How the Human Rights Industry Undermines Palestinian Liberation


It has been the liberal discourse of human rights that precipitated the move from decolonial struggle into a rights based one.

The establishment of the Palestinian Authority following the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the PLO ushered structural transformations in Palestinian politics, society, and struggle.

The struggle for liberation was then transformed into a diplomatic quest for statehood on 22 percent of Palestinian land; the revolution was hijacked and the Palestinian masses were gradually sidelined from political action and public space altogether. If the first Palestinian Intifada had constituted the culmination of people’s engagement in mass politics and direct action, the decades that succeeded it saw the exact opposite. People were dragged to the margins, stripped of their agency, and turned into spectators as a small elite was negotiating on their behalf by exploiting their sacrifices and claiming to be their sole legitimate representative.

The new era required the formation of a new normative framework, the adoption of a new discourse, and the introduction of an entirely different vocabulary and lexicon. All of this was necessary to complete the transition from revolution to state building and the development of the neoliberal process under occupation and continued colonization and land theft by Israel.

It is in this context where the human right industry and the institutionalization of rights were born.

This does not, by any means, suggest that the content of human rights was foreign to Palestinians; nor does that mean that they only knew about it as the country became overcrowded with nongovernmental organizations specializing in human rights issues.

When Palestinians of all walks of life articulated their demands for their right of determination, freedom, dignity and justice during the First Intifada that began in December 1987, they did not act under the auspices of such organizations.

They were not propelled by the Universal Declaration for Human Rights or by follow-up human rights treaties and conventions. Rather, they were inspired by the tide of anti-colonial and liberation struggles in the Global South, from North Africa to Latin America.

It was the liberal discourse of human rights that precipitated the move from decolonial struggle into a rights-based one. Discourse matters and is not merely some sort of semantic pedantry. And in the Palestinian case, state-building could not have been achieved if Palestinians did not internalize a narrow, rights-based discourse, breaking up with the revolutionary discourse and practice.

Another consequence of the imposition of this human rights discourse was the de-politicization of the Palestinian struggle and reframing it in the supposedly neutral language of rights.

In a discussion with the director of one of the many Palestinian human rights NGOs, he told me: “Our work is not concerned with politics; we only expose Israel’s crimes and human rights violations.”

Such a declaration will not only please the donors and mean that the foreign investment in the apolitical Palestinian human rights market will remain flowing; it reflects a genuine belief among most human rights organizations in Palestine that the conflict with Israel is not about politics but rather about rights. It is as if Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights is a humanitarian rather than political issue.

Politics is a filthy business, they assert, and people cannot be relied upon to frame their grievances in the required legal jargons. Thus, human rights NGOs take up this role and dictate the way with which Palestinians raise their demands. This elitist approach is both patronizing and exclusionary and has, over the last 20 years, created a privileged minority of Palestinian advocates, elite activists and spokespersons of the cause who simply cannot look beyond international law and human rights. De-politicization is intrinsic to the liberal human rights discourse where the battles are fought on a legal turf and where the oppressor sets the rules.

It is also seen by believers in human rights discourse as a source of legitimacy. Palestinians are required to justify their actions and their resistance according to international law both to combat Israeli propaganda and to gain legitimacy. Using a human rights discourse garners more support particularly in the West and among circles that have not always been sympathetic with Palestinian demands.

Avoiding strong words like liberation, decolonization and rebellion and drawing from the wide human rights lexicon will increase the popularity of Palestinian demands.

This was especially clear after the second Intifada when violent Palestinian resistance was demonized. The use of human rights terminology was perfect to make Palestinians look “civilized” in western eyes and “prove” the justice of our cause.

But what this insistence on such a liberal discourse achieved was the exclusion of disfranchised people from politics, the de-legitimization of armed forms of resistance, and prioritizing a legal agenda that promotes human rights as an industry but not in terms of content and genuine, lasting change.

In his political and philosophical critique of human rights, “Seven Theses on Human Rights,” Costas Douzinas argues that while “human rights claims and struggles bring to the surface the exclusion, domination and exploitation, and inescapable strife that permeates social and political life,” “they conceal the deep roots of strife and domination by framing struggle and resistance in the terms of legal and individual remedies which, if successful, lead to small individual improvements and a marginal rearrangement of the social edifice.”

He adds that the impact of human rights is “to de-politicize conflict and remove the possibility of radical change.”

It is undeniable that human rights NGOs in Palestine have achieved some success even within Israel’s colonial judicial system, but those achievements are limited and have done more to improve the image of Israel’s judicial system, give it legitimacy and promote its reputation as liberal, accessible system than actually advance Palestinian demands.

In many ways, the current uprising in Palestine is not just a rebellion against the Israeli occupation and against the corrupt Palestinian leadership; it is also an indictment of this rights-based discourse and strategy.

Youth taking to the streets in various forms are not calling for more budgets or for the improvement of the conditions of their cages. They are calling for the destruction of the cage, a demand that a narrow, liberal human rights discourse will never be able to grasp. It’s not a civil rights struggle in which Palestinians seek recognition from the occupation, but a decolonial one in which youths are not expecting legal justifications for resorting to violence in the face of an inherently violent system.

With the very limited arsenal at their disposal including kitchen knives, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, Palestinian youth are trying to reclaim the agency that has been taken away from them partly by the Palestinian political and human rights elite.

The rebellious youth are calling for radical transformations; it is up to the human rights community in Palestine to decide whether they will listen and join or whether they will remain confined to their comfortable offices and liberal discourse.

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