International Human Rights: One day out of 365 is not enough

A close-up of the United Nations Charter with the Egyptian delegation in background at the signing ceremony in San Francisco. (UN Archives Photo # 24479)

Two years ago, as media attention began to focus on a case lodged in a Belgian court accusing Israeli and Lebanese individuals of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide stemming from the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, I got a crash course in the politicization of human rights, as well as an unsettling preview of the dangers now threatening the emerging global framework of human rights monitoring, protection, and enforcement.

Despite recent landmark developments in international justice and the criminal prosecution of grave human rights abuses — the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the establishment in 2002 of the International Criminal Court at the Hague — we now inhabit a world in which millions have died in under-reported wars in Africa, rape is an increasingly common method of warfare, children as young as five are pressed into military service, genocide is unfolding in Sudan, and the number of stateless refugees is constantly rising. Despite an International Convention for the Prevention of Torture, the world’s leading power, the United States, is employing illegal methods of interrogation with impunity in Guantanamo and has bloodied its hands scandalously with criminal behavior in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Although the Geneva Conventions clearly stipulate that civilian persons and infrastructure are never to be purposefully targeted, attacks on non-combatants happen every day—indeed every hour—on virtually every continent of the globe.

Having gained new ground with lightning speed in the 1990s, the global campaign for human rights and against impunity is now under serious assault, not only actively by the world’s superpower (which prefers to apply international law to everyone but itself and a few select allies), but also passively, in the form of unquestioned assumptions and expectations shared by civil society groups and leaders throughout the world. These assumptions go to the heart of what is lacking in human rights efforts today: commitment, clarity, courage, and most important of all, cooperation.

The terms “human” and “rights” imply self-evident and universal phenomena. These words, cited separately or in tandem, are used un-self consciously each day by officials, journalists, scholars, activists, average citizens, and religious officials, all of whom take for granted the reality and substance of these concepts, and who assume that “human rights” actually exist a priori, i.e., that the concept of human rights is knowable independently of actual experience. Arguments for defending human rights invoke universal principles, ethics, values, and norms. Every International Human Rights day, December 10th, UN officials, human rights activists, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch remind us of the importance of safeguarding the ideals encoded in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the main documents of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law.

And ideals these truly are — not realities to be taken for granted or assumed to have past, present, and future viability just because they are spelled out in international conventions that we can all access through the Internet. (1) The importance and reality of human rights lies not in the abstract, simply because rights are never violated in the abstract. Though philosophers, sociologists, legal scholars, and media pundits may split hairs over what exactly constitutes a human rights violation in which particular context, the concrete experiences of those whose rights have been violated, and who have no doubt about what they felt and endured, must be the starting point of any sustained effort to end grave abuses and violations of human life, limb, and dignity.

Victims’ experiences convey not only their individual and personal stories, but more importantly clarify the social, economic, political, and ideological contexts in which grave violations of rights are allowed, or enabled, to occur. Individuals’ testimonies of what happened when the militia entered the camps, when the bombs started to fall on a civilian neighborhood, when the rapists surrounded the teenage girl, when the soldiers drove people off their land and prevented them from ever returning again, all provide telling analyses of local, regional, and global political configurations. They give us clues, large and small, about how to prevent atrocities. And they also point to those who bear responsibility: not just the boy who pulled the trigger, the man who gave the computerized message to let the bombs drop, or the gang who raped the women and girls, but also the arms merchants, the lobbying firms, the politicians, the mercenaries, the corporate interests, and the media distortions that, working together or singly, have led one human being to damage or kill another human being in such a violent and entirely avoidable manner.

Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President of the United States, holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a poster in English, in November 1949 at Lake Success, New York which was then the location of the UN Headquarters.(UN Archives Photo # UN 23783)

To understand human rights, human rights violations, and human rights enforcement, one must begin at the ground level, with the social structure and cultural conceptions of the abuse situation. This is not simply a legal requirement, but even more so a moral and political imperative. Whoever endeavors to protect human rights takes on the commitment to be fully human: to think, critique, imagine, argue, envision, cooperate, and take risks in concrete social contexts fraught with political consequences. Foremost among the risks of taking human rights seriously is reaching out to communicate with the Other, to allow others to impact us, upset our assumptions, stretch our conceptions of community and widen the networks of those whom we value, those who have a claim on our attention and action. To do, not simply to study or proclaim, human rights means one has to care. Even when one does not want to, even if it means sympathizing and empathizing with those you were brought up to believe were your enemies.

Anyone who demands that human rights and politics must be kept separate has never engaged with human rights in the lived world. As soon as one undertakes efforts to safeguard rights within the framework of actual social realities, i.e., in a field of institutional structures, hierarchies, ideologies, roles, strategies, interests and traditions, one is at the very heart of the political. To ignore this or try to hide it is foolish and naive. But there are very different ways of mixing politics and human rights.

Deploying human rights concepts and values in action, as a tool for protecting victims and bringing victimizers to account, can be, and probably always is, an inherently political process. People in power will not be happy. Carefully constructed histories of what people prefer to think happened during a war will be upturned. Various groups’ vaunted images of themselves as noble nations, good societies, and decent people may well undergo a troubling re-examination. Damning evidence may come to light. Clues may point to people in high places bearing respectable titles.

But one can also politicize human rights in other ways: by focusing only on one group’s violations while ignoring others; by refusing to acknowledge that victims can also be victimizers; by setting up a tacit hierarchy of abuses and abusers, such that one need not consider country “X” or “Y” a serious human rights abuser, despite the tens of thousands they have killed, since country “Z” committed that really memorable genocide a few years ago. This form of politicizing human rights is obscene in that it implicitly accords some groups more humanity (and thus more rights to be defended) than other groups. Living in Beirut for five years, I saw this a lot in the local press, when the Lebanese or the Syrian governments would condemn Israeli abuses of Palestinian prisoners while Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians were being detained illegally and tortured mercilessly in Mezze prison outside of Damascus.

We saw similar hypocrisy and politicization of human rights concepts and values in US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s outrage in March 2003 when US soliders taken prisoner by the Iraqi army were “paraded” on Iraqi and other satellite television outlets. Yet when the nauseating pictures from Abu Ghraib were revealed, Rumsfeld’s emotions did not quite reach the level of shock.

It never fails to amaze me how consistently Israeli violations of Palestinian and Lebanese human rights are minimized or hidden, as I discovered yet again upon posting an item to an academic listserv concerned with the study and prevention of genocide. The item described a story from the Israeli press about a Palestinian who was forced to play his violin at a checkpoint in the West Bank. The article included comments by Israeli officials from the right and the left of the political spectrum who drew clear analogies between some events in the Occupied Territories and what happened to Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime.

The reaction to my post from fellow North American academics was immediate and chilling. One implied that perhaps I had posted it because of anti-Semitic or other “diabolical” intentions. All but a very few seemed in complete agreement that nothing remotely akin to genocide or even (as I had suggested) a pre-genocidal situation obtained in the occupied territories. The proof cited for this was not empirical reports or legal decisions, such as the recent UN report on alarming levels of malnutrition and child hunger in the Occupied Territories, Israeli human rights groups’s reports on a disturbing pattern of willful killings of children, or the recent advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice on the Apartheid Wall Israel is building in violation of international laws and UN resolutions. Rather, my colleagues’ instant evaluations stemmed from a deeply held ideological view of Israel as a country utterly incapable of committing such acts. And besides, many said, what the suicide bombers are doing is much worse than anything the Israeli Defense Forces has done. If quantitative criteria counts for much, the IDF has killed many, many more civilians than have suicide bombers. But obviously, some people’s deaths are judged worse or more tragic than others’ deaths. The global campaign for human rights and against impunity won’t get very far if some countries are to enjoy immunity from criticism and debate at all times, and if empirical evidence counts for nought in deciding when to act to prevent dangerous situations from becoming even worse.

To cite the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s attempts to make sense of the horrors of World War I: “If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.” No country should be immune from serious questions, criticisms, and investigations of human rights abuses and failures to abide by International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law. Civilizational crusades and wars on terror are poor and flimsy, not to mention self-serving, excuses for halting the progressive development of international law and international criminal prosecution. Activists and journalists in every country have to be courageous enough to tell it like it is, and let the political chips fall where they may.

Some practical lessons about realizing ideals

As coordinator of the International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila, I wrote analyses for, and updated press releases on, the campaign’s website (, gave public talks at law schools and conferences, and did interviews on radio and television. Though I was usually introduced as a pro-Palestinian activist, I always stressed that my involvement on this case comprised a broader human rights endeavor, not a political campaign, and reminded audiences that the Sabra and Shatila massacre survivors’ efforts were but one small piece of a larger, ongoing attempt to give international justice a local address by incorporating the principle of universal jurisdiction, encoded in the Geneva Conventions and the Convention against Torture, into Belgium’s criminal code. This enabled Belgian courts to hear war crimes cases regardless of the nationality of victims and perpetrators.

According to Article 49 of the First Geneva Convention:

Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches, and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts. It may also, if it prefers, and in accordance with the provisions of its own legislation, hand such persons over for trial to another High Contracting Party concerned, provided such High Contracting Party has made out a prima facie case.

A successful trial of four Rwandans charged with aiding and abetting genocidal killings had already been completed in Brussels by mid-2001. Those indicted were sentenced to 18-20 years in prison by the time Belgian judiciary officials began to consider the merits of the Sabra and Shatila case in the latter half of 2001. By February of 2003, the Belgian Supreme Court had sided with the Sabra and Shatila plaintiffs in a high-profile appeal, agreeing that their case was valid and that a trial should go forward for all of the accused with the exception of Ariel Sharon, who enjoyed immunity as long as he was a head of state.

Although this ruling was arguably a landmark in the history of international criminal law, and a development comparable to the 1998 attempt to extradite Chilean Dictator and Senator-for-life Augusto Pinochet from London to Spain, most immediate reactions in the West were far from celebratory. Those involved with the case, such as the three lawyers and myself, were immediately accused of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. The Israeli ambassador to Belgium was recalled, and some Israelis called for a boycott of Belgian products as well as the launch of a campaign to bring Belgian Jews to Israel (few if any Belgian Jews took up the offer).

Samiha Hijazi, a survivor of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, cradles a portrait of a murdered family member, as images of her murdered daughter and her son-in-law rest on empty chairs in her home. (Photograph by Philip Reynaers)

In Lebanon, political leaders were less vocal but very uncomfortable. Reopening the Sabra and Shatila case would lead to a reconsideration of war crimes committed by all Lebanese parties and militias from 1975-1991, and some of the known war criminals were now ministers and parliamentarians. The Belgian ruling was not cause for Beiruti joy — at least at the official level.

What struck me as most bizarre, though, among the various reactions that followed in the wake of the February 2003 Belgian Supreme Court decision, were the comments I received from Americans, Canadians, and Britons who knew a lot about international law and human rights, yet asked, in various tones of anger, incredulity or curiosity: “Why go after Sharon and other Israelis? Why not go after Saddam Hussein? Isn’t this just a political crusade against Israel?”

Now that Saddam Hussein is awaiting trial (albeit one that will not meet international judicial standards), none of these individuals have ever contacted me to say, “Hey, great! Saddam has been indicted! Congratulations! Now you can go ahead with the Sabra and Shatila case!” So I am inclined to see their comments and concerns as a ruse for other agendas.

Upon receiving their queries, though, I explained that a separate case had indeed already been lodged in Belgium by Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein for the Anfal campaign of the 1980s, and that the success of our appeal made it more likely that their case would move forward. Cases build upon cases, precedents upon precedents, regardless of the nationalities of the accused or the plaintiffs. Furthermore, one of our case’s lawyers, Chibli Mallat, had been very involved in the Indict campaign of the late 1990s to remove Saddam Hussein’s government from power through legal rather than military means.

But my first response to those who asked, “Why Sharon, why not Saddam?”, was “If Milosovic, if Pinochet, then why not Sharon and the other Israelis and Lebanese responsible for the 1982 atrocities in Beirut?” If an Israeli commission of inquiry (the Kahan Commission) had determined in 1983 that Sharon “bore personal and indirect responsibility for the massacres,” and yet Sharon had never been tried in a court of law and had even gone on to become Prime Minister and to continue to oversee grave violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in the West Bank and Gaza, while the survivors of Sabra and Shatila still suffered from a lack of legal and psychological closure, and the region itself is burdened by continuing impunity for massive crimes, one had to start somewhere. And Belgium’s universal jurisdiction law provided a very convenient place to gain a foothold and make some headway on a case that neither the world’s leading powers nor the UN were ever going to address or pursue in a judicially meaningful fashion.

Little did we know, as the Belgian Supreme Court read out its surprising decision in favor of the Sabra and Shatila massacre survivors in February 2003, that within four months Donald Rumsfeld would quash our hopes of realizing and advancing human rights enforcement. Alarmed by attempts to prosecute US officials for war crimes committed in Iraq under the principle of universal jurisdiction, Rumsfeld warned the Belgians that the US would move NATO from Brussels to Warsaw unless Belgium rescinded its progressive anti-atrocity legislation. Rumsfeld thus clarified new meanings and dimensions of the phrase “politicization of human rights,” while undoing several years of activists’ and lawyers’ work on a variety of human rights cases from all over the world.

For all the revolutionary potential of the practice of universal jurisdiction in Belgium, very little changed for the better for the Sabra and Shatila plaintiffs. In fact, Belgium’s decision to annul its progressive anti-atrocity legislation under US pressure rendered the massacre survivors victims a second time over. Their attempts to realize justice in a Belgian court revealed not only the implicit political dimensions of human rights efforts, but also highlighted the fact that universal principles do not exist a priori. Rather, such principles become universal, in the sense of being shared in common and thus capable of animating values and mobilizing coordinated action in multiple sites, only through the mutuality of relationships, struggles, dialogues, and experiences that link people of different nationalities, positionalities, genders, classes, and ideologies across diverse social fields.

Crucial to the nurturance of such relationships, which is a profoundly political as well as a moral project, is the creation of opportunities for empathy between diverse people. This was perhaps the key lesson I learned from our attempt to use universal jurisdiction in Belgium. The case’s trajectory had demonstrated not only the power of the United States at this point in history to determine the limits and substance of human rights’ protection, but it also highlighted the fragmentation of potentially generative human relationships of empathy and solidarity — between the plaintiffs in Beirut and the lawyers in Brussels, between the survivors and the various committees organized to assist their efforts, between the campaign coordinator in Canada and others in Europe and the Middle East; between Belgian citizens and Palestinian and Lebanese massacre survivors, and, perhaps most deleterious of all, the fragmentation of relations between atomized classes, groups, and strata within Arab society.

Human rights monitoring, protection, and enforcement must begin from the ground up in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Tunis, Egypt, and the other countries of the Middle East. A variety of very energetic, conscientious, and courageous organizations exist, but their numbers — and more importantly, their collaborative ties across borders, classes, and concerns — must increase.

A “politics of relationality” is especially crucial for human rights efforts in the Middle East. As all of the lawyers for the Sabra and Shatila plaintiffs noted with chagrin, there was scarcely a word of support expressed for the plaintiffs’ efforts at the official level in the Arab world. If Arabs are not supportive of struggles for justice that concern them so profoundly, if they are not willing to take the risk of confronting impunity in a region deeply scarred by mass graves and full of torture facilities, then why should Europeans or North Americans take on their burdens? To do so is to sanction a new form of moral colonialism and to increase the problems of dependency that plague the region economically, politically, and technologically.

People throughout the Middle East have an especially profound stake in realizing the ideals of international human rights concepts and documents, since they have suffered enormously from various forms of violations and impunity, imported as well as home-grown, for decades. An autonomous and effective human rights framework responsive to the multiple causes and consequences of impunity in this region must be built from the ground up in places like Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Tehran, Baghdad, and Algiers if international justice is to have local addresses in those countries where it is particularly needed. And at a time of wars without frontiers, reductionistic “us against them” ideologies, and discourses heralding noble crusades against evil, it is imperative that Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Israelis see themselves and others as human beings.

Given the dangers confronting all of us in a lethally armed and increasingly lawless world, it is not enough to laud international human rights once a year. It’s something we all have to live, personally and politically, 365 days a year.

1. See and Human Rights Day 2004.

Laurie King-Irani is a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada. She is working on a book entitled Universal Jurisdiction for Humanitarian Crimes: The Belgian Experiment.