The threat of human rights

One of the most urgent questions for anyone advocating or studying human rights is under what conditions they become a genuine threat to the structures of domination. The recent attack on human rights organizations in Israel sheds some light on this question.

Human rights groups in Israel, particularly those focusing on the rights of colonized Palestinians, have been criticized by different governments and an array of conservative political actors for years. Nonetheless, only relatively recently have Israeli human rights NGOs come to be considered a security threat that must be tamed through repressive legislation and incitement campaigns

Many pundits have framed the intense assault on human rights organizations as part of the battle between liberal and illiberal forces within Israel. While this is definitely true, particularly when taking into account the proto fascist character of some of the political parties currently in government, the strife between these two camps does not fully explain the recent escalation.

This wave of repression must be understood as linked to the way that the state has come to perceive human rights NGOs as a threat to its ongoing entrenchment of the Zionist project.

This wave of repression must be understood as linked to the way that the state has come to perceive human rights NGOs as a threat to its ongoing entrenchment of the Zionist project. The threat of human rights is a threat to the ethnocratic state.

The publication of the Goldstone Report—the UN commission that investigated alleged Israeli and Palestinian violations of international law during the 2008-2009 Gaza War—was no doubt a watershed in the anti-human rights campaign. A few hours after the Report was published, NGO Monitor issued a press release characterizing it as an NGO “cut and paste” document. The claim was that a considerable amount of the findings were based on reports and testimonies provided by biased human rights organizations, several of them Israeli.

Within two days the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded, claiming that the Goldstone Report “ties the hands of democratic countries fighting terror worldwide; calls into question the legitimacy of national legal systems and investigations; [and] promotes criminal proceedings against forces confronting terrorism in foreign states and tries to expand the jurisdiction of the ICC beyond its Statute."

Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister at the time, asserted that, “today the trenches are in Geneva in the Council of Human Rights, or in New York in the General Assembly, or in the Security Council, or in the Hague, the ICJ.” To mark Human Rights Day in 2010, Ayalon denounced the “biased use of human rights” by liberal NGOs, and, in a joint press conference with representatives from NGO Monitor, he claimed that: “International Human Rights Day has been transformed into terror rights day.” Human rights were framed as promoters of “lawfare”—a legal tool used by non-state actors to threaten liberal states and achieve military objectives—and characterized as a security menace.

The threat that Ayalon was referring to has little to do with the radicalization of liberal Israeli human rights NGOs in recent years. These NGOs had been filing reports to the UN and using similar strategies since the late 1980s. They did not, for example, transform themselves into grassroots social movements nor have they lent their names to the growing international Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign, which has adopted a non-violent human rights based approach. 

The Israeli Parliament.

Rather, the transformation of the human rights NGOs into a threat involves the increasing use of universal jurisdiction in the ICC, as well as in regional and domestic courts, alongside the fact that the information that human rights organizations produce is used as evidence of egregious violations in these courts. But it is also informed by the increasing erosion of the international legitimacy of Israel’s discriminatory policies, vis-à-vis non-Jews in the occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel. The threat, in other words, emerges from broader changes in the international arena and is systemic.

Put differently, from a legal point of view, the Israeli organizations never constituted a threat to the state. Their petitions were filed within the domestic court system, which is both embedded within the state apparatus and which has almost always supported state’s acts of dispossession and violence.

The threat is rather an outcome of long years of work, revealing how at times endurance and quantity can produce unexpected political effects. The press releases, reports, fact sheets, maps, pictures and videos produced by these (and Palestinian) NGOs have been circulating in the cyber sphere for many years now. Over the past decade a much broader international constituency has been receptive to this information. Gradually, the notion that Israel's rights abusive policies are merely temporal and are being imposed as a reaction against Palestinian violence lost all credibility. Increasingly, the evidence of abuse succeeded to engender diplomatic embarrassment and to trigger global grassroots political campaigns.

Repressive forces in Israel are concerned about the fact that the evidence of systematic violations gathered by local human rights NGOs—with the support of international funding—is exceeding the boundaries of the domestic debate. They are threatened because the accusations of abuse are piling into an immense archive of state orchestrated violence, an archive that can no longer be marshaled within the state's legal, political and symbolic space. To paraphrase Antonio Gramsci, repressive forces are threatened because the state no longer manages to absorb human rights.