Human rights? That’s our speciality

Intreview: Simone Abel

By Jessica Elgot, November 12, 2010
RenéCassin’s new director Simone Abel previously worked in New York as a lawyer for Human Rights Watch

RenéCassin’s new director Simone Abel previously worked in New York as a lawyer for Human Rights Watch

The new director of the Jewish human rights charity RenéCassin has a controversial background — she spent the past three years at Human Rights Watch in New York.

But Sydney-born Simone Abel, 29, said nothing could have been better preparation for her new job in London than working for HRW, which has been accused of anti-Israel bias.

The “disproportionate attention” HRW gives to Israel has been criticised by many activists, politicians and journalists. Last month, Jewish anti-Zionist businessman George Soros gave $100 million to the organisation.

Ms Abel, who described herself as a “strong Zionist”, said: “I know there’s a perception about HRW, but the number of our reports condemning Arab countries for human rights violations vastly exceed reports on Israel.

“The organisation does have an obligation to report on what’s affecting human rights — including in Israel. So if there’s discrimination against Arab-Israelis or if either side uses chemical warfare, they have a duty to report it.

“I headed a team which was all Jewish. I would never have put my name to the organisation if I thought there was something untoward about its treatment of Israel.”

But working on reports about Israel was tough. “I found it incredibly difficult, I actually requested not to work on Israel. For me, there’s a real conflict of interest. But I ended up reviewing a statement my boss released on Richard Goldstone’s UN report into the Gaza offensive.

It was easier to work on that because there’s widespread criticism of the report and a lot of that was well-founded. It’s well-known the UN Human Rights Council is violently anti-Israel and so it’s difficult to endorse anything coming from a body like that.”

Despite her Australian passport, Ms Abel calls herself a “world citizen”. Her family are South African and work has taken her to Israel, Argentina, Texas, New York and now London. After law school and working as a reporter on the Australian Jewish News, she spent time as a corporate lawyer before returning to her real passion, human rights advocacy.

Replacing Sarah Kaiser as the director of RenéCassin, which was founded in 2000, Ms Abel hopes to promote a better awareness of the charity. RenéCassin’s mission is to use the Jewish experience of human rights violations to help others. Campaigns include restitution for genocide victims and for better treatment of asylum seekers in detention in the UK.

The charity is currently preparing a “toolkit” for activists to help them fight unfair treatment of asylum seekers and runs educational workshops about human rights. Ms Abel said the charity “really represents the best values of Judaism. The charity’s namesake, René Cassin, was ahead of his time, he co-drafted the UN declaration on human rights, and he was a Nobel laureate.

“I think we as Jews bring a particular understanding and knowledge to human rights, which is valuable. We have extensive experience of human rights violations; we’ve had our cultural, religious and educational rights denied, and we’ve been through genocide in the Holocaust.

“These experiences mean we can shed light on areas other groups can’t.”

The charity does not work on Israel. “We pick campaigns that are not done by others. That’s why we’ve been successful for 10 years.”

Research and high-quality reports will be Ms Abel’s focus for the organisation. “I want to recruit a new generation of activists. I’d like to encourage law and international relations students to learn research skills on our projects.”

Ms Abel’s predecessor Ms Kaiser was outspoken about universal jurisdiction, worried that the ability to prosecute actual war criminals in Britain would be lost if the law was changed.

Ms Abel said she was wary of “fearmongering in the Jewish community” about the law. “I am pro-universal jurisdiction. It’s important that human rights violators wherever they are can be captured and brought to justice, like Adolf Eichmann, General Pinochet and Charles Taylor. If the law had been around after the Holocaust, then it would have been much easier to capture Nazi war criminals. Any law can be used vexatiously.

I do believe there has to be a law which makes sure politicians of any country are responsible if the state commits war crimes.”

RenéCassin will host a Shabbat dinner with New North London Synagogue at 7.45pm on December 10 to mark International Human Rights Day

Last updated: 10:03am, November 12 2010