Robert Bernstein, a founder of Human Rights Watch, has penned an essay censuring the organization for its criticism of Israel:
Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. These groups are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.
The organization is expressly concerned mainly with how wars are fought, not with motivations. To be sure, even victims of aggression are bound by the laws of war and must do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties. Nevertheless, there is a difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally.
This is wrong on many levels. First of all, for all his ignorant bluster and malicious holocaust denial, Ahmadinejad has never threatened to “murder Jews everywhere.” In fact, at around 25,000 people, Iran has the biggest Jewish population outside of Israel in the region. So if the Iranian regime, despicable as it is, has decided to start murdering Jews, that’s news to the tens of thousands of them who currently live in Iran.
Second, Bernstein seems to be saying that ostensibly democratic nations should get a free pass on human rights abuses. So by this logic, Guantanamo Bay would be fine, but a comparable detention center in, say, Uzbekistan wouldn’t be, because the former country is democratic while the second is authoritarian.
He finds fault with the idea that human rights groups ought to look at conduct instead of motivation. But motivation is by its very nature a subjective measurement. Israelis think that Hamas is motivated to send rockets because they just want to kill Jews, whereas Palestinians will tell you that their motivation is to do with 40 years of occupation and the blockade of Gaza’s land and sea borders. Conduct, on the other hand, is a much more objective thing to measure. Either Israelis used white phosphorous in populated areas or they didn’t.
What Bernstein, who surely knows better, is failing to note is that the fourth Geneva Convention, which is the international mechanism that deals with the treatment of civilians during war, makes no distinction between acts carried out by “open” societies and “closed” ones. Nor does it distinguish between “wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally.” Finally, the convention states that even if a country’s enemy is not a signatory of the convention, that country is still bound to uphold the laws of war and that if one party of a conflict does not abide by these laws, that is not a reason for the other to fail to do so.
Simply put, a country, no matter how democratic or “open” it may be, cannot get a free pass on war crimes just because it is defending itself. A country’s responsibility to uphold the Geneva Conventions is not dependent on the nature of its enemy. The Israeli Supreme Court itself has said,
This is the destiny of a democracy: She does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her enemies are not always open before her. A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back.
Some wrongheaded defenders of Israel have claimed that because Israel is “defending itself,” the responsibility of dead Gazans lies at the feet of Hamas instead of the IDF, which has actually killed them. They often confuse motive with intent. The first explains why a country has done what it has and is irrelevant when discussing war crimes. In this case, Israel attacked Gaza in response to rocket attacks, whose motives were in return a response to the occupation and the blockade on Gaza (insert cycle of attacks and reprisals here).
On the other hand, intent, which is whether or not the action was done intentionally, is relevant to war crimes. So even if my main motive for blowing up an apartment building is to protect troops from rocket fire coming from next door, if I’ve intentionally destroyed that building knowing that the 25 civilians inside will likely be killed, I open myself up to accusations of war crimes. My motive is irrelevant, but the intent is important.
Finally, this all means that neither a country’s “openness” nor how democratic it is has any bearing on whether or not it has committed war crimes.*And as long as we’re talking about “openness,” this year’s ranking by Reporters Without Borders is probably germane to the discussion. In terms of freedom of the press, Israel has slipped to 93rd place out of 175 countries, putting it behind both Kuwait and Lebanon, while also placing 150th for Israel’s extra-territorial holdings, right behind Sudan and Afghanistan.
*Incidentally, for a discussion of how democracies might actually be more inclined to commit ethnic cleansing than their autocratic counterparts, see Michael Mann’s interesting book.