Last month, the State Department held a town hall for Human Rights Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the event, Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs P.J. Crowley, Legal Adviser Harold Koh, and Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner took questions from the audience and shared their thoughts on the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy.
Given that the United States provides Israel with nearly unconditional diplomatic support and military aid to sustain its illegal 43-year military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip and to commit systematic human rights abuses while doing so, I asked the panelists if the State Department holds Israel to a lower standard of account on human rights than other countries, and if Palestinians were entitled to equal human rights.
Posner responded unambiguously that there is a "single universal standard that applies to every country, including our own. We apply it to Israelis." He also affirmed that the State Department views "Palestinians as being human beings under the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] and entitled to these rights."
If the United States actually were to take these twin principles--Israel's accountability to universal human rights standards and Palestinian rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--as the basis for a revamped strategy to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, then it would face greater odds of success than its current strategy of sublimating Israeli accountability and Palestinian rights to the demands of a fruitless "peace process."
Unfortunately Posner's principled remarks bear no relation whatsoever toward actual U.S. policy on Israel/Palestine, which in numerous ways shields Israel from accountability for its human rights abuses and attempts to negate for Palestinians their universal human rights.
For example, when the UN General Assembly in 2003 requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of Israel's construction of a wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the United States submitted a 112-page brief to the court arguing that an assessment of Israel's accountability to international legal standards "risks undermining the peace process and politicizing the Court." After the ICJ ruled Israel's wall to be illegal and that all countries had the obligation not to "render aid or assistance" to maintain the wall, in 2005 the United States gave $50 million earmarked for Palestinian economic aid to Israel to build high-tech, permanent terminals into this separation barrier to better crack down on Palestinians' freedom of movement.
More recently, the Obama Administration has worked actively to scuttle the international community from taking any action to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses, as documented by special missions established by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 ("Operation Cast Lead") and its May 2010 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.
In response to the Goldstone Report, which meticulously documented in 575 pages violations of human rights and international law, war crimes, and possible crimes against humanity committed by both Israel and Palestinian militant groups before, during, and after "Cast Lead," Ambassador Susan Rice, Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations, characterized the report as "unbalanced, one sided and basically unacceptable." Crowley urged that the "report should not be used as a mechanism to add impediments to getting back to the peace process," as if holding human rights abusers accountable and establishing peace are mutually exclusive affairs. A State Department cable released by WikiLeaks shows Israeli and U.S. officials colluding to "deflect any further damage from the report."
Similar responses characterized U.S. efforts to shield Israel from accountability for attacking a U.S.-flagged ship in international waters and killing a U.S. citizen, Furkan Dogan, during its assault on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. The Human Rights Council fact-finding mission documented in chilling detail that "a series of violations of international law, including international humanitarian and human rights law, were committed by the Israeli forces during the interception of the flotilla," including extrajudicial assassinations and torture.
Nor has the United States actively supported Palestinian human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To the contrary, its diplomatic and military support-as well official U.S. policy statements-make the United States complicit in Israel's systematic human rights abuses of Palestinians.
For example, according to the Israeli human rights organization B'tselem, Israel has killed more than 3,000 Palestinians-often with U.S. weapons-who took no part in hostilities over the past decade, thus violating Article 3, which states "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Israel's hundreds of barriers, checkpoints, fences, and walls in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, patrolled by Israeli soldiers with U.S. rifles, ammunition, and vehicles, violate Article 13(1): "Everyone has the right to freedom of movement." Repeated statements by the United States supporting Israel's contention that Palestinian refugees will not be allowed to return to their homes violate Article 13(2), which establishes that "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." Finally, the United States-despite Crowley being asked three times about the case at daily press briefings-has not issued one word of public condemnation of Israel's arrest of nonviolent Palestinian activist Abdallah Abu Rahmah, whose imprisonment for advocacy on behalf of Palestinian human rights violates Article 19, which holds that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression."
Indeed, it could be argued that Israel's apartheid rule over Palestinians-whether they live under Israeli military occupation, as second-class citizens of Israel, or as refugees-violates in some fashion each of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While Posner's remarks about Israeli accountability and Palestinian rights are welcome developments, much work remains to be done to align U.S. policy with the sentiments expressed on Human Rights Day.
Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of more than 325 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality. He is a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service.