Lessons from the Velvet Revolution

The 20th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was one of the most impressive civil insurrections in history. It was not the military might of NATO, but the power of nonviolent action by ordinary citizens which brought down the system. The popular uprising against the repressive system that had ruled their country for much of the previous four decades — along with comparable movements, which came to the fore that year in Poland, Hungary and East Germany — marks a great triumph of the human spirit.

These movements were largely led by democratic socialists who mobilized workers, church people, intellectuals, and others to face down the tanks with their bare hands. Yet here in the United States, we are told that it was a result of President Reagan’s militarism and the supposed inherent superiority of capitalism. It is this false narrative that has played such a major role in shifting discourse to the right in subsequent decades and has been used to discredit those struggling for a more just and egalitarian economic system and a more sane and less imperialistic foreign policy.

President Reagan’s verbal support for democracy had little credibility in many of these countries. For example, while he denounced Poland’s martial law regime, he was a strong supporter of the more repressive martial law regime then in power in NATO ally Turkey and scores of other dictatorships. In challenging left-wing governments in the Third World, Reagan gave little credence to nonviolent action and instead backed insurgents with ties to U.S.-backed dictatorships and — in the case of Afghanistan — even Islamic fundamentalists.

While Reagan was certainly capable of inspirational leadership and personal charm, to claim that he is responsible for the downfall of Communism and the end of the Cold War is a disservice to the millions of Eastern Europeans and others who struggled against great odds for their freedom. For it was not American militarism, but massive nonviolent action — including strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, and other forms of noncooperation — which finally brought down these Communist regimes. Indeed, the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia and the Solidarity movement in Poland emerged during the period of U.S.-Soviet détente prior to Reagan taking office.

It is very much in the interest of those in the foreign policy establishment to downplay the role of ordinary citizens making revolutionary change. The overthrow of the Soviet-styled Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were part of the pro-democracy movements that were also then sweeping Latin America and parts of Africa and Asia during this same period. Nonviolent “people power” movements similar to those in Eastern Europe were then bringing down a series of U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Philippines, Chile, Bolivia, Haiti, Mali, and elsewhere. In more recent years, such nonviolent pro-democracy struggles have triumphed in Indonesia, Serbia, the Maldives, Ukraine, Nepal, and other countries.

As with these other successful nonviolent revolutions, the Eastern European struggles were for freedom, not capitalism. While the post-Communist Polish government forced adoption of neo-liberal shock therapy, Solidarity’s original manifesto called for worker control of industry, a far more authentic version of socialism than the bureaucratic authoritarianism of the supposed “worker’s state” that resulted. The leading dissidents in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary also came out of the democratic left.

For this reason, there was little support in Washington for the bearded counter-culture dissidents of Eastern Europe, whose Western mentors were more likely to be John Lennon and Frank Zappa than Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Following a meeting with leading Hungarian dissidents in July of 1989, President George H.W. Bush told his aides, “There really aren’t the right guys to be running the place.” Rather than back the socialist intellectuals of Poland’s Workers’ Defense Committee and other pro-Solidarity groups, Bush encouraged Wojciech Jaruzelski — the general who had seized power in the 1981 coup, declared martial law, banned Solidarity and jailed hundreds of leading dissidents — to run for president in the semi-free 1989 elections, all in the interest of “stability.”

Rather than being inspired by Reagan’s call to “tear down that wall” or a desire to emulate Western-style consumerism, the weakness of the Soviet-style system itself accelerated its demise. A centralized command economy can have its advantages at a certain phase of industrialization, when large “smokestack industries” — from machine tools to tanks — dominate manufacturing. Such a system, for a time, made the Soviets a formidable military power, but was totally incapable of satisfying consumer demand. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s famous line in the late 1950s that “we will bury you” was not a threat of war, but a reflection that — over the past few decades up to that time — the Soviet economy was growing faster than its Western capitalist counterparts and was projected to surpass that of the West within a couple of decades.

However, as the new wave of industrialization based upon information technologies took off, the economy of the Eastern Bloc stagnated. Totalitarian systems cannot survive without being able to control access to information, with serious cracks in the system becoming apparent as early as the 1970s. The only nominally communist governments that still exist are those like China and Vietnam, whose economies have largely gone capitalist, and Cuba, which has decentralized and democratized segments of its economy.

Even these inherent weaknesses of their system would not have been enough to have caused them to collapse, however. They needed to be pushed. It took the general strikes, the popular contestation of public space, and other forms of massive non-cooperation to make these countries fundamentally ungovernable and force the regimes to their knees.

Nor were Reagan’s military buildup and bellicose threats against the Soviets a factor. Indeed, such threats may have allowed these regimes to hold on to power even longer as people rallied to support the government in the face of the perceived external threat from the U.S. High Soviet military spending, in part as a reaction to the American military buildup which began in the latter half of the Carter Administration, certainly hurt their economy, as it did (and is still doing) ours. This was, however, a minor factor at most.

Indeed, none of the extensive archival evidence that has emerged in the past 20 years gives any indication that the United States can take any credit (or blame) for the events of 1989. As Timothy Garton Ash, the most respected Western chronicler of that period notes, “the United States’ contribution lay mainly in what it did not do.”

Instead of using the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall as a rationalization for global capitalism, the supposed triumph of the neo-liberal Washington consensus, and a celebration of Cold War militarism, the real lesson from that autumn is that civil society utilizing mass strategic nonviolent action has the power to bring down an oppressive hegemonic order.

Perhaps this is something that needs to be emulated here as well.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-zunes/lessons-from-the-velvet-r_b_366054.html

The Power of Nonviolent Action in Honduras

The decision by Honduran coup leader Roberto Micheletti to renege on his October 30 agreement to allow democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya to return to power was a severe blow to pro-democracy forces who have been struggling against the illegitimate regime since it seized power four months ago. The disappointment has been compounded by the Obama administration’s apparent willingness—in a break with Latin American leaders and much of the rest of the international community—to recognize the forthcoming presidential elections being held under the de facto government’s repressive rule.

Still, there are reasons to hope that democracy can be restored to this Central American nation.

The primary reason the de facto government was willing to negotiate at all was the ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign by Honduran pro-democracy forces. The role of popular nonviolent action has not been as massive, dramatic, or strategically sophisticated as the movements that have overthrown some other autocratic regimes in recent decades. There were no scenes of hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets and completely shutting down state functions, as there were in the people power movements that brought down Marcos in the Philippines or Milosevic in Serbia.

Nevertheless, the nonviolent struggle has been of critical importance.

The sustained nonviolent resistance movement has prevented the provisional government, which was formed after the June 28 coup, from establishing a sense of normalcy. What the movement has lacked in well-organized, strategic focus, has been made up for with feisty and determined acts of resistance that have forced the provisional government into clumsy but ultimately futile efforts at repression—exposing the pretense of the junta’s supposed good intentions.

Sometimes a resistance movement just has to stay alive to make its point. Day after day, thousands of Hondurans from all walks of life have gathered in the streets of Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, demanding the restoration of their democratically-elected government. Every day they have been met by tear gas and truncheons. Over a dozen pro-democracy activists were murdered, but rather than let these assassinations frighten people into submission, the opposition turned the martyrs’ funerals into political rallies. Their persistence gradually has torn away the outlaw regime’s claims of legitimacy. Rather than establishing themselves as a legitimate government, de facto president Micheletti and his allied military officers have been made to look like little more than a gang of thugs who took over an Old West town and threw out the sheriff.

Since the return of the exiled President Zelaya to Tegucigalpa (he successfully sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy), the pro-democracy movement has surged. Micheletti and his henchman initially panicked—suspending basic civil liberties, shutting down opposition radio and television stations, and declaring a 24-hour curfew. This disruption caused the business community’s support for the de facto government to wane; the Obama State Department, which had been somewhat timid in pressing the junta up to that point, began to push harder for a deal.

It has been a great credit to the pro-democracy forces that, save for occasional small-scale rioting, the movement has largely maintained its nonviolent discipline. It would have been easy to launch a guerrilla war. Much of Honduras consists of farming and ranching country where many people own guns. The neighboring countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have experienced bloody revolutionary struggles in recent decades. Yet, despite serious provocations by police and soldiers loyal to the provisional government, the movement has recognized that armed resistance would have been utterly futile and counter-productive. Indeed, they recognize that their greatest strength is in maintaining their commitment to nonviolence.

Those who have engaged in these courageous acts of resistance will feel betrayed, however, if the Obama administration is indeed ready to defy the international community by allowing Micheletti to stay in office and to recognize the results of an election held under such repressive conditions. The United States does have the power to force the illegitimate regime out and to facilitate the return of the country’s democratically-elected president to power if the Obama administration chose to use it. Indeed, there are few countries in the world as dependent on trade with the United States as Honduras.

As for those of us in the United States, it is not enough to cheer from the sidelines at courageous acts of nonviolent action by the people of Honduras. We must be willing to challenge our own government—through engaging in nonviolent direct action ourselves, if necessary—to support democracy in Honduras.

However, even if the Obama administration refuses to take a more responsible position and the coup is allowed to stand, the struggle will not have been for naught.

The Honduran opposition movement consists of a hodgepodge of trade unionists, campensinos from the countryside, Afro-Hondurans, teachers, feminists, students, and others who, along with insisting on the right of their elected president to return to office, are determined to build a more just society. Prior to the coup this summer, there had never been a national mobilization in Honduras lasting for more than a week, much less four months. The protracted struggle against Micheletti may have served as a vaccination: Popular forces may now have developed the antibodies to engage in a sustained struggle for social justice, deepening the capacity for radical change in a society that has a rather weak tradition of social movements relative to much of the rest of Latin America.

Regardless of who occupies the Honduran presidential palace, there is a critical need to replace the old constitution, imposed by the outgoing military junta in 1981, which minimizes the participation of ordinary citizens in political decisions and effectively suppresses popular social movements. It must be replaced by one in which members of the country’s poor majority will have more of a say in determining their future. It was the movement for a popular, non-binding referendum to gauge support for a Constitutional convention that prompted the coup last June.

This struggle may be only the first chapter of an important and prolonged struggle for justice in one of Latin America’s poorest and most inequitable countries. It is important that the people of North America become engaged as active allies.

http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/the-power-of-nonviolent-action-in-honduras/

Republicans and Democrats Come Together to Launch Unprecedented Attack on International Law

In a stunning blow against international law and human rights, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution on Tuesday attacking the report of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict. The report was authored by the well-respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone and three other noted authorities on international humanitarian law, who had been widely praised for taking leadership in previous investigations of war crimes in Rwanda, Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Since this report documented apparent war crimes by a key U.S. ally, however, Congress has taken the unprecedented action of passing a resolution condemning it. Perhaps most ominously, the resolution also endorses Israel’s right to attack Syria and Iran on the grounds that they are “state sponsors of terrorism.”

The principal co-sponsors of the resolution (HR 867), which passed on a 344-36 vote, included two powerful Democrats: House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY). Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) successfully pushed Democrats to support the resolution by a more than 6:1 margin, despite the risk of alienating the party’s liberal pro-human rights base less than a year before critical midterm elections.

The resolution opens with a series of clauses criticizing the original mandate of the UN Human Rights Council, which called for an investigation of possible Israeli war crimes only. This argument is completely moot, however, since Goldstone and his colleagues — to their credit — refused to accept the offer to serve on the mission unless its mandate was changed to one that would investigate possible war crimes by both sides in the conflict.

As a result, the mandate of the mission was thereby broadened. The House resolution doesn’t mention this, however, and instead implies that the original mandate remained the basis of the report. In reality, even though the report contained over 70 pages detailing a series of violations of the laws of war by Hamas, including rocket attacks into civilian-populated areas of Israel, torture of Palestinian opponents, and the continued holding of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, there is no acknowledgement in the 1,600-word resolution that the initial mandate had been superseded or that the report criticizes the conduct of both sides. In fact, despite the report’s extensive documentation of Hamas assaults on Israeli towns — which it determined constituted war crimes and possible “crimes against humanity” — the resolution insists that the mission’s study “makes no mention of the relentless rocket and mortar attacks.”

The Goldstone mission report — totaling 575 pages — contains detailed accounts of deadly Israeli attacks against schools, mosques, private homes, and businesses nowhere near legitimate military targets, which they accurately described as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” In particular, the report cites 11 incidents in which Israeli armed forces engaged in direct attacks against civilians, including cases where people were shot “while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags.” The House resolution, however, claims that such charges of deliberate Israeli attacks against civilian areas were “sweeping and unsubstantiated.”

Both the report’s conclusions and most of the particular incidents cited have been independently documented in detailed empirical investigations released in recent months by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, among others. Congressional attacks against the integrity of the Goldstone report, therefore, constitute attacks against the integrity of these reputable human rights groups as well.

Equating Killing Civilians with Self-Defense

In an apparent effort to further discredit the human rights community, the resolution goes on to claim that the report denies Israel’s right to self defense, even though there was absolutely nothing in the report that questioned Israel’s right to use military force. It simply insists that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have the right to attack civilians.

The resolution resolves that the report is “irredeemably biased” against Israel, an ironic charge given that Justice Goldstone, the report’s principal author and defender, is Jewish, a longtime supporter of Israel, chair of Friends of Hebrew University, president emeritus of the World ORT Jewish school system, and the father of an Israeli citizen.

Goldstone was also a leading opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa and served as Nelson Mandela’s first appointee to the country’s post-apartheid Supreme Court. He was a principal prosecutor in the war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, took a leading role in investigations into corruption in the UN’s “Oil for Food” program in Iraq, and was also part of investigations into Argentina’s complicity in provided sanctuary for Nazi war criminals.

Having 80% of the U.S. House of Representatives go on record attacking the integrity of one of the world’s most respected and principled defenders of human rights is indicative of just how far to the right the U.S. Congress has now become, even under Democratic leadership. Indeed, if Goldstone can be criticized for being biased, no one can escape such a charge. In doing so, Congress has served notice to the human rights community that they won’t consider any human rights defenders credible if they dare raise questions about the conduct of a U.S. ally. This may actually be the underlying purpose of the resolution: to jettison any consideration of international humanitarian law from policy debates in Washington. The cost, however, will likely be to further isolate the United States from the rest of the world, just as Obama was beginning to rebuild the trust of other nations.

Indeed, the resolution calls on the Obama administration not only “to oppose unequivocally any endorsement” of the report, but to even oppose unequivocally any “further consideration” of the report in international fora. Instead of debating its merits, therefore, Congress has decided to instead pre-judge its contents and disregard the actual evidence put forward. (It’s doubtful that any of the supporters of the resolution even bothered actually reading the report.)

The resolution even goes so far as to claim that Goldstone’s report is part of an effort “to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel and deny it the right to defend its citizens and its existence can be used to delegitimize other democracies and deny them the same right.” This is demagoguery at its most extreme. In insisting that documenting a given country’s war crimes is tantamount to denying that country’s right to exist and its right to self defense, the resolution is clearly aimed at silencing defenders of international humanitarian law. The fact that the majority of Democrats voted in favor of this resolution underscores that both parties now effectively embrace the neoconservative agenda to delegitimize any serious discussion of international humanitarian law, in relation to conduct by the United States and its allies.

License for War?

Having failed in their efforts to convince Washington to launch a war against Syria and Iran, neoconservatives and other hawks in Washington have now successfully mobilized a large bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives to encourage Israel to act as a U.S. surrogate: Following earlier clauses that define Israel’s massive military assault on the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip as a legitimate defense of its citizens and that make the exaggerated assertion that Iran and Syria are “sponsors” of Hamas, the final clause in the resolution puts Congress on record supporting “Israel’s right to defend its citizens from violent militant groups and their state sponsors” (emphasis added). This broad bipartisan congressional mandate for a unilateral Israeli attack on Syria and Iran is extremely dangerous, and appears designed to undercut the Obama administration’s efforts to pursue a negotiated path to settling differences with these countries.

Misleading Accusations

There are other clauses in the resolution that take quotes out of context and engage in other misrepresentations to make the case that Goldstone and his colleagues are “irredeemably biased.”

One clause in the resolution attacks the credibility of mission member Christine Chinkin, an internationally respected British scholar of international law, feminist jurisprudence, alternative dispute resolution, and human rights. The resolution questions her objectivity by claiming that “before joining the mission, [she] had already declared Israel guilty of committing atrocities in Operation Cast Lead by signing a public letter on January 11, 2009, published in the Sunday Times, that called Israel’s actions ‘war crimes.'” In reality, the letter did not actually accuse Israel of “atrocities,” but simply noted that Israel’s attacks against the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip were “not commensurate to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire.” The letter also noted that “the blockade of humanitarian relief, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and preventing access to basic necessities such as food and fuel, are prima facie war crimes.” In short, it was a preliminary assessment rather than a case of having “already declared Israel guilty,” as the resolution states.

Furthermore, at the time of the letter — written a full two weeks into the fighting — there had already been a series of preliminary reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting probable war crimes by Israeli armed forces, so virtually no one knowledgeable of international humanitarian law could have come to any other conclusion. As a result, Chinkin’s signing of the letter could hardly be considered the kind of ideologically motivated bias that should preclude her participation on an investigative body, particularly since that same letter unequivocally condemned Hamas rocket attacks as well.

The resolution also faults the report for having “repeatedly downplayed or cast doubt upon” claims that Hamas used “human shields” as an attempted deterrence to Israeli attacks. The reason the report challenged those assertions, however, was that there simply wasn’t any solid evidence to support such claims. Detailed investigations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regarding such accusations during and subsequent to the fighting also came to same conclusion. As with these previous investigations, the Goldstone report determined that there were occasions when Hamas hadn’t taken all necessary precautions to avoid placing civilians in harm’s way, but they found no evidence whatsoever that Hamas had consciously used civilians as shields at any point during the three-week conflict.

Despite this, the House resolution makes reference to a supposed “great body of evidence” that Hamas used human shields. The resolution fails to provide a single example to support this claim, however, other than a statement by one Hamas official, which the mission investigated and eventually concluded was without merit. I contacted the Washington offices of more than two dozen co-sponsors of the resolution, requesting such evidence, and none of them were able to provide any. It appears, then, that the sponsors of the resolution simply fabricated this charge in order to protect Israel from any moral or legal responsibilities for the more than 700 civilian deaths. (Interestingly, the report did find extensive evidence — as did Amnesty International — that the Israelis used Palestinians as human shields during their offensive. Israeli soldiers testifying at hearings held by a private group of Israeli soldiers and veterans confirmed a number of such episodes as well. This fact was conveniently left out of the resolution.)

In another example of misleading content, the resolution quotes Goldstone as saying, in relation to the mission’s investigation, “If this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven.” However, no such investigation carried out on behalf of the UNHRC has ever claimed to have obtained evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, the normal criterion for proof in a court of law. This does not, however, buttress the resolution’s insistence that the report was therefore “unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.” What the fact-finding mission did find was probable cause for criminal investigations into possible war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government. Another spurious claim of bias is the resolution’s assertion that “the report usually considered public statements made by Israeli officials not to be credible, while frequently giving uncritical credence to statements taken from what it called the `Gaza authorities’, i.e. the Gaza leadership of Hamas.” In reality, the report shows that the mission did investigate such statements and evaluated them based upon the evidence. The resolution also fails to mention that while Hamas officials were willing to meet with the mission, Israeli officials refused, even denying them entrance into Israel. The mission had to fly Israeli victims of Hamas attacks to Geneva at UN expense to interview them. The mission found these Israelis’ testimony credible, took them quite seriously, and incorporated them into their findings.

The resolution goes on to claim that the report’s observation that the Israeli government has “contributed significantly to a political climate in which dissent with the government and its actions . . . is not tolerated” was erroneous. In reality, it has been well-documented — and has been subjected to extensive debate within Israel — that the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has interrogated and harassed political activists as well as suppressed criticism and sources of potential criticism of actions by the Israeli military, particularly non-government organizations such as the dissident soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence.

No Accountability

The House resolution is particularly vehement in its opposition to the report’s recommendation that, should Hamas and Israeli authorities fail to engage in credible investigations and bring those responsible for war crimes to justice, the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution. The resolution insists this is unnecessary since Israel “has already launched numerous investigations.” However, Israeli human rights groups have repeatedly criticized their government’s refusal to launch any independent investigations and have documented how the Israeli government has refused to investigate testimonies by soldiers of war crimes. (At this point, the only indictments for misconduct by Israeli forces during the conflict have been against two soldiers who stole credit cards from a Palestinian home.)

The primary motivation for the resolution appears to have been to block any consideration of its recommendation that those guilty of war crimes be held accountable. Since the ICC has never indicted anyone from a country which had a fair and comprehensive internal investigation of war crimes and prosecuted those believed responsible, the goal of Congress appears to be that of protecting war criminals from prosecution.

As a result, the passage of this resolution isn’t simply about the alleged clout of AIPAC or just another example of longstanding congressional support for Israeli militarism. This resolution constitutes nothing less than a formal bipartisan rejection of international humanitarian law. U.S. support for human rights and international law has always been uneven, but never has Congress gone on record by such an overwhelming margin to discredit these universal principles so categorically. This is George W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy, which — through this resolution — the Democrats, no less than their Republican counterparts, have now eagerly embraced.

http://www.alternet.org/story/143752/republicans_and_democrats_come_together_to_launch_unprecedented_attack_on_international_law/?page=entire

Bipartisan Attack on International Humanitarian Law

In a stunning blow against international law and human rights, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a resolution on Tuesday attacking the report of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict. The report was authored by the well-respected South African jurist Richard Goldstone and three other noted authorities on international humanitarian law, who had been widely praised for taking leadership in previous investigations of war crimes in Rwanda, Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Since this report documented apparent war crimes by a key U.S. ally, however, Congress has taken the unprecedented action of passing a resolution condemning it. Perhaps most ominously, the resolution also endorses Israel’s right to attack Syria and Iran on the grounds that they are “state sponsors of terrorism.”

The principal co-sponsors of the resolution (HR 867), which passed on a 344-36 vote, included two powerful Democrats: House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) and Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY). Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) successfully pushed Democrats to support the resolution by a more than 6:1 margin, despite the risk of alienating the party’s liberal pro-human rights base less than a year before critical midterm elections.

The resolution opens with a series of clauses criticizing the original mandate of the UN Human Rights Council, which called for an investigation of possible Israeli war crimes only. This argument is completely moot, however, since Goldstone and his colleagues — to their credit — refused to accept the offer to serve on the mission unless its mandate was changed to one that would investigate possible war crimes by both sides in the conflict.

As a result, the mandate of the mission was thereby broadened. The House resolution doesn’t mention this, however, and instead implies that the original mandate remained the basis of the report. In reality, even though the report contained over 70 pages detailing a series of violations of the laws of war by Hamas, including rocket attacks into civilian-populated areas of Israel, torture of Palestinian opponents, and the continued holding of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, there’s no acknowledgement in the 1,600-word resolution that the initial mandate had been superseded or that the report criticizes the conduct of both sides. In fact, despite the report’s extensive documentation of Hamas assaults on Israeli towns — which it determined constituted war crimes and possible “crimes against humanity” — the resolution insists that it “makes no mention of the relentless rocket and mortar attacks.”

The Goldstone mission report — totaling 575 pages — contains detailed accounts of deadly Israeli attacks against schools, mosques, private homes, and businesses nowhere near legitimate military targets, which they accurately described as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” In particular, the report cites 11 incidents in which Israeli armed forces engaged in direct attacks against civilians, including cases where people were shot “while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags.” The House resolution, however, claims that such charges of deliberate Israeli attacks against civilian areas were “sweeping and unsubstantiated.”

Both the report’s conclusions and most of the particular incidents cited were independently documented in detailed empirical investigations released in recent months by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, among others. Congressional attacks against the integrity of the Goldstone report, therefore, constitute attacks against the integrity of these reputable human rights groups as well.

Equating Killing Civilians with Self-Defense

In an apparent effort to further discredit the human rights community, the resolution goes on to claim that the report denies Israel’s right to self defense, even though there was absolutely nothing in the report that questioned Israel’s right to use military force. It simply insists that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have the right to attack civilians.

The resolution resolves that the report is “irredeemably biased” against Israel, an ironic charge given that Justice Goldstone, the report’s principal author and defender, is Jewish, a longtime supporter of Israel, chair of Friends of Hebrew University, president emeritus of the World ORT Jewish school system, and the father of an Israeli citizen.

Goldstone was also a leading opponent of apartheid in his native South Africa and served as Nelson Mandela’s first appointee to the country’s post-apartheid Supreme Court. He was a principal prosecutor in the war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, took a leading role in investigations into corruption in the UN’s “Oil for Food” program in Iraq, and was also part of investigations into Argentina’s complicity in provided sanctuary for Nazi war criminals.

Having 80% of the U.S. House of Representatives go on record attacking the integrity of one of the world’s most respected and principled defenders of human rights is indicative of just how far to the right the U.S. Congress has now become, even under Democratic leadership. In doing so, Congress has served notice to the human rights community that they won’t consider any human rights defenders credible if they dare raise questions about the conduct of a U.S. ally. This may actually be the underlying purpose of the resolution: to jettison any consideration of international humanitarian law from policy debates in Washington. The cost, however, will likely be to further isolate the United States from the rest of the world, just as Obama was beginning to rebuild the trust of other nations.

Indeed, the resolution calls on the Obama administration not only “to oppose unequivocally any endorsement” of the report, but to even oppose unequivocally any “further consideration” of the report in international fora. Instead of debating its merits, therefore, Congress has decided to instead pre-judge its contents and disregard the actual evidence put forward. (It’s doubtful that any of the supporters of the resolution even bothered actually reading the report.) The resolution even goes so far as to claim that Goldstone’s report is part of an effort “to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel and deny it the right to defend its citizens and its existence can be used to delegitimize other democracies and deny them the same right.” This is demagoguery at its most extreme. In insisting that documenting a given country’s war crimes is tantamount to denying that country’s right to exist and its right to self defense, the resolution is clearly aimed at silencing defenders of international humanitarian law. The fact that the majority of Democrats voted in favor of this resolution underscores that both parties now effectively embrace the neoconservative agenda to delegitimize any serious discussion of international humanitarian law, in relation to conduct by the United States and its allies.

License for War?

Having failed in their efforts to convince Washington to launch a war against Syria and Iran, neoconservatives and other hawks in Washington have now successfully mobilized a large bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives to encourage Israel to act as a U.S. surrogate: Following earlier clauses that define Israel’s massive military assault on the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip as a legitimate defense of its citizens and make the exaggerated assertion that Iran and Syria are “sponsors” of Hamas, the final clause in the resolution puts Congress on record supporting “Israel’s right to defend its citizens from violent militant groups and their state sponsors” (emphasis added). This broad bipartisan congressional mandate for a unilateral Israeli attack on Syria and Iran is extremely dangerous, and appears designed to undercut the Obama administration’s efforts to pursue a negotiated path to settling differences with these countries.

Misleading Accusations

There are other clauses in the resolution that take quotes out of context and engage in other misrepresentations to make the case that Goldstone and his colleagues are “irredeemably biased.”

One clause in the resolution attacks the credibility of mission member Christine Chinkin, an internationally respected British scholar of international law, feminist jurisprudence, alternative dispute resolution, and human rights. The resolution questions her objectivity by claiming that “before joining the mission, [she] had already declared Israel guilty of committing atrocities in Operation Cast Lead by signing a public letter on January 11, 2009, published in the Sunday Times, that called Israel’s actions ‘war crimes.'” In reality, the letter didn’t accuse Israel of “atrocities,” but simply noted that Israel’s attacks against the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip were “not commensurate to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire.” The letter also noted that “the blockade of humanitarian relief, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and preventing access to basic necessities such as food and fuel, are prima facie war crimes.” In short, it was a preliminary assessment rather than a case of having “already declared Israel guilty,” as the resolution states.

Furthermore, at the time of the letter — written a full two weeks into the fighting — there had already been a series of preliminary reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting probable war crimes by Israeli armed forces, so virtually no one knowledgeable of international humanitarian law could have come to any other conclusion. As a result, Chinkin’s signing of the letter could hardly be considered the kind of ideologically motivated bias that should preclude her participation on an investigative body, particularly since that same letter unequivocally condemned Hamas rocket attacks as well.

The resolution also faults the report for having “repeatedly downplayed or cast doubt upon” claims that Hamas used “human shields” as an attempted deterrence to Israeli attacks. The reason the report challenged those assertions, however, was that there simply wasn’t any solid evidence to support such claims. Detailed investigations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch regarding such accusations during and subsequent to the fighting also came to same conclusion. As with these previous investigations, the Goldstone report determined that there were occasions when Hamas hadn’t taken all necessary precautions to avoid placing civilians in harm’s way, but they found no evidence whatsoever that Hamas had consciously used civilians as shields at any point during the three-week conflict.

Despite this, the House resolution makes reference to a supposed “great body of evidence” that Hamas used human shields. The resolution fails to provide a single example to support this claim, however, other than a statement by one Hamas official, which the mission investigated and eventually concluded was without merit. I contacted the Washington offices of more than two dozen co-sponsors of the resolution, requesting such evidence, and none of them were able to provide any. It appears, then, that the sponsors of the resolution simply fabricated this charge in order to protect Israel from any moral or legal responsibilities for the more than 700 civilian deaths. (Interestingly, the report did find extensive evidence — as did Amnesty International — that the Israelis used Palestinians as human shields during their offensive. Israeli soldiers testifying at hearings held by a private group of Israeli soldiers and veterans confirmed a number of such episodes as well. This fact was conveniently left out of the resolution.)

In another example of misleading content, the resolution quotes Goldstone as saying, in relation to the mission’s investigation, “If this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven.” However, no such investigation carried out on behalf of the UNHRC has ever claimed to have obtained evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, the normal criterion for proof in a court of law. This does not, however, buttress the resolution’s insistence that the report was therefore “unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy.” What the fact-finding mission did find was probable cause for criminal investigations into possible war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government. Another spurious claim of bias is the resolution’s assertion that “the report usually considered public statements made by Israeli officials not to be credible, while frequently giving uncritical credence to statements taken from what it called the `Gaza authorities’, i.e. the Gaza leadership of Hamas.” In reality, the report shows that the mission did investigate such statements and evaluated them based upon the evidence. The resolution also fails to mention that while Hamas officials were willing to meet with the mission, Israeli officials refused, even denying them entrance into Israel. The mission had to fly Israeli victims of Hamas attacks to Geneva at UN expense to interview them. The mission found these Israelis’ testimony credible, took them quite seriously, and incorporated them into their findings.

The resolution goes on to claim that the report’s observation that the Israeli government has “contributed significantly to a political climate in which dissent with the government and its actions . . . is not tolerated” was erroneous. In reality, it has been well-documented — and has been subjected to extensive debate within Israel — that the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has interrogated and harassed political activists as well as suppressed criticism and sources of potential criticism of actions by the Israeli military, particularly non-government organizations such as the dissident soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence.

No Accountability

The House resolution is particularly vehement in its opposition to the report’s recommendation that, should Hamas and Israeli authorities fail to engage in credible investigations and bring those responsible for war crimes to justice, the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution. The resolution insists this is unnecessary since Israel “has already launched numerous investigations.” However, Israeli human rights groups have repeatedly criticized their government’s refusal to launch any independent investigations and have documented how the Israeli government has refused to investigate testimonies by soldiers of war crimes. (At this point, the only indictments for misconduct by Israeli forces during the conflict have been against two soldiers who stole credit cards from a Palestinian home.)

The primary motivation for the resolution appears to have been to block any consideration of its recommendation that those guilty of war crimes be held accountable. Since the ICC has never indicted anyone from a country which had a fair and comprehensive internal investigation of war crimes and prosecuted those believed responsible, the goal of Congress appears to be that of protecting war criminals from prosecution.

As a result, the passage of this resolution isn’t simply about the alleged clout of AIPAC or just another example of longstanding congressional support for Israeli militarism. This resolution constitutes nothing less than a formal bipartisan rejection of international humanitarian law. U.S. support for human rights and international law has always been uneven, but never has Congress gone on record by such an overwhelming margin to discredit these universal principles so categorically. This is George W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy, which — through this resolution — the Democrats, no less than their Republican counterparts, have now eagerly embraced.

http://www.fpif.org/articles/bipartisan_attack_on_international_humanitarian_law