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Craig Mokhiber Interview: The Hope Of Ending ‘Israel’s Fever Dream’

Above photo: Craig Mokhiber, Director, New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, center, moderating the event “Towards a Gender-Responsive Global Compact for Migration” at UN Headquarters on March 21, 2018. United Nations/Flickr.

In a wide-ranging interview, Craig Mokhiber reflects on his time as Director of the New York Office of the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights.

He stepped down in protest over the UN’s failure to prevent a “textbook case of genocide” in Gaza.

Interest in the withering four-page letter that Craig Mokhiber, former Director of the New York Office of the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights, wrote on October 28 to High Commissioner Volker Turk—charging that the UN has failed in its mission to prevent a “textbook case of genocide” in Gaza—has not waned. Last week, nearly 1,000 people from around the globe attended a webinar with Mokhiber co-hosted by the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace (PCAP) and Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA).

Mokhiber, an attorney specializing in international human rights, worked for the UN in increasingly impactful roles for over three decades and lived in Gaza in the 1990s. Following last week’s webinar, he spoke with Mondoweiss. Here is a slightly edited version of our wide-ranging interview.

Mondoweiss: How do you explain Biden’s continued support of Israel’s devastating war on Gaza?

Craig Mokhiber: I have to say, it doesn’t surprise me. The U.S. has marched in lockstep with Israel throughout a whole series of attacks by Israel on Palestinian civilian populations for decades now. I’ve been saying in regard to the current situation, the U.S. is committing legal complicity as defined by the Genocide Convention. Complicity is a specific crime under the [1948 United Nations] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In the past, when genocides were emerging, the sin of the U.S. was that it didn’t do anything to stop them.

When the genocide was unfolding in Rwanda, the case I saw very closely in my previous job, the U.S. gave instructions to its diplomatic missions not to use the word genocide. They understood that if they used the word, they would be compelled by international law to take action to stop it. They didn’t want to.

In this case, it’s not just that they haven’t taken action to stop it. They have been actively participating in it. While these atrocities have been happening in real-time, the U.S. has been arming, financing, and providing intelligence support and diplomatic cover—even repeatedly providing the veto to stop a ceasefire so that Israel can continue to carry on these acts. That amounts to complicity under international law. And it explains why there is now legal action taken by the Center for Constitutional Rights to hold them accountable for this specific crime in the Genocide Convention.

Biden is doing what every Democrat and Republican has done going back decades. In this case, where Israel’s actions amount to genocide, it is particularly remarkable because, one, it is exposing U.S. government officials to legal action regarding genocide. Two, there’s no question that Biden is paying a very high political cost. He is getting ready next year for a competitive election, presumably against Donald Trump, where they were neck and neck. He has now lost significant support because he has lost votes as a result of what Americans view to be his unconditional support for Israel’s activities. He’s lost support from the progressive Jewish community, from Arab Americans, from Muslim Americans, from African Americans, from young people. All of them lined up against the Israeli onslaught. I can’t imagine that Biden’s people were not aware of these political costs.

But the degree of political capture of U.S. political institutions is so absolute now that they don’t even care what the American people think. Polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans—Republicans and Democrats—oppose this onslaught and want a ceasefire and a cutback on aid going into this process. If you look not just at the rhetoric of the members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and the State Department and the entire Executive Branch on the one hand, and the position of the American people on the other hand—before you even get into a moral position or a legal position which are all on the other side as well—you see just how wide the disconnect has grown between what the American people want—human decency, morality, human rights, international law—and the position of elected officials and the administration.

Mondoweiss: Talk about the conversation that’s had now between “the rule of law” and “the rules-based order.”

Craig Mokhiber: That phrase, the rules-based order, has been made up in the corridors of the State Department. It doesn’t mean anything in international law. What it has come to mean is a way to sidestep the specificities of international law, because U.S. obligations in the international arena are framed by international law just as the obligations of every one of 193 countries are framed by this same international law. The United States has not been a good friend of international law in general.

But there’s a long tradition of American disdain for international law. When it comes to international human rights law, the framework of the laws that has been built since the Second World War to make sure that states can’t abuse their power to subject people to violations of human rights like torture, summary execution, arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of health care, food, housing, water and sanitation, discrimination,  the U.S. is a country that has one of the worst ratification records of international human right treaties. There are 193 countries in the world. Every one of them has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the treaty that protects the human rights of children, except one country, and that’s the United States of America, the only country on the planet that hasn’t ratified the main treaty to protect the rights of the children. It’s symbolic of their general attitude to international law.

The U.S. Constitution says that international law is the law of the land. Treaties that are ratified by the U.S. are the law of the land. But when you hear discussions in U.S. courts, for example—the legal tradition in the U.S. is very anti-international law—they refer to international law as “foreign law.” It’s not foreign law, it’s your law, you’re a part of it, you helped develop it, and then you voluntarily signed on to it. So, the U.S. is not a good friend of international law.

The United States refuses to ratify the Rome Statute. The U.S. opposes efforts to hold accountable perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and gross violations of human rights by international mechanisms if the perpetrator is a friend of theirs. They block, undercut, prevent, smear, and generally obstruct mechanisms that have been set up to hold Israel accountable for previous violations of international law. If the International Criminal Court ever tries to take action against any U.S. person or any of their allies, it may face U.S. military intervention. Congress actually passed an act, nicknamed the Hague Invasion Act, stipulating that the U.S. is authorized to use military force to attack the ICC in the Hague in order to grab a person that they don’t want to be prosecuted. In other words, to free a war criminal.

That absolute disdain for international law is expressed in other areas as well. The trend in the international community over many years now has been the abolition of capital punishment. The U.S. is an outlier with a small handful of states that still practice and defend capital punishment: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and a few others. The U.S. aggressively defends that position in international settings and opposes action in the UN to advance the prohibition or the abolition of capital punishment—another example of disdain for the progressive development of international law.

There’s a myth projected in this country that the U.S. is a leader on human rights in the world. Forty years in the international human rights movement, I’ve never seen evidence of this. The U.S. has an official policy—Democrats and Republicans—of opposing the UN’s international program against racism. Absolutely remarkable, the UN program is a milquetoast program to oppose racism around the world. The U.S. actively opposes any action on the antiracism program. The United States was one of a handful—four states in the world—that didn’t agree when it was adopted to the International Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The idea of U.S. leadership on international human rights is a lie that was created in Washington, has been was parroted over and over again, but is giggled at by people outside of the U.S., by people who know the actual record of the U.S. And this is before you look at the violation of human rights inside the U.S., experienced by African Americans, Indigenous Americans, the prison industrial complex, the denial of health care to people, the whole range of human rights that are codified the universal International Declaration of Human Rights, rights denied to so many Americans. In fact, neither at home nor in its conduct abroad nor in its positioning in the international system, has the U.S. been a leader in human rights, at least not since Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the Human Rights Commission that adopted the Universal Declaration in 1948, and perhaps with a slight uptick under Jimmy Carter’s tenure.

Mondoweiss: What keeps you going?

Craig Mokhiber: Anger.

Look, I have zero tolerance for injustice. I grew up in a de-industrializing, economically depressed, racially divided, environmentally degraded atmosphere starting in the 1960s in a rust-belt city, a place famous for environmental catastrophes like Love Canal, famous for the chemical industries that were based there that degraded the environment and created a dependent local economy. When they moved away, they left behind a devastated workforce, a devastated tax base, and a degraded community. Police abuses in earlier decades, racism, and all the kinds of things that define injustice and deprivation. I think that made me very attuned to injustice. These things were not an accident of nature. They flowed from a system that privileges some and imposes burdens on others.

When I went to university in Buffalo in the 1980s, that local consciousness became an international consciousness as I learned more about what we were imposing on other countries. In particular, the impacts we were having, the negative impacts we were having on peoples around the world. This was an era when the U.S. was still supporting apartheid in South Africa. It was supporting death squads in Central America. It was even then supporting the persecution and dispossession of the Palestinian people.

And I discovered that there are like-minded people in the world who act in solidarity to fight for a different vision, one based upon a universal set of principles called human rights. And that they sometimes succeeded. That’s what keeps me going: solidarity with victims, with people who care, and with human rights movements all around the planet. This can be powerful.

Mondoweiss: I think of the JVP action that closed New York’s Grand Central Station, another that occupied the Statue of Liberty, and an action earlier this month that shut down a major intersection in Denver during the Global Conference of the Jewish International Fund.

Craig Mokhiber: In one fell swoop, the hasbara narrative that Israel put out—that it is acting in the name of the Jews—was wiped away by these principled Jewish human rights defenders. Israel is a state. It doesn’t represent the Jewish people. Its crimes are its own. It alone is responsible for them. This coming together of Jews and Muslims and Christians and agnostics and human rights defenders and peace activists and others, declaring that genocide is not something that can be allowed in the 21st century, that’s inspiring.

Mondoweiss: Do you see any signs of change in the UN?

Craig Mokhiber: Whenever I talk about the UN, I always want to be careful to say which UN. The UN is a complex net of organizations and bureaus. There is the UN that is the most visible, which is the political side of the house, things like the Security Council, other intergovernmental bodies, the Secretary-General, and the senior political leadership. That part of the UN is in trouble. That part of the UN has lost its way. It has given in to political expediency. It has given in to trepidation for fear that powerful states are going to punish them if they try to take a principled stand. That’s a very dangerous thing. That’s where the pressure needs to be brought to bear.

But there’s the other side of the UN, which is the engine of the UN, all those UN staffers who are workers in the humanitarian field and human rights field and development field, who are there because they hate poverty, they hate injustice, they hate war, and they are working to try to end these things. Those people—including more than 138 UNRWA workers in Gaza and their families who have been murdered by Israel just these past few weeks—these people have all of my solidarity, and they always will. I have no critique of them. But they have been abandoned by the political leadership of the United Nations.

And the compromises that the UN makes out of fear of the United States government, out of fear of the Israel lobby, out of fear of Western states like the UK and Germany and others, this is really compromising its moral position and weakening its ability to take action. The same is true of the International Criminal Court.

Mondoweiss: Can you say some more about the court?

Craig Mokhiber: The ICC is not a UN institution, but it’s an important international institution that was set up to try to provide an opportunity for justice for those who are victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Instead, it has become a mechanism that is only willing to focus on countries of the South, to prosecute African leaders and a few others, and that refuses to do anything that the West might not like. The most obvious example is the rapidity with which they acted with regard to allegations of war crimes by Russia in the Ukraine, within days initiating action, and the way that they have intentionally and corruptly dragged their feet to act to avoid taking action on Israeli violations in Palestine in spite of the fact that these cases were brought years ago.

The problem now is [the ICC’s] Prosecutor Karim Khan, who is thoroughly politically corrupted, who is eroding the entire reputation of the court due to his bias and his obsequious service of western interests. Which will be a real shame if the International Criminal Court doesn’t break free from the political capture and corruption to which it has been subjected, principally through the prosecutor’s office. It could become quickly irrelevant and then fade off into the background of history which would be a shame for people who mobilized for decades to create the court because they wanted accountability for powerful perpetrators. It would be a loss for everyone.

It’s the same thing we see with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If Israel gets away with massive war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, if the message is that these rules established after the 2nd World War don’t apply to the U.S. and its allies, this will be the beginning of the end of the entire international framework. Because who is going to dare to claim these mechanisms and instruments after they have heard from the United States that they don’t apply to them or their friends, but they do apply to everyone else. That will be the end of it. And that will be a loss for all of us.

Mondoweiss: Maybe a loss for decades…

Craig Mokhiber: Absolutely, maybe permanently. These mechanisms are among some of the few things that stand between individual human beings who want their dignity and rights to be protected on the one hand and the awesome power of states and their militaries and their police and their intelligence agencies on the other.

Mondoweiss: What do you see for the day after?

Craig Mokhiber: I think that Israel is expediting its action now to complete its original purpose of the ethnic purging of Gaza, which is part of the larger project that started in 1947. I think they are also expediting their effort at ethnic purges in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I think this is a historic moment in which Israel wants to make as much dark progress as it possibly can to consolidate their ethno-nationalist settler-colonial project. You’re talking about two-thirds of Gaza already effectively destroyed, 18,000 dead, likely 20,000, there are still thousands under the rubble, many more who are going to die of disease and hunger and thirst, and physical infrastructure has already been destroyed to the point where all of the essentials that are necessary for life, that are necessary for food, for water, for electricity, cultural life, churches and mosques, schools, poets and authors—all are gone.

I think they’ll try to finish as much of that as they can in the next few weeks, and then try to prevent any meaningful reconstruction or return, with the intention of having people, the survivors, forced to choose between remaining in the south of Gaza in miserable, unsustainable conditions or passing through the border at Rafah to live out the rest of their meager existence in tents in the Sinai or to be sent out in the diaspora to other countries so that the ethnic purging of Palestine will be advanced that much further.

What will happen? Will it be tolerated? Well, there are likely already deals being cooked behind the scenes between the Americans and others, trying to make sure that Israel succeeds in the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. I think they will then, as they have already begun, start to speed up persecution in the West Bank. They have already ethnically purged a number of villages, locked up many, many more prisoners, imposed conditions that make it more and more unbearable in the hope of pushing more and more people out of the West Bank as well. So that their vision of an apartheid, supremacist, settler-colonial, ethno-nationalist state will be consolidated, as the saying goes, “from the river to the sea.”

They’re getting away with it because of the complicity of the United States, the United Kingdom, and a number of countries in Europe. They’re getting away with it because of the failure of the post-war international legal structures and international institutions like the UN and the ICC and the [International Court of Justice], and none of those things are going to suddenly stand up and take a principled position, which means that the hope of stopping them from getting away with genocide, the hope of ending their fever dream of an ethno-nationalist, oppressive, exclusivist state rests with ordinary people in Israel, in Palestine and around the world.

There is hope because people are standing up in their millions around the world, Jews and Christians and Muslims and, as I said, human rights defenders, peace activists, labor unions, and others. They are standing up and saying no. And if this continues, if people can be held accountable in courts, held accountable economically through boycotts and divestment and sanctions, through civil disobedience and mass demonstrations in countries in the West in a growing anti-apartheid movement, Israel will no longer get away with the crimes that it’s gotten away with now for 75 years. The victory of the human rights vision will depend on how successful we are in struggling against apartheid and the continuing Nakba.

Let’s hope that we’ll start to dismantle apartheid in Israel and Palestine, dismantle ethno-nationalism, and start working toward a state based on human rights and equality for Christians, Muslims and Jews. That’s what people around the world are demanding. And if we can put enough pressure through all of these peaceful measures, we might actually see a turning of the tide that will take a long time as it did in South Africa, we might see a change in the very dark trajectory on which the world now finds itself.

The great irony of 1948 is that the same year that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, the same year that the Genocide Convention was adopted, was also the year of the Nakba in Palestine—the first genocidal ethnic purging of Palestine—and the year that apartheid was adopted in South Africa.

Mondoweiss: What have you noticed, what has surprised you since you sent your letter to the High Commissioner? 

Craig Mokhiber: What I find striking is that there are actually people out there who are enthusiastically—what was it Yeats wrote, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—and angrily declaring their support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza and in the Palestinian territory as you see the broken bodies of babies and women and men and the wholesale destruction of civilian life in Gaza. To see people actually organizing to support a perpetrator state against a defenseless civilian population and to hear the deeply racist ways that they are expressing that support, seemingly oblivious to the immorality of the positioning that they’re taking, is something that has hit me very hard.

And the other thing that I think is unique here, that we have not seen perhaps since the McCarthy era, but I think is even more frighting at this stage, is the organized assault on human rights defenders in the United States that has now enlisted the U.S. Congress, the Executive Branch, universities who have given in to this horrific idea, legislation being passed both at the state level and the federal level levels to outlaw freedom of expression designed to defend Palestinian human rights. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime. It is extremely dangerous, and it needs to be stopped and it is a violation of international human rights—an open assault on standards of free expression, free association, free assembly. It is a violation of the rights of human rights defenders, a violation of the fundamental rights of everyone in this country to oppose human rights violations. The way that this has been organized and proposed is unprecedented in our history and is extremely dangerous.

But it is also true that brave young students, government contractors, ordinary people are refusing to be intimidated and refusing to be silenced, that they’re marching in the streets in the thousands at the risk of arrest and police beatings—not just in the U.S., but also in Europe, where these things have been prohibited. It is a very scary thing that a foreign state—one that is practicing apartheid and settler colonialism and is involved in a full-out genocide—is able to affect law and policy inside the United States and some other countries in order to violate the human rights of people in these countries. The inspiring thing is people are not allowing themselves to be silenced. The number of those who are standing up is going to grow. And I think history will appropriately judge this era and those who participated in this kind of repression in the United States very harshly indeed. We need to work like hell to make sure this judgment comes sooner than later.

Mondoweiss: What do you see coming next for you?

Craig Mokhiber: I had planned to just sort of come home and settle in and write and think unconstrained. But as they say, If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. My plan is to continue to work in solidarity with human rights movements all around the world, especially here in this country. The frontline of human rights for so many people around the globe is right here in the United States, in the heart of the Empire. Those who live here have a particular obligation to raise hell when it’s necessary. That’s my plan.

Mondoweiss: Craig, your resignation letter was amazing. Did you hear back from your boss?

Craig Mokhiber: I never got a response of any kind. Complete silence.

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