Palestine, Indonesia and the ‘human rights’ dilemma – Middle East Monitor

When I shared the news on social media that Indonesia had refused to host the Israeli team at the Under-20 FIFA World Cup scheduled from 20 May 20 to 11 June in Indonesian cities, some readers were unimpressed. Although any news related to Palestine and Israel often generates two sharply different kinds of responses, the latest act of Indonesian solidarity with the Palestinian people failed to impress even some pro-Palestine activists in the West. Their rationale had nothing to do with Palestine or Israel, but the Indonesian government’s human rights record.

This supposed dichotomy is as omnipresent as it is problematic. Some of the most genuine acts of solidarity with the Palestinians – or other oppressed nations in the Global South — tend to take place in other southern nations and governments. However, since the latter are frequently accused of having poor human rights records by Western governments and rights groups based in the West, these gestures of solidarity are often called into question for lacking substance.

Aside from the weaponisation of human rights — and democracy — by Western governments, some of the concerns about human rights violations are worth some thought. Can those who do not respect the rights of their own people be trusted to champion the rights of others? Although intellectually intriguing, the argument, and the question, lack self-awareness, reek of entitlement, and reflect a poor understanding of history.

Let’s look first at the lack of self-awareness. In the West, advocacy for Palestinian rights is predicated on reaching out, educating and lobbying some of the world’s most destructive colonial and neocolonial powers. This advocacy includes civil engagement with governments that have, for example, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, tormented Africa and continue to subjugate many nations in the Global South.

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These Western governments were also the ones which either handed Palestine to the Zionist movement — Britain — or have sustained Israel militarily, financially and politically for generations: the US and others, including Britain again. Even though little tangible progress has been recorded as far as substantive political shifts away from Israel are concerned, we continue to engage with these governments in the hope that a change will come.

Rarely do Western activists make arguments against their own governments, similar to the ones made against Indonesia, or other Asian, African, Arab or Muslim countries. Personally, never once have I been reminded of the moral ambiguity about pursuing solidarity from Western governments that have long invested in the oppression of the Palestinian people.

Now for entitlement: for many years, and particularly since the end of World War Two, Western governments have endeavoured to serve the roles of judge, jury and executioner. They drafted international law, yet are very selective when it comes to implementing it. They passed the Declaration of Human Rights, yet determined selfishly who is deserving of this humanity. They launched wars in the name of defending others, yet left in their wake more death and mayhem than existed prior to their “humanitarian interventions”.

Some human rights activists in the West rarely appreciate that their influence is derived largely from their geographic position and, more importantly, their citizenship. This is why Hannah Arendt rightly argued that individuals can only enjoy human rights once they obtain the right to be citizens of a nation-state. “Human rights lose all their significance as soon as an individual loses her political context,” she wrote in her seminal book The Right to Have Rights.

Although some activists have paid a heavy price for their genuine solidarity with the Palestinian people, others understand solidarity in purely conceptual terms, without considering the numerous political obstacles and, sometimes, compromises an occupied nation faces.

The fact that Palestinian civil societies launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement in 2005, in that particular order, reflects the awareness among Palestinians that it will take more than individual acts of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation and to dismantle Israeli apartheid. Divestment means that companies that benefit from the Israeli occupation must sever their ties with Israel, even if some of these companies may have questionable practices. The same logic applies to sanctions, which require a strong political will by governments to ostracise Tel Aviv until it ends its occupation, respects international law and treats Palestinians as equal citizens.

If having a perfect human rights record is a prerequisite for government support, not many countries, if any, will qualify. Oppressed people simply cannot be so entitled, as they do not have the privilege or the leverage to shape a perfectly harmonious global solidarity.

Finally, there is the need for a better understanding of history. Prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords between the Palestinian leadership and Israel in 1993, the term “human rights” was factored as an important component in the Palestinian struggle. But it was neither the only nor the main driving force behind the Palestinian quest for freedom. For Palestinians, all aspects of Palestinian resistance, including the quest for human rights, were parts of a larger liberation strategy.

Oslo changed all of that. It shunned such terms as resistance and redefined the Palestinian struggle, from that of liberation to human rights. The Palestinian Authority respected its assigned task, and many Palestinians played along, simply because they felt that they had no other option.

Yet, by elevating the human rights discourse, Palestinians were entrapped by entirely Western priorities. Their language which, in the past, was consistent with revolutionary discourses of anti-colonial movements in the Middle East, Africa and the rest of the Global South, was duly rejigged to appeal to Western expectations.

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This should not suggest that anti-colonial movements did not champion human rights discourses. In fact, such discourses were at the core of the valiant struggles and sacrifices of millions of people across the world. But for them, the human rights issue was not an isolated moral position, nor a political stance to be used or manipulated to highlight the moral superiority of the West over the rest or to sanction poor countries, often for the sake of exacting political or economic concessions.

Palestinians care deeply about the human rights of other nations. They ought to, because they have experienced, first hand, what it means to be stripped of their rights and humanity. However, they are no position, nor should they seek one, that would allow them to condition solidarity from others on the West’s politicised human rights agendas.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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