When it comes to writing the history of the recent Gaza conflict, the prevailing narrative will be influenced by those perceived as “honest brokers”, including powerful human rights groups. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have wasted no time in cementing their position by calling for international investigations by the UN and European Union into alleged “war crimes” and a suspension of arms sales. These demands pay lip service to their self-serving image of impartiality. Yet in reality, these groups play a dangerous game of moral equivalence and disinformation which threatens the ethics of human rights and international law.
In a recent article published in the Financial Times Deutschland, HRW officials brazenly claimed that “it is clear that both Israel and Hamas have perpetrated serious violations of the laws of war”. Not a shred of evidence was supplied, and HRW failed to provide the courtesy of waiting for the IDF and others to release the findings of their internal reports. Instead, the inconvenient lack of evidence in this “rush to justice” was brushed aside as the same article lamented, “No one expects to see anyone in the dock soon for war crimes in Gaza. But the work has to start now.” This week, Amnesty International’s report provided an inventory of weapons used in Gaza, but no proof of their illegal use. Using pure conjecture, Amnesty concluded that countries must place an arms embargo on Israel and audaciously stated that: “Both Israel and Hamas used weapons supplied from abroad to carry out attacks on civilians — thus committing war crimes.”
The false assumption of these groups is that a conflict involving civilian casualties is by definition unjust, wrong and illegal. This baffling view of warfare makes it almost impossible for countries to defend themselves or for western democracies to fight terror.
Civilian casualties are a tragic reality of modern war, especially when terrorists hide weapons and fight from civilian areas. International law accepts the inevitability of civilian casualties, so long as it does not outweigh the perceived military advantage. If the standard set by Amnesty, HRW and others were to be adopted, there could be no such thing as a just war and all leaders who defend their populations against attack, as is their responsibility, would become potential “war criminals”.
This moral confusion, the inability to distinguish the right of self-defence from the thirst for death and destruction has infected much of the NGO commentary on Gaza. Some 50 NGOs released over 500 statements in the month covering the fighting and its aftermath. A constant feature of these statements is the failure to differentiate between the actions of Israel, apologetic at each civilian death and Hamas, which measures its success by the quantities of innocent blood spilled.
Although NGOs are keen to promote a veneer of neutrality, proclaiming alleged abuses “on both sides”, the reality is very different. NGO commentary on Gaza has been characterized by overwhelming condemnation of Israel and a marked reluctance to condemn the widespread and illegal use of human shields by Hamas. Human rights groups use a warped logic to justify this imbalance by arguing that the clarity of Hamas violations speak for themselves and therefore attention should be focused on Israel. “The Israeli authorities deny everything, so one has to prove what happened in a way that you don’t need to do with the Palestinian rockets,” said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International.
An artificial evenhandedness might be understandable for leading politicians, not so in the case of NGOs. By their very definition, human rights organizations must distance themselves from political considerations and provide moral clarity. Their failure to do so over Gaza leaves a dangerously distorted picture.