While I was away frolicking at a subtropical destination wedding, the octagenarian founder of Human Rights Watch, Robert Bernstein, made an eminently flaggable speech in freezing Nebraska. Bernstein is clearly a very disappointed man, having seen his original vision of the promotion of human rights in fear societies perverted and politicised, especially in the Middle East. Human rights NGOs go after so-called abuses in Israel because it is ‘low-hanging fruit’- it’s easy and there are no unpleasant consequences. Calling out dictatorship and tyrannies on their abuses, on the other hand, demands strenuous effort and risk-taking. Such campaigns can and do succeed if the democratic West is prepared to put its weight behind them: witness the 1970s campaign for human rights in the Soviet Union led by one of Bernstein’s great inspirations, Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. Here’s an extract from Bernstein’s speech dealing with Middle Eastern refugees, but you are urged to read the whole thing:
“I am going to bring up the right of return only briefly because it is so complicated. The right of return is endorsed by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations – unless I have missed something. They realize that there is not going to be a return of people, but that there will be compensation and that the right must be recognized. To me, it is the same philosophy that leads them to not taking sides in a war – the theory that one mandate decision is suitable for all occasions. I believe that the Arab decision to keep refugees in labor camps for 60 years along with the UN decision to have a different definition of refugee of Palestinians has made a mockery of what was intended. The right of return for all refugees is defined as being only for the people who actually left their country.
“However, the definition of a Palestinian refugee is different. It is for those who left Israel, their children born in exile, and for all of their heirs. Thus, while in every other case in the world, the refugee numbers go down over time, the number of Palestinian refugees has gone up. The original 600,000 is now up to 4 million worldwide, all claiming the right of return. While human rights organizations feel that the principle should be recognized, why do they not question the special status recognized for Palestinian descendants which makes solving the problem difficult, if not impossible? In the last few weeks, Jordan, with more Palestinians than the West Bank, withdrew rights they had previously given Palestinians which would have allowed them to remain in Jordan. If there is a Palestinian state, there will be 4 million – most in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, many of whom have not been given any citizenship. Since it is clear that they will not return to Israel but may receive compensation, will the Arabs be asking that 4 million people be returned to the West Bank and Gaza? Might human rights organizations be looking into this now?
“Another factor that has not been dealt with is that the 800,000 Jews who left Arab countries and went to Israel immediately received citizenship and while they do not want a right of return, it is reported that they left over twice the amount of worldly goods in the Arab countries than the Arabs leaving Israel. What, if any, adjustments should be made to recognize this?
“All such movements of population are both sad and difficult when they are made necessary by intolerance and hate. But, actually, the world has tried desperately to do its part by paying the substantial costs of the refugee camps for over 60 years – reportedly over $13 billion with perhaps a quarter of it paid by the U.S. and little paid by the Arab countries.
“If human rights organizations wish to be involved in this issue, it should not merely simplify it by saying that they accept the right of return – including the special refugee designation – of Palestinians as a principle.”