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Human rights: not to be entrusted to governments

For those concerned with human rights, there is a never-ending assortment of countries to which to direct one’s attention.

For those concerned with human rights, there is a never-ending assortment of countries to which to direct one’s attention. From the Congo to Chinese occupation of Tibet, to Slovakian treatment of the Roma, governments oppress and commit human-rights abuses and unimaginable horrors against vulnerable civilians. One of the purposes of the United Nations is to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. But the U.N., the Geneva Conventions, human-rights organizations and foreign governments have had, at best, mixed success in protecting the human rights of noncombatants.

Between 1972 and 1984 at least 51 U.N. resolutions against apartheid in South Africa were vetoed by the United States, effectively allowing the resolutions to die and the human-rights abuses to continue. Opponents of South African apartheid despaired that that vile system of institutionalized racism and legalized human-rights abuses would ever end.

But it did come to an end. Apartheid in South Africa ended through a combination of international pressure and the activities of leaders of the African National Congress (which for many years was banned as a terrorist organization) who knew that they could not depend on the United Nations or any foreign government. The ANC called on the international community to exert pressure in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS), and other nonviolent actions against the South African government.

Same lack of support
Like their counterparts in South Africa, Palestinians have had the same lack of support by the governments meant to defend them. Since 1972 the United States has vetoed a similar number of UN resolutions related to Palestinian human rights as it did with South African Apartheid. Therefore, instead of depending on governments, in 2005 Palestinian civil society called for the international community to act in solidarity and to peacefully protest Israel’s human-rights abuses against Palestinians using BDS. Since then there has been a growth in awareness around the world about the plight of the Palestinians, millions of whom are living under repressive occupation, which has been described by South Africans as worse than that under which they lived.

For more than 60 years governments have been playing at a “peace process,” unfolding and refolding the Roadmap to Peace, endlessly talking about implementing the Oslo accords, and pretending to make progress while repression and human-rights abuses increased in severity. It is no longer up to the governments. Ordinary people and organizations around the world are beginning to take matters into their own hands.

The movement is gathering steam since Operation Cast Lead beginning in December of 2008. Israel framed this as a “defensive operation,” but in reality it was an offensive assault on the Palestinians in Gaza. Even before the assault Israel maintained a siege on Gaza — which, according to human-rights agencies, led to a humanitarian crisis. While Israel is not currently bombing Gaza, the siege continues to this day. Normal activities: farming, fishing, attending school, buying groceries, and earning a living, are impossible for Gazans. Construction materials are denied entry into Gaza so that no rebuilding has been possible after the massive destruction of the civilian infrastructure.

Investigations discounted; people galvanized
Israel and pro-Israeli groups in the United States discounted all investigations into war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead, including the Goldstone Report, as biased against Israel. With typical near unanimity, the House of Representatives condemned the Goldstone Report in H.R. 867, assuring that it will not be brought before the U.N. Security Council.

But rejecting investigations, rather than inflicting amnesia, has galvanized people worldwide. Many church groups, labor unions, universities, and other organizations within Europe and the United States are now calling for BDS and for further actions and demonstrations to force the end of Israeli repression and human rights abuses.

On Dec. 27, 2009, one year after the start of Operation Cast Lead, an international delegation of more than 500 people from 35 countries and 32 US states (including several people from Minnesota) will cross into Gaza on the border with Egypt. They will meet with Palestinians, U.N. agencies, and NGOs working in the Gaza Strip. On Dec. 31, the delegation, along with thousands of Palestinians, in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., will march toward the Erez crossing in a nonviolent expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people and an effort to end the brutal siege of Gaza. Simultaneously, others will peacefully demonstrate in cities around the world.

Finally, people who have been despairing of ever seeing an end to Israeli human-rights abuses have effective grassroots tools to force governments to act morally. These actions — the Gaza Freedom March and boycott, divestment and sanctions — are the beginning of the end of the human rights abuses in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Sylvia Schwarz is a member of International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network of the Twin Cities (IJAN-TC) and the Minnesota-based Coalition for Palestinian Rights (CPR).