Yonatan Gher
Full time peace, human rights, environmental, social and religious-pluralism activist

Wait, which side are the bad guys on?

Governments agree: All countries are capable of violating human rights...except their own country
Bina Bala, a 22-year-old woman who survived a massacre of Hindu villagers by the armed group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 25 August 2017. © Andrew Stanbridge/Amnesty International

On Tuesday, Amnesty International published a report according to which up to 99 Hindu men, women and children were massacred in Myanmar by a Rohingya armed group in August 2017. Those who have been following the developing tragedy in Myanmar responded thus: “Wait. What?”

Until now, most of what was known about the reality in Myanmar spoke of Ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the government towards the Rohingya Muslim minority, of an Apartheid regime towards them, while forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to the neighboring Bangladesh to save their lives. The world has been campaigning on the behalf of the Rohingya people, and here in Israel we’ve been working to stop the sale of Israeli weapons to Myanmar, which Israel both denied was happening and promised to stop.

But as with any human rights violations, this is not about sides. It’s not a “Hindu’s bad, Rohingya good”, despite the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s Armed forces) claims of global one-sidedness. And these latest findings do not reduce an ounce of the responsibility of the Myanmar government and the severity of its actions.

In Syria, suspected war crimes have been documented being perpetrated by Assad’s forces, by pretty much each of the local armed groups, as well as by the US, Russia, Turkey, and more.

In Ukraine and in Russia, Amnesty International sections have come under heavy pressure when reports came out exposing that both countries have been violating human rights throughout the conflict in Crimea. “We can accept criticism, but how can you equate what we did with what they did?” the Amnesty International Ukraine Director had told me she was asked several times a day.

Human rights are not about those kinds of sides. At war, there are simply the fighting side and the civilian side. In all other contexts, there is the government side and the individual side. Human rights are there to insure universally that people are protected. There are based upon the expectation that governments will intervene in each-others’ behavior in order to uphold these rights.

This makes a lot of sense to countries, insofar as the country in question is someone other than themselves, at which point, as we have come to appreciate, the world is “intervening in internal matters”, being “____ophobic” or “anti-____tic” (feel free to crayon-in name of country or people in the blank lines). Early on in my Amnesty career, I got to experience this first hand at the Knesset, when the Foreign Workers sub-committee invited Eritrea’s Ambassador to Israel Tsefamariam Tekeste for a chat. Check out a couple minutes from that beautiful meeting in this video:

Getting the opportunity to describe the atrocities taking place in Eritrea to the Ambassador’s face, at a public meeting with media attendance is one of my Job’s few perks. But more to the point, hearing the Ambassador’s description of a world hell-bent on singling out Eritrea and being very biased against them was an eye opener. Equally eye-opening was hearing the words of sympathy towards the Ambassador by MKs Ya’akov Katz and Miri Regev, who said Israel can learn from Eritrea on how to deal with international pressure. Mind you, I also felt compelled to mention at that meeting that Eritrean Ambassadors who go off-script tend to disappear.

Regev and Katz were being kind. Israel – how to put it mildly – is not a stranger to deflecting international scrutiny. Just this week, we had Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz tell the EU that they could “go to a thousand, thousand hells” (TOI were nice enough to translate the quote literally; to capture the true essence of Steinitz’s quote, F’s and asterisks would be required) for their asking of Israel to investigate the breaking of Mossawa Director Jabar Farah’s knee while in custody. This response was in keeping with the form set by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s famous Um-Shmum, and has remained Israel’s main approach to international criticism since. We couple that, of course, with our own special variety of accusing criticism of antisemitism if it’s in English, incitement if it’s in Arabic, and treachery if it’s in Hebrew.

Reality is often inconvenient. In this age of a rise in global populism, in this era of post-truth, we need — more than ever — to put sides aside and chose the side of people: in Myanmar, in Syria, in Israel and everywhere.

P.S: “Myanmar, Syria and Israel in one breath? Really?” Really. At least until we hold ourselves to a higher standard instead of whining all the time and breaking our human rights defenders’ legs. Until then, ours can go do what Steinitz suggested, together with every other government to whom human rights are a loose and relative term.

About the Author
The writer is the Israeli Executive Director of Combatants for Peace. He has previously been the Executive Director of Amnesty International-Israel, Greenpeace Mediterranean, and the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, and Communications Director for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. Born in New York, Yonatan grew up in Jerusalem, and now lives in Jaffa with his husband and two sons. All opinions expressed are those of the writer only.
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