By Passent Moussa*
As I scroll through the screen each evening and morning to follow the current state of the war in Gaza, I hear in the background the sounds of angry crowds around the world demanding a ceasefire, and those sounds are punctuated by Western politicians refusing to cease fire and instead calling for a watered-down form of humanitarian pause. Such pauses are generally defined as breaks in the fighting to allow for the delivery of aid to blockaded Gaza and the possible release of hostages held by Hamas and foreigners trapped in Gaza. A pause that is anything but humanitarian, a pause that only delays more civilian deaths, that says that one life is worth more than another. In a conflict where Palestinians are dehumanised and even referred to as ‘human animals’ by Israeli government officials, Palestinian lives are clearly worth less.
Just as the war in Gaza has revealed the impotence of the international protection mechanisms that have shelved international human rights and humanitarian law, on the back burner, it has also revealed the ugly face and hubris of the so-called liberal values of the West, just as it has revealed the weakness and lack of sovereign political agency of some Arab governments, and the utter blindness of many others. Among the many effects of the current aggression on the future of the region are the displacement of the Palestinian population on an unprecedented scale, known as the second Nakba, and the humanitarian emergency, the consequences of which are devastating and will continue for a long time to come. Another impact is the possible emergence of armed groups as a result of further radicalisation of groups and individuals who feel marginalised, unrepresented and unable to articulate themselves, exacerbated by the continuation of the Israeli occupation and the exceptional immunity of the State of Israel, the disenchantment of many people with their Arab governments and, above all, the dismantling of horizons. Less immediate are the effects on the situation and future of human rights in the region, which, although not as massive and far-reaching, will nevertheless have long-term consequences and will reshape politics in the region and the way in which the opposition and human rights groups are dealt with.
Since the start of the war on Gaza, international law and the protection mechanisms that were always the last refuge for human rights organisations in the region have been all but suspended. In his resignation letter, Craig Mokhiber, the Director of the UN Human Rights Office in New York, stated: ‘Once again we are seeing genocide unfolding before our eyes, and the organization that we serve appears powerless to stop it.’ ‘This is a text- book case of genocide. The European, ethno-nationalist, settler colonial project in Palestine has entered its final phase, toward the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous Palestinian life in Palestine,’ Mokhiber, said. The fact that a UN official was reprimanded for his condemnation of the genocide in Gaza is nothing other than a sign of the UN’s relatively weak position vis-à-vis the state of Israel and conjures up the image of a hegemonic world for which this very UN institution had to be created in order to prevent and put an end to the crimes of the hegemonic powers. In a way, this is reminiscent of what the German theorist Carl Schmitt called the ‘state of exception’ – an idea further elaborated by the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben (1998), who argued that democracies use and abuse the idea of exceptions to justify their right to deviate from the rule of law. What has taken place in Gaza over the last seven weeks is indeed an unauthorised expansion of state powers, a normalisation of the exception, in a way that closely links law and violence. The repeated emphasis and reference by Western heads of state and government to Israel’s legitimate right to self-defence, regardless of the crimes it commits, can be seen not only as a violation and disregard of international law, but rather as a legalisation of violence. In a sense, both violence and law are presented as instrumental in the current war, in that they are both placed and used in the service of certain interests.
The complete siege, carpet bombing, collective punishment and disruption of humanitarian aid, torture and hostage-taking, humiliation and attacks on the civilian population and civilian objects in the Gaza Strip, constitute war crimes in violation of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as regulated by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention of 1949, as supplemented by the Additional Protocols of 1977. Furthermore, the unwillingness and refusal of some Western governments to call for a ceasefire is in fact in violation of the most basic human right, the right to life. This brings back to the fore the controversial debate on the universality of human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and codified in the two covenants (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
While the origins of human rights are often associated with Western philosophy, particularly with the works of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, a central challenge to this view is put forward in the guise of a defence of cultural relativism. What may be considered universal human rights norms in the West are not necessarily applicable in other cultures. Without going into the traditional arguments and points of contention between universality and cultural relativism. What is at stake here, however, is the applicability of what are seen as universal and indivisible rights. Since the events in Gaza, more specifically since the US declared the Global War on Terror after 11 September 2001, the concept of universalism has taken a completely different turn. We are no longer discussing whether Western values are applicable to non-Western societies and cultures, but we are questioning the fundamental elements of Western universalism on the basis of which these rights are granted or denied. The question now arises as to who is regarded as the being to whom these rights apply.
In a sense, what is happening now is not only a licence for the killing of more and more Palestinian children, civilian men, and women in Gaza, but also for oppression and totalitarian policies in the region. While the argument against cultural relativism boils down to the fear that international criticism of human rights abuses by non-Western regimes will be ignored, what is happening now, namely that grievances are being passed on through a kind of relativism, a relativism in the categorisation of people, is nothing other than a confirmation of what has always been rejected. This extends the analogy between what the West defines as the legitimate self-defence of a strategic ally, in this case Israel, and what autocratic regimes also define as the need to protect national security and combat terrorism, which often serve as a pretext for human rights violations. Western democracies are violating their basic obligations to international law and human rights, and the rest of the world is watching them in real time. It is so unfortunate that the consequences of this collective failure to condemn or stop Israeli crimes while instead waging a war of counter-aggression against pro-Palestinians and passing off their rallies as rallies in support of terror, will be felt for decades to come and will severely affect the worsening of human rights conditions in the region.
In summary, the duplicity with which the West has waged war on Gaza can be seen as a green light for autocrats in the region who have even pounced on these dubious norms, which they openly condemn but could use in their favour in the future to sanction further transgressions and deflect any criticism from Western governments/leaders. Against this backdrop, it will be difficult for human rights defenders to invoke best practises in support of human rights and freedoms from the West, and it will be even more difficult to enlist the help of Western governments and groups in the hope that they will exert pressure on governments in the region to improve the human rights situation.
Agamben, G., 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and bare life. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
* Passent Moussa is a researcher and human rights defender based in Germany. For the past 10 years, her work has focused on supporting human rights and democratic transition in the Mashreq region. Passent holds an MA degree from the Essex Human Rights Centre and a PhD from the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. Her research interests lie in the sociology of human rights, processes of subjectivation under authoritarianism, social theory, political transitions, and politics in the Middle East.