Mitchell Report on Israeli-Palestinian Violence Flawed

The report on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the commission led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell is a failed effort–not for what it includes but for what it does not include.

The report’s recognition that the Palestinian Authority needs to do more to curb violence from the Palestinian side and the call for Israel to end its widespread use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators is self-evident. Yet its failure to call for an international protection force underscores the commission’s unwillingness to support the decisive steps necessary to actually curb further bloodshed.

The report correctly recognizes that the violence was not solely a result of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Islamic holy site of Haram al-Sharif in occupied East Jerusalem last fall and that it part of a preconceived plan by the Palestinians to launch a violent struggle. It recognizes that the root of the uprising was in Palestinian frustrations in the peace process to get their land back, fueled by unnecessarily violent responses by both sides in the early hours and days of the fighting. However, the report refuses to call for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, which Israel is required to do under UN Security Council resolution 242 and 338, long considered by the United States and the international community as the basis for peace.

Another problem is that the report calls simply for a freeze on Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories. In reality, Israel is required to withdraw from those settlements altogether. According to Article 40 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer its civilian population onto territory seized by military force. UN Security Council resolutions 446 and 465, adopted unanimously with U.S. support, call on Israel to withdraw from these settlements. As long as the settlements remain as part of Israeli territory, any hope of establishing a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank or including Arab East Jerusalem as part of that state becomes impossible.

How the violence will end without some promise of the Palestinians being able to reclaim their land seized by Israel in 1967 is hard to fathom. Though the report’s criticisms of the Palestinian side were well-founded, and in some respects could have been even stronger, the effort to be balanced fails to recognized the unbalanced nature of a conflict between an occupied people and their occupiers. While a balanced perspective which recognizes that both Israelis and Palestinians have the fundamental right to live in peace and security is critical, it is wrong to blame the Palestinians equally to the Israelis when it is their land that is being occupied, confiscated and colonized and it is their people who are being denied their fundamental right of national self-determination.

Indeed, this would be like having a “balanced” report blaming both Iraq and Kuwait during Kuwait’s six months under Iraqi control or such a report blaming both Indonesia and East Timor during that island nation’s 24-year occupation. For whatever the many faults of the Arafat’s corrupt and autocratic Palestinian Authority, their positions on the outstanding issues of the conflict—settlements, withdrawal from occupied lands, sharing Jerusalem and the return of refugees—are far more consistent with international law, UN Security Council resolutions and the consensus of the international community than are the U.S. or Israeli positions.

In many respects, the mission was flawed from the beginning. Its members were appointed by the United States, which has been the major financial, military and diplomatic supporter of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. A truly international committee chosen by the UN Secretary General or other international leader would have undoubtedly had more credibility, but the U.S. opposed it.

Another problem was the naming of two former U.S. Senators, George Mitchell (who headed the panel) and Warren Rudman, both of whom were strong supporters of Israel’s occupation policies while in the Senate, where they supported billions of dollars worth of economic and military aid to Israeli occupation forces. They also opposed Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. Neither senator demonstrated a strong record in support of human rights and international law in the Middle East or elsewhere, which would seem to be a fundamental requisite for membership in such a commission.

Such concerns may be moot, however. Despite the bias in the report in its favor, Israel has already rejected some of the key findings as well as rejecting Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat’s call for a summit based on the committee’s findings. The Bush administration appears unwilling to push Israel to comply with the committee’s recommendations, making even these modest efforts a wasted exercise.

U.S. Arrogance on Display in UN Human Rights Commission Flap

The decision by the U.S. Congress to withhold $244 million in dues owed to the United Nations only builds upon the growing global perception of U.S. arrogance. In recent days, both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have placed themselves to the right of even the Bush administration in their sharp anti-UN rhetoric.

The reason for the congressional displeasure is the recent vote of the UN Human Rights Commission in which three European countries were elected to the three slots reserved for Western industrialized nations. It is the first time since the commission’s founding in 1947 that the United States was not elected. Despite some reports to the contrary, countries like China, Libya, and Sudan did not defeat the United States in a head-to-head context. Each country is elected by region. Our allies, therefore, were largely responsible for the U.S. defeat.

Congress has determined that the U.S. won’t pay its back dues until the U.S. is voted back on the commission. This constitutes a dangerous precedent. Countries in the world are voted on and off various UN agencies and commissions with regularity, yet this is the first time a country has withheld funds because it lost a vote. Countries are obliged to pay their UN dues regardless of whether a particular vote goes their way. If every country withheld its dues because of the irritation of losing a vote on a particular agency or commission, virtually all funding for the world body would cease.

In the end, the result of this recent UN-U.S. flap may simply be to confirm that the U.S. is playing the role of the bully, determined to punish those who won’t let Washington get its own way. What most Americans do not realize, however, is that most human rights advocates–while disturbed by the election of some serious human rights abusers to the commission–are quietly pleased by the vote tally. It is widely seen as payback for years of U.S. abuse of the commission and a longstanding display of arrogance in international forums. For over fifty years, the United States has used the Human Rights Commission to advance its ideological agenda, attacking the human rights record of countries America did not like while defending and covering for regimes with as bad or even worse records, that happened to be seen as strategic or economic allies.

Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the U.S. has sent more weapons to oppressive police and militaries around the globe than any other nation. The list of dictatorial client-states supported by the U.S. is a veritable rogues’ gallery of the most serious human rights violators on the planet: Suharto of Indonesia, Mobutu of Zaire, the Shah of Iran, Park of South Korea, Marcos of the Philippines, Pinochet of Chile, and literally dozens of others.

To this day, the U.S. arms and trains Colombian armed forces closely linked to right-wing paramilitary organizations engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses. The School of the Americas at Fort Benning–despite recently being renamed–continues to train some of the worst human rights abusers in the hemisphere. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, billions of dollars worth of arms flow to the misogynist family dictatorships of the Arab Gulf while Israeli occupation forces use American weapons to rain death upon protesting Palestinian children.

As recently as two months ago, the U.S. cast the sole dissenting vote against a UN Security Council resolution to send unarmed human rights monitors to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Despite strong backing by reputable human rights groups from around the world, the resolution was defeated–even congressional Democrats rallied around the Bush administration in support of America’s veto.

Unfortunately, that vote on human rights monitors was not the first time the U.S. has used its veto power to shield allies from criticism at the United Nations. Nor is the Human Rights Commission the only forum where the U.S. has stood out for its opposition to basic human rights: The U.S. is one of the few countries to oppose the international treaty to ban land mines, which, if enacted, would save thousands of children from death and maiming every year. It is the only country in the world besides Somalia–which hasn’t even had a government for years–to refuse to sign an international convention against the use of child soldiers.

As if to underscore its contempt for the UN’s human rights efforts, the Bush administration nominated John Negroponte as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. As ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s, Negroponte covered up widespread human rights abuses by Honduran army units trained and organized by the CIA, and withheld from Congress evidence of large-scale human rights violations by the U.S.-backed government.

Negroponte’s predecessor in the Clinton administration, Richard Holbrooke, was the key figure in the Carter State Department in ordering the release of South Korean troops under U.S. command to repress–and massacre–pro-democracy demonstrators in Kwanju in 1980. Holbrooke also played a major role in the U.S. support for Indonesia’s brutal invasion of East Timor, which caused the deaths of upwards of 200,000 civilians; in congressional testimony, he denied reports by human rights groups that the mass killings were even taking place.

It is not just in the human rights arena that the United States has alienated the international community. The U.S. has refused to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and has backed away from its commitments under the Kyoto emission control standards that are trying to mitigate the effects of global warming. The Bush administration has vowed to rescind participation in the SALT I Treaty, long considered the cornerstone of nuclear arms control. The U.S. is virtually alone in opposing making cheaper generic AIDS drugs available to the world’s poor. As recently as last week, the U.S. refused to support the nearly universally supported tougher standards to crack down on international havens for tax avoidance by the super-wealthy.

In effect, the chickens have come home to roost. The withholding of UN dues will only make the U.S. less credible and effective in the international community.