The Human Right to Dominate by Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini (Oxford University Press)
Coauthored by political scientist Neve Gordon and anthropologist Nicola Perugini, this book is a challenging and unorthodox examination of “how both liberal and illiberal forces appropriate and deploy human rights in a way that corroborates, reinforces and rationalizes domination instead of destabilizing it.”
The authors use the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism to exemplify how a human rights framework can be misused to help maintain the status quo and allow Israel’s colonial domination over the Palestinians to go unchallenged.
In doing so, they criticize the work of Amnesty International, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch, marshalling convincing arguments concerning the limitations of a strictly legalistic framework for human rights.
Many readers may find the opening chapters of this book difficult to comprehend and somewhat ambiguous as the authors construct a point of view that frames the nation-state itself as an intrinsic instrument for the “human right” to dominate and to kill.
Much of this discussion lacks clarity and historical support and ignores political and economic factors influencing the nature of the nation-state and its behavior in specific periods of time. The authors’ frequent use of phrases such as “in other words” and “put differently” suggests that they themselves lack clarity regarding their theoretical framework.
Nevertheless, the authors have opened a discussion that will hopefully prod these human rights organizations to reexamine their approaches and inspire the larger Palestine solidarity community to appreciate the importance of boycott, divestment and sanctions as a political movement that seeks liberation from colonial oppression rather than reform.
“Unbiased” and “nonpartisan”
The authors call it “the paradox of human rights” that much of the Western world regarded Israel’s creation as a “natural reparation for human rights violations carried out by Nazi Germany and other European states,” even though “this reparation assumed the form of a settler nation-state (in Palestine) whose colonial practices generated new human rights violations.”
It was not until the first intifada in the 1980s that many Palestinian organizations also began to frame their struggle in the language of human rights, rather than national liberation, according to the authors.
This transformation alarmed the Israeli government, which soon began to depict nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on human rights as a national security threat. The authors argue that the government crackdown caused many Israeli NGOs to internalize the accusations against them and practice self-censorship, preventing them “from mobilizing human rights as a real threat to the state and its colonial order.”
One of the first repercussions was that liberal NGOs sought to portray themselves as “unbiased” and “nonpartisan” so that they could lay claim to legitimacy. However, the authors argue, this merely resulted in their ignoring “the structural underpinnings of domination,” allowing the perpetrators of human rights violations to act as arbitrators, ultimately “normalizing” the existing relations of domination.
It’s here that Gordon and Perugini are at their most convincing as they show systematically how this came about.
They cite the New Israel Fund (NIF), the largest donor to Israel’s human rights organizations, which came under fire from the right-wing Israeli movement Im Tirtzu and the Zionist watchdog NGO Monitor.
One of the NIF’s first concessions was to disavow universal jurisdiction, under which Israeli officials could be charged for war crimes and crimes against humanity in countries with vigorous human rights laws. The NIF agreed to support only those NGOs that called for prosecutions solely within Israel; hence, the very state that was practicing human rights violations became the sole arbitrator over those violations.
Next to crumble under pressure was B’Tselem, which ignored the asymmetry in power and military capability between Israel and Hamas in its report on the former’s November 2012 attack on Gaza. B’Tselem issued a report accusing Hamas of war crimes while concluding that Israel was merely “suspected” of violating international law.
This tendency became more manifest when liberal NGOs began to accommodate the notion that precision weapons could be lawful as long as “collateral damage” was limited, thereby establishing a justification for extrajudicial assassinations and recognizing the Israeli military’s claim that international law allows it to attack civilian populations being used as “human shields.”
Gordon and Perugini artfully note that this position creates a divide in which technologically advanced nations capable of making precision weapons (usually Western imperialist and formerly colonial nations) have an advantage under international law over other nations (usually the formerly colonized) without this capability.
In effect, a legal divide exists between the technological haves and have-nots, which the authors say “reinscribes the long-standing gap that existed in international law between colonizer and colonized.” It is yet another example, they argue, of how “Humanitarian law is structured to favor the dominant.”
The authors then discuss the emergence of Israeli settler NGOs, such as Regavim and Yesha for Human Rights (also known as the Yesha Human Rights Organization), which began to “mirror” the techniques and strategies of liberal human rights NGOs by claiming the “right to colonize.”
They attempted to completely invert the language of human rights “by transforming the settler into the native and the indigenous into the invader.” They have been successful within Israel. Settler NGOs brag that they are routinely invited to participate in discussions on human rights in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
Finally, the authors take up the problems associated with the professionalization of liberal human rights NGOs and what they call an “antidemocratic ethos.”
They cite the example of a Human Rights Watch report on drone warfare in Yemen that upheld the practice of targeted killing while failing to account for how the people of Yemen felt. Instead of challenging drone warfare, Human Rights Watch restricted its report to a “legalistic-professional discussion about the kinds of weapons used.”
In their conclusion, the authors ask whether human rights can “still be deployed as a counterhegemonic and counterdominant discourse.” They answer in the affirmative, calling for human rights to be “redefined in a new way that mobilizes people to struggle for emancipatory projects.”
Instead of being law-centered, human rights NGOs should raise questions about the “morality and legitimacy of the law itself,” especially targeting laws that “enhance domination.” The NGOs that claim to speak for an oppressed people should democratize and “align with grassroots social movements.” Finally, they should call for the dismantlement of colonial systems, not their reform.
Reconceptualizing and reframing human rights is exactly what happened in Palestine with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, the authors maintain.
Instead of trying “to solve isolated legal cases in colonial courts, the BDS movement translates human rights in order to challenge the existing structure of domination.” The point, they might say, is justice, not lending legitimacy to “an unrecoverable apparatus of injustice.”
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.