Lasting peace in the world is a great objective which we want to advance from our part. We believe that promoting peace requires the pursuit of justice and honest discussion – both between the parties in conflict and among others. Advocacy and other activities aimed at promoting peace should also be based on careful listening to the parties. Of all conflicts in the world, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the subject of discussion in international organisations exceptionally often. In addition, a high number of NGOs has been established and projects launched around this conflict in the 21 st century. We want to contribute to the most comprehensive understanding possible of the human rights situation in the Middle East.
The United Nations General Assembly accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948. The shocking experience of the Second World War and especially the horrors of the Holocaust contributed to the creation of the declaration. Despite many steps forward since then, serious human rights violations still take place in dozens of countries. There have been severe problems regarding the realisation of human rights in several African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, yet bigger or smaller challenges can be found all over the world.
Referring to the universal human rights appeals to peoples’ sense of justice strongly. Accusations of human rights violations are always serious and convey a need to condemn the actions under discussion as well as to prevent them in the future. Moreover, referring to human rights violations is often done in an attempt to increase the weight of one’s argument and it is possible to promote political objectives this way, too. Because of the dimension of political influence, discourse on human rights and human rights work conducted by NGOs should also be critically observed.
As part of their human rights related activities, some NGOs have made initiatives that disproportionately focus on Israel and include political goals beyond the fulfilment of human rights. In 2001, the UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,1 Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was organised in Durban, South Africa. In connection with that, an NGO Forum was attended by approximately 3000 NGOs. This forum can be seen as an impetus for an unbalanced focus on Israel in human rights related activities.2 Accusing Israel of human rights violations, the forum decided to call a global policy of completely and totally isolating Israel by sanctions, boycotts and cessation of economic, military, diplomatic, social and aid links between Israel and other states.3
Even though many have expressed their disapproval of the proposed policy and condemned antisemitism4in both the UN conference and the NGO Forum, dozens of NGOs and programs which support boycotting and isolating Israel have been established since then.
It is often challenging to assess the numerous claims made of Israel if they are, for example, based on unverified stories heard in conflict areas or one-sided interpretations of international law and agreements. Assessment is further complicated by the fact that testimonies of the accused Israeli actors are seldom heard. The same NGOs remain systematically silent about the violence motivated by nationalism, anti-Semitism and Islamism that targets Israelis.
When criticism or demands are unilaterally directed at the Jewish state while the violations of other actors are ignored, human rights work becomes disproportionate. More often than not it is difficult or even life-threatening to intervene in the actions of regimes that gravely violate human rights. However, in Israeli-administered areas it is even possible to organize voluntary human rights activism because the organizers can rely on the safety of their volunteers. Yet, one can see that the international human rights organisations have in the recent years drifted towards a situation where they condemn Israel in an unbalanced manner compared to the ways by which human rights situation in other parts of the world are assessed. Simultaneously with this phenomenon, anti-Semitic violence has increased around the world.
The YAPS-program was launched in 2016 to highlight the recent trajectories and create dialogue between people interested in the topic. We believe that promoting human rights in Israel, as well as anywhere else, requires interest in the truth, open-minded studying, and independent thinking.
1 The official UN Conference against Racism was controversial already in the preparatory phase. The draft
resolution finalized in Tehran equated Zionism with racism, which led the United States and Israel to withdraw
from the conference. The contentious nature of the Durban process is illustrated by the fact that the follow-up conferences, the
so-called Durban II (Geneva, 2009) and Durban III (New York, 2011) were boycotted by several
Anne Bayefsky: The UN World Conference against Racism: A Racisti Anti-racism Conference, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of Internationa Law, Cambridge University Press), Vol.96 (March 13-16, 2002), s.65-74
Bayefsky edusti juutalaisten lakimiesten kansainvälistä liittoa Durbanin kansalaisjärjestöfoorumilla, ja UN Watch -järjestöä YK:n virallisessa konferenssissa.
Harris O.Shoenberg: Demonization in Durban: The World Conference Against Racism, The American Jewish Year Book, Vol. 102 (2002). s.88-111
Tom Lantos: The Durban Debacle: An Insider's View of the World Racism Conference at Durban.
Tom Lantos oli USA:n kongressiedustaja ja osana USA:n delegaatiota Durbanissa.
2 The NGO forum was also very divisive, with many NGOs walking out of the event. The forum’s final statement described Israel as a “racist apartheid state” guilty of war crimes such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. Drawing parallels between/ Equating Israel and Apartheid in South Africa has been called the “Durban strategy” as the use of the analogy originates in the Durban NGO Forum.
Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights between 1997 and 2002 chaired the UN Conference and refused to accept the resolution, which was to be handed to her ceremoniously as a symbolic gesture. Robinson later said in an interview that there was “appalling anti-Semitism” at the conference, especially in the speeches of some NGOs
Robinson in the BBC Talking Point program, 21 November 2002: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/talking_point/forum/1673034.stm.
3 The declaration of the NGO Forum concerning Israel and the Palestinians: https://academic.udayton.edu/race/06hrights/WCAR2001/NGOFORUM/Palestinans.htm
The declaration pushes several political goals as solutions to issues which, according to international law, must be resolved in negotiations between the parties.
4 About antisemitism at the conference: http://www.humanrightsvoices.org/EYEontheUN/antisemitism/durban/?l=36&p=350