As a privileged young Israeli, Mordechai Vanunu took a risk and exposed Israel for operating an illegal nuclear weapons programme. While the rest of the world sought to reduce its weapons of mass destruction, Israel was evidently busy stockpiling them. After being illegally abducted from Italy, Vanunu served a sentence of 18 years imprisonment, 12 years of which were in solitary confinement. Now freed by the Israeli government, he leaves behind concrete walls, but will be thrown into a bureaucratic “prison” that denies him basic human rights like freedom of expression and freedom of movement. Is this the democratic country in the Middle East that according to its government respects rule of law?
Vanunu hardly fits the description most people, including the present authors, would attribute to a “hero”. However, whatever one might think about him, this does not excuse the fact that most of the years he spent in prison were in solitary confinement, which has repeatedly been identified as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by the United Nations. Vanunu himself described his experience as “cruel and barbaric treatment”.
In South Africa in the eighties, the Apartheid regime systematically tried to silence people who spoke out openly against Apartheid through banning orders. For instance, human rights activist Beyers Naudé was confronted with banning orders for many years which forbade him to leave his house without permission; he was not allowed to meet with more than one person at the same time and his telephone was tapped by the security service. The behaviour of Israel is very similar to the behaviour of the Apartheid regime, by prohibiting Vanunu to leave the country, to move house, by insisting that he stay away from airports and harbours, and effectively “gagging” him from speaking more about Israel’s nuclear programme. It is highly doubtful in any event whether he has anything more to say on this subject than what was reported in The Times newspaper in 1986.
Israel wants to make an example of Vanunu, hoping to ensure there will be no more unwelcome attention to its extensive nuclear weapons programme. They seem to have succeeded in the case of the mysterious American arms dealer Richard Smyth, who quietly disappeared from public attention after it emerged that he was illegally smuggling nuclear weapons technology to Israel. However, it won’t succeed with Vanunu, since his case has already received considerable media attention. It will, of course, be virtually impossible to stop the mouths of human rights and peace activists all over the world already informed of what Vanunu has disclosed.
While hardly comparable to the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian activists (who they seem intent on eliminating), the restrictions imposed on Vanunu can nevertheless be added to the Israeli government’s long list of human rights violations. These include targeted assassinations, destruction of homes, construction of barriers and blanket denials of basic human rights, mainly towards Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Israel’s policy creeps ever closer to resembling that of notorious regimes that routinely denied people their rights in a misguided attempt to oppress their enemies.
The Sharon regime must ultimately learn, just as the Apartheid regime in South Africa did, that one cannot kill the aspirations of an oppressed people (Israelis and Palestinians alike) simply by persecuting and killing those who espouse them.
The writers are both human rights advocates, based in The Netherlands.