Israel’s War on Gaza Undermines the Human Rights Agenda in the Arab Region

18 November 2023
Israel’s War on Gaza Undermines the Human Rights Agenda in the Arab Region

Israel’s War on Gaza Undermines the Human Rights Agenda in the Arab Region

The Institute for Middle East Understanding

By Ammar Dwaik

As a human rights defender and someone who has worked in this field for many years, I, like many others, especially in the Arab region, feel a great frustration due to the incapacity and failure of the human rights system, the international humanitarian law framework, and also the international relief system to offer anything to the residents of the Gaza Strip. However, my greatest fear is that what is happening in Gaza will have profound and long-lasting negative effects on the agenda of promoting and protecting human rights in the Arab region and beyond.

“I will not accept any Western official coming to me to talk about the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women agreement or to push for the enactment the family protection law.” This is what a senior Palestinian official has recently told me, pointing to the international community’s failure to protect the around 3000 women who were slaughtered in Gaza.

What the Palestinian official spoke about is widely echoed in Arab popular and official circles. The human rights system has exposed its impotence if not hypocrisy. The Arab media is focusing heavily on this subject, which is an opportunity for many regimes that view human rights with a lot of suspicion to weaken this system and pave the way for delegitimizing it altogether. Since the beginning of the war, I have conducted dozens of interviews on Arab and local media outlets, and there are constant questions that keep recurring: Where is the international law, why aren’t the tools of international law being mobilized as they were in Ukraine, and what have human rights organizations done to stop the war?

Arab citizens and governments watch the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continuously insulted by Israel. They witness how Israel has bombed more than 45 schools belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), how an ICRC convoy was bombed by Israel on November 7, and how more than 100 UNRWA employees were killed, without receiving responses commensurate with these crimes. Many wonder, if what is happening in Gaza were to occur in any other country in the world, how would the world respond to the humiliation of these international institutions? What would be the response of the Swiss government, which suspended funding for 11 Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations in the first week of the war, if a country other than Israel bombed vehicles of the ICRC?

Many human rights defenders in the Arab region have expressed their disappointment with the positions and actions of some European countries, and with the positions of the High Commissioner for Human Rights who acted late, inadequately, and in a manner disproportionate to the severity of the crimes committed, at least during the first three weeks of the war. Some defenders, writing on their social media pages, have declared their disillusionment with the human rights system, and some have gone as far as resigning, like the director of the High Commissioner’s office in New York, Craig Mokhiber.

As a human rights defender, I fully believe in the standards and rules of international humanitarian law and international human rights law as supreme global values. However, what I see in terms of selectivity, double standards, and politicization of the system makes me question the universality of this system, and the utility of engaging with all the mechanisms of the United Nations and any other available mechanisms.

The Palestinians, including the government and human rights institutions, have invested heavily in the International Criminal Court (ICC), believing that it might achieve some justice for them that other United Nations bodies failed to deliver due to the American veto in the Security Council. Unfortunately, since Mr. Karim Khan assumed his role as the Chief Prosecutor in 2021, nothing has been advanced in the Palestine file. Mr. Khan, who is believed to have been elected by the member states of the Rome Statute after giving signals to some influential countries that he would not prioritize the Palestine file, has indeed done just that. He has not taken any action on the Palestine file since his election, and only acted 21 days after the war and destruction in Gaza began. However, it would be a mistake to have high expectations of the court.

I call on human rights defenders in Palestine and across the Arab region to remain steadfast in their unwavering commitment to enhancing and protecting human rights. This commitment, however, is not without its significant challenges. Increasingly, the concept of human rights is being viewed skeptically, seen as a Western tool for political intervention rather than a universal value. This perception complicates our mission, particularly as it raises doubts about the applicability and relevance of these rights to the Palestinian situation and broader Arab context. There is much to be done in order to restore confidence, if it is even possible.

As a Palestinian, and I believe many of my compatriots share my view, I have come to believe only in the Palestinians themselves, in their resilience as a key factor in changing the dynamics of war, and in the sympathy and actions of the people of the world, hoping that this movement will lead to a change in governments’ positions. The current priority should be to stop the genocide and ethnic cleansing that are unfolding in Gaza.

Ammar Dwaik is Director General of The Independent Commission for Human Rights, Palestine.