I am honored that you chose my father, I am also utterly disappointed that you would honor him alongside a person who has been responsible for many human rights violations and should be put on trial, not honored,” Al-Khawaja wrote in an open letter to UNESCO, in her personal capacity, announcing her withdrawal. Al-Khawaja sent a copy of the letter to The Electronic Intifada.
Among the other handful of human rights “leaders” the conference will recognize is Shimon Peres whom the official program claims “is widely regarded as a ‘dove,’ and a strong supporter of peace through economic cooperation.”
The stated purpose of the conference is “to educate ourselves about individuals who contributed to the expansion of the range of human rights we enjoy today by providing enlightened and ecumenical leadership.”
Maryam Al-Khawaja objected strongly to the inclusion of Peres in this category along with her father.
“My father always says that when it comes to human rights, there is no grey area, you both stand for human rights everywhere and against perpetrators of human rights violations or you do not,” Al-Khawaja wrote.
“Without any disrespect intended to your esteemed organization, and the important work you do around the world, as a human rights defender I must respectfully withdraw from this event as I cannot allow myself to take part in legitimizing a person who should be tried for human rights violations, not honored,” Al-Khawaja concluded.
Al-Khawaja attached a list of the human rights violations and war crimes in which Peres is directly implicated, including the 1996 “Operation Grapes of Wrath” invasion of Lebanon while Peres was prime minister. Among the most notorious incidents during that attack, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, was the Israeli shelling of the UN base at Qana killing more than 100 refugees and UN peacekeepers.
UN and international investigations contradicted Israeli claims that the shelling had been an accident and concluded it had been deliberate.
Peres is also renowned as the “father” of Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, and having held almost every state office in Israel is directly responsible for many policies including colonization of Palestinian land in the occupied territories.
In a 2008 call on the University of Oxford not to honor Peres, PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, stated, “Peres is implicated in the myriad crimes and international law infringements committed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territory.”
Maryam Al-Khawaja is the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, founded by her father. The current president of the organization, Nabeel Rajab, is also in prison in Bahrain for his advocacy of political change and human rights.
Maryam Al-Khawaja’s letter to UNESCO
Dear Organizers of the UNESCO conference,
I hope this finds you well. I wanted to first thank you for choosing my father, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, as one of the human rights defenders whom you honor for his peaceful human rights work. I also would like to point out here that I am writing this letter in my personal capacity and not representing any organization or center.
I was honored when I received a letter from UNESCO asking me to participate in a conference to speak about how my father had dedicated his entire life to fighting for human rights and social justice, as he so had done. He started his work in the field when he was merely a teenager, and today is serving life in prison at the age of 52 for his work. He is a firm believer in the struggle for human rights no matter what the cost may be, and thus endured a 110-day hunger strike to shed light on the human rights situation in Bahrain. He has dedicated his life to working on many issues, whether it was migrant workers rights, women rights, rights of the unemployed, those in dire need of adequate housing, political prisoners, and the list goes on. He served internationally, working as the regional protection coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Region for Front Line Defenders, training and working with human rights defenders from the Western Sahara to Saudi Arabia and beyond. My father was also involved in the fact-finding mission in Iraq in 2002 organized by Amnesty International to look into the atrocities of mass graves. I cannot do my father’s human rights work justice in this short letter, and so I will not attempt to.
I am writing to you today because it has come to my attention that you have made a decision to honor Shimon Peres alongside my father at your event. Whilst I am honored that you chose my father, I am also utterly disappointed that you would honor him alongside a person who has been responsible for many human rights violations and should be put on trial, not honored. This decision comes as a surprise as UNESCO usually has good stances on human rights issues without bias.
My father always says that when it comes to human right, there is no grey area, you both stand for human rights everywhere and against perpetrators of human rights violations or you do not. I believe that allowing myself to accept honoring my father’s work alongside a person responsible for human rights violations is an insult to his beliefs and what he stands for. I have included at the bottom of my letter a list of violations that Shimon Peres is responsible for as well as a list of past appeals made against him.
Without any disrespect intended to your esteemed organization, and the important work you do around the world, as a human rights defender I must respectfully withdraw from this event as I cannot allow myself to take part in legitimizing a person who should be tried for human rights violations, not honored. Please accept my apologies for the late withdrawal and any inconvenience it may cause.
Maryam Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja
List of policies and crimes Shimon Peres is responsible for:
- In 1996, as Prime Minister, he launched “Operation Grapes of Wrath” against Lebanon, causing massive destruction and forcing 400,000 Lebanese civilians to flee their homes, with almost 800 of them taking refuge at a UN base in the village of Qana, South Lebanon.
- During that operation, the Israeli army shelled the UN shelter in Qana, killing 102 civilians, mainly women, children and the elderly. Human Rights Watch, the UN and Amnesty International subsequently established that Israel’s attack on the UN base was deliberate, disproving Israeli propaganda to the contrary. Shimon Peres said at the time, “In my opinion, everything was done according to clear logic and in a responsible way. I am at peace.”
- He is an architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons program - one which remains outside the scrutiny of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
- He is directly responsible for building – even initiating the construction of – colonies on occupied Arab land, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention; endorsing a policy of extra-judicial killings and house demolitions; supporting the brutal siege on occupied Gaza, widely regarded as a form of collective punishment; and legitimizing the apartheid Wall and the elaborate system of roadblocks all across the occupied West Bank, in pursuit of “racial segregation,” a concept and strategy promoted by Peres more than most Israeli leaders.
- Peres played a key role in whitewashing the Israeli army atrocities and wanton destruction of homes in the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, as well as in the carnage committed by the Israeli army in its recent war on Lebanon in 2006.
- Peres has also consistently defended the acquisition of land through military aggression, claiming that Israel has the right to the Golan Heights and large parts of occupied Jerusalem because it captured those territories during war.
- In 1982, both Peres and Yitzhak Rabin supported the onslaught of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon on Lebanon, and a year later they supported the decision to set up the “Security Zone”, which prolonged the war for 27 more years.
- In 1974, Shimon Peres set up the first settlement in the heart of the West Bank, Kedumim, which has been terrorizing its Palestinian neighbors to this day.
- After Rabin and Peres recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization and accepted the 1993 Oslo agreements, they soon violated them by not opening the promised “safe passages” between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and not carrying out the third and main withdrawal. The establishment of new settlements continued.
These have been copied from one of the PACBI appeals below, with the exception of the last 3, which have been taken from an article by Uri Avnery of Peace Now. This list provides a highlight of Peres’s political career and is not complete. There is also the matter of his involvement in the Haganah in 1947, and his role in the expulsion of Palestinians that far back.
A List of Past Appeals and Actions Against Shimon Peres: This is a sample of past appeals and actions against institutions that have sought to host or honor Peres. The text in some of these repeats itself but we have included them to alert you of different actions.