Some of you might have heard that a UN agency, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, which is based in Beirut, published a report last week entitled ‘Israeli Practices Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid.’
The fact-based document lays out the systematic racism – from different court systems to different roads and schools – experienced by Palestinians living under Israeli control, and urges the UN to restore the Special Committee against Apartheid, and the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid. It also calls on member states to support the BDS movement. The report was written by Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian Human Rights, and Virginia Tilley, a Political Science Professor at Southern Illinois University.
Predictably, the ink wasn’t dry before the shit hit the fan: within hours, Israeli politicians and their shameful band of apologists began slamming both the report and the ‘anti Israel’ UN. On Friday, after the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres signalled the spinelessness that will undoubtedly characterise his tenure by ordering ESCWA to remove the report from its website, the Commission’s Executive Secretary, Rima Khalaf, resigned.
In a world of lousy choices, it was the least worst one. Indeed, Khalaf’s decision to quit brought to mind a talk I attended last year with a middle aged Palestinian date farmer from the West Bank. He recounted how he’d been offered a scholarship to study in Germany in his late teens. When the Israeli authorities made it clear that it was they – not he – who would decide whether he could accept it, he tore up his passport in their faces. Another least worst choice.
It’s bad enough that the UN routinely fails to live up to its own Charter, which claims as its purpose ‘to maintain international peace and security…based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.’ What’s inexcusable is that where the Palestinians are concerned, it routinely does precisely the opposite, providing moral and political cover for the very breaches of human rights and international law it is entrusted to police. It makes you wonder exactly what the organisation is for.
Moreover, as Saree Makdisi wrote in an LA Times Op-Ed entitled ‘Does the term apartheid fit Israel? Of course it does’, ‘”Apartheid” isn’t just a term of insult; it’s a word with a very specific legal meaning, as defined by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1973 and ratified by most United Nations member states (Israel and the United States are exceptions, to their shame).’
Indeed, the word ‘apartheid’ has been used to describe Israel by many people including Desmond Tutu, John Kerry and Sir Alan Duncan MP, and the ESCWA report does not use it lightly. Perhaps this explains why, as Khalaf writes in her dignified and unapologetic resignation letter below, ‘The evidence provided by this report drafted by renowned experts is overwhelming. Suffice it to say that none of those who attacked the report had a word to say about its content‘ (my emphasis).
Here is the full text of Khalaf’s letter which was published by Jadaliyya. Jadaliyya have also published the report in full here. You can find it on The Electronic Intifada, too. Welcome to the internet, Mr Secretary-General.
Dear Mr. Secretary-General,
I have carefully considered your message conveyed through the Chef de Cabinet and assure you that at no point have I questioned your right to order the withdrawal of the report from our website or the fact that all of us working in the Secretariat are subject to the authority of its Secretary-General. Nor do I have any doubts regarding your commitment to human rights in general, or your firm position regarding the rights of the Palestinian people. I also understand the concerns that you have, particularly in these difficult times that leave you little choice.
I am not oblivious to the vicious attacks and threats the UN and you personally were subjected to from powerful Member States as a result of the publication of the ESCWA report ‘Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid’.
I do not find it surprising that such Member States, who now have governments with little regard for international norms and values of human rights, will resort to intimidation when they find it hard to defend their unlawful policies and practices. It is only normal for criminals to pressure and attack those who advocate the cause of their victims. I cannot submit to such pressure.
Not by virtue of my being an international official, but simply by virtue of being a decent human being, I believe, like you, in the universal values and principles that have always been the driving force for good in human history, and on which this organization of ours, the United Nations is founded. Like you, I believe that discrimination against anyone due to their religion, skin color, sex or ethnic origin is unacceptable, and that such discrimination cannot be rendered acceptable by the calculations of political expediency or power politics. I also believe people should not only have the freedom to speak truth to power, but they have the duty to do so.
In the space of two months you have instructed me to withdraw two reports produced by ESCWA, not due to any fault found in the reports and probably not because you disagreed with their content, but due to the political pressure by member states who gravely violate the rights of the people of the region.
You have seen first hand that the people of this region are going through a period of suffering unparalleled in their modern history; and that the overwhelming flood of catastrophes today is the result of a stream of injustices that were either ignored, plastered over, or openly endorsed by powerful governments inside and outside the region. Those same governments are the ones pressuring you to silence the voice of truth and the call for justice represented in these reports.
Given the above, I cannot but stand by the findings of ESCWA’s report that Israel has established an apartheid regime that seeks the domination of one racial group over another. The evidence provided by this report drafted by renowned experts is overwhelming. Suffice it to say that none of those who attacked the report had a word to say about its content. I feel it my duty to shed light on the legally inadmissible and morally indefensible fact that an apartheid regime still exists in the 21st century rather than suppressing the evidence. In saying this I claim no moral superiority nor ownership of a more prescient vision. My position might be informed by a lifetime of experiencing the dire consequences of blocking peaceful channels to addressing people’s grievances in our region.
After giving the matter due consideration, I realized that I too have little choice.
I cannot withdraw yet another well-researched, well-documented UN work on grave violations of human rights, yet I know that clear instructions by the Secretary-General will have to be implemented promptly. A dilemma that can only be resolved by my stepping down to allow someone else to deliver what I am unable to deliver in good conscience.
I know that I have only two more weeks to serve; my resignation is therefore not intended for political pressure. It is simply because I feel it my duty towards the people we serve, towards the UN and towards myself, not to withdraw an honest testimony about an ongoing crime that is at the root of so much human suffering. Therefore, I hereby submit to you my resignation from the United Nations.