Moral Relativism and the Gaza Crisis: Whither Canada’s Voice for Human Rights?

by Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada

This summer’s conflict in Gaza and southern Israel was wrenching. Day after day it did not let up. Rockets launched from Gaza. Relentless aerial bombardment by Israeli forces in Gaza. More rockets from Gaza. Missiles and ground assaults by Israeli forces. All of that in a wider context of serious and longstanding human rights violations, including the collective punishment of the Gaza blockade; and very legitimate security concerns. Against this loud and angry backdrop the toll on civilians, overwhelmingly Palestinian civilians, was heartbreaking. In a corner of the world that has been enmeshed in decades of repression, terrorism, reprisal, defence and revenge the summer of 2014 will long be remembered for the scale and ferocity of the violence.

The human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law have been relentless. Without a doubt, both sides have committed war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.

At such a time, faced with such a crisis, it is vitally important that the international community consistently and forcefully reject violations on both sides and demand that both sides comply with international law. When it comes to picking a side it should be clear; the only side to choose is human rights protection. Neither side’s population’s human rights matter more than the other’s.

That should be an easy calculation for Canada. But not this time out. In fact, Canada’s position could not have been more contrary to that imperative.
At every turn the Canadian government has steadfastly refused to criticize Israeli actions – even mildly. No matter the circumstances. No matter the nature of the attack. Blame was always directed back to Hamas. A hospital or a UN school is hit by Israeli bombs and it is Hamas’ fault. The argument goes something like this: if Hamas was not launching rockets, Israel would not have to respond and the unlawful attack would not have happened.

But that is not what international law says; not international humanitarian law and not international human rights law. Instead international law operates in accordance with that age-old playground maxim: two wrongs do not make a right. In the face of accusations of war crimes or crimes against humanity it is simply no excuse or defence to say, but the other guys did it first. Where and when would that ever end? Self-defence; yes, of course. But in accordance with international law. And certainly not by means of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The Canadian government and numerous commentators have harshly criticized human rights groups like Amnesty International and others who insist on condemning all violations and abuses, by both sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The current fashion is to accuse us of engaging in ‘moral relativism’. By criticizing Israeli forces for violating international law we are apparently implicitly equating them to Hamas, who we also condemn for violating international law. And that somehow means that we are saying both sides are equally bad.

Prime Minister Harper sharply rebuked those who criticize Israel’s human rights record in his speech to the Israeli Knesset in January of this year, essentially labelling us moral relativists who ‘go along to get along’. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made it clear in a speech to the American Jewish Congress in Washington back in May that when it comes to Canadian foreign policy with respect to Israel, “there is no room for moral relativism”. In a statement issued on 15 July of this year, responding to the Gaza crisis, Minister Baird insisted that, “the scourge of terrorism must be wholly rejected by all peace-loving people around the world. We must never allow moral relativism to act as cover for the indiscriminate attacks on Israel we have seen over the past eight days.”

Using outraged and lecturing rhetoric about moral relativism to deflect criticism of Israel completely misses what international human rights and humanitarian laws are all about. International law is never about assigning equal or equivalent blame between parties to a conflict or among countries. It is about blame, not about equivalency. If one side violates rights, that is wrong and blameworthy and should be stopped and remedied. If the other side violates rights, that is wrong and blameworthy and should be stopped and remedied. International human rights and humanitarian norms do not assess the good guys versus the bad and let the good guys off the hook when they break the law. That is politics, not law.

Amnesty International is pressed repeatedly by governments, reporters and others to do just that; to engage in equivalency. We are asked to rank and compare all the time. Which side is worse? How does country X compare to country Y? Are things better or worse in country Z this year?

And we refuse to do so. We refuse because that is not what universal human rights protection strives to achieve. It is not only about protecting rights against violations by whichever fighting force has the worst record. We are not only concerned about and ready to condemn the human rights records of the top twenty violating nations. And we do not excuse violations when committed by a democratically elected government. It is about protecting rights. Everyone’s. Everywhere. End of story.

That is what has been sold so grievously short amidst Canada’s hectoring and posturing throughout this summer’s Gaza/Israel crisis. Behind the defiant insistence that Canada will not engage in moral relativism, and thus not criticize Israel, is this implicit, chilling message: some people’s rights matter much more than others.

That is not in the interests of Palestinians, obviously. Nor Israelis. And for a country that believes in and strives towards universal human rights protection, it is not in the interests of Canadians.

It is time to take arguments about moral relativism out of Canadian foreign policy, particularly with respect to Israel. What Palestinians need, what Israelis need and what the world needs to hear from Canada is a principled, consistent defence of all human rights. It doesn’t get any more moral than that. And there is nothing relative about it.

Originally published in the SLAW, Canada’s online legal magazine

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