DUBAI: A senior UN official recently left his post at the UN Human Rights Office, accusing the world body of failing the people of Gaza and showing timidity in confronting the ongoing genocide and apartheid there, despite a wealth of evidence to support these charges.
Appearing on “Frankly Speaking,” the Arab News current affairs show, Craig Mokhiber decried “the hesitancy on the part of the UN officially to talk about Israeli apartheid in Palestine despite the fact that every major international human rights organization … has decided that the crime of apartheid is manifest there. Or, as most recently raised by my (resignation) letter, the question of genocide as defined by UN Convention.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Mokhiber discussed whether his resignation would change anything at the OHCHR, why he says Israeli lobbyists are putting pressure on UN leaders, the need for more empathy for the people of Gaza, and if anyone could put an end to the slaughter of Palestinian civilians.
The UN’s apparent failure to address the worsening situation in Gaza also came in for criticism at the Joint Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit in Riyadh on Saturday.
In his opening remarks, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said: “We are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe that demonstrates the failure of the (UN) Security Council and the international community to put an end to the flagrant Israeli violations of international laws and norms and international humanitarian law.”
The crown prince added that the situation in Gaza posed a threat to international security and stability, and that all leaders must unite to take effective action to confront the situation.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said: “We have a responsibility to exercise all possible pressure on the international community, on the United Nations, and on the Security Council, to take up its responsibility for international peace and stability.”
When he stepped down as the director of the New York office of the OHCHR, Mokhiber labeled the US, UK and much of Europe as complicit in the ongoing Israeli military offensive in Gaza. As of Sunday, more than 11,000 people had been killed in Gaza, of whom more than 4,500 were children, according to Palestinian health officials.
Despite being a legal term, genocide is seen as overly politicized these days. But as an international human rights lawyer, Mokhiber is confident that Israel’s actions in Gaza amount indisputably to genocide.
“First of all, I deal with this as a human rights lawyer, and that means that I work from the definition that’s contained in international human rights law in the convention on genocide of the United Nations, where a very clear definition is laid out together with what the elements are,” he told Katie Jensen, the host of “Frankly Speaking.”
He added: “There are basically two pieces there. One is intent to destroy. The second, a catalog of specific acts, is beyond dispute. We are talking about mass killing.
“We’re talking about serious harm being caused, including physical harm, about imposing conditions of life designed to bring about the destruction of the population, again beyond dispute because we’re all well aware of the closure and siege of the Gaza Strip since 2015, which is specifically designed to limit food, medicine, adequate housing, water, sanitation, freedom of movement, all of the conditions of life necessary for survival.”
He continued: “Normally when you’re investigating genocide, you have to dig through dusty archives to find records to prove intent. In this case, because of the climate of impunity over several decades, you’ve got Israeli officials publicly expressing genocidal intent, including the president, the prime minister, senior Cabinet ministers, and senior military officials, explicitly calling for wiping out all of Gaza, explicitly dehumanizing Palestinians, explicitly calling for no distinction between combatants and noncombatants.
“Even the prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) invoked a biblical verse, calling for the wiping out of the entire population, sparing none of them, including women, men, children, and suckling babies, as well as their livestock. To quote this biblical verse (was clear) indication of genocidal intent, with such a long catalog of specifically enumerated actions (listed in the genocide convention) taking place.
“In a context where we’ve seen successive ethnic purges going back to 1948 with this intent, this is the clearest prima facie case of genocide that we have seen.”
Mokhiber addressed accusations by some that Palestinian civilians in Gaza were complicit in the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas in southern Israel because they voted for Hamas more than 15 years ago and have refused to overthrow the party. He said this was “further evidence of the kind of genocidal rhetoric, which has gone far beyond government officials and has seeped into the public consciousness as well.”
He added: “If you talk only about Gaza, you’re talking about 2.3 million civilians in a densely populated open-air prison. They are literally caged in that area, can’t move in, can’t move out, are regularly denied adequate food, water, shelter, water sanitation, any of the things necessary for a decent life.”
Talking about his experience living with Palestinians in Gaza in the 1990s, he described the currently embattled enclave as “one of the best places I’ve ever lived — not because of the conditions on the ground, but because of the people that I met.”
He said: “The images that are portrayed in the media and by politicians do not capture the reality of the Palestinian people. If you’re able to look into the eyes of a Palestinian child or woman or man or grandmother or grandfather, if you’re able to, to know them as a people, to see that just like you, they laugh and they cry, and they fall in love and they have parties, all of the things that your own family does.
“To see the humanity of the Palestinian people, it becomes impossible to pursue these kinds of genocidal policies that many governments are pursuing. It becomes impossible to dismiss them as the ‘other.’ They are not the ‘other,’ they are ‘us.’ They are you. When you’re doing human rights work, you feel a lot of solidarity with the people you work with around the world.
“To see them every day, to see their smiles and their tears and their laughter. To love people from that community, that changes it. And we need a, a heck of a lot more of that, including to know that at this moment, as we’re speaking, there are children and women and men buried under rubble, their bones broken, their skin burned, very little oxygen in the space they find themselves; dying slow, excruciating deaths as people above try to dig them out with their bare hands. That’s what this is.”
Arguing that the Israeli military assault is “not a war on Hamas,” he said the people of Gaza are “not numbers and statistics.”
He said: “This is not some barbarous population living in some obscure place of the world. These are human beings. These are you and me. If we can just get beyond the dehumanization and start thinking of everyone, Christians, Muslims and Jews, as equal human beings, that’s where the solutions are going to be found.”
Mokhiber asserted that Netanyahu’s aim is not to remove Hamas but to remove everyday civilians from Gaza, which amounts to a textbook case of genocide.
“Netanyahu certainly bears responsibility for the violations that cause Hamas to exist in, in the first place. (But) his motives at this moment are clearly not to save the hostages, because they’re dropping bombs on where the hostages are living,” he said.
Referring to the actions of the Israeli military in Gaza, he said: “They’re clearly not just to battle with Hamas because what they are doing is wholesale destruction and slaughter.
“What’s happening in Gaza now is an effort to purge the remaining part of Palestine that is Gaza. Most of it to be bombed to the ground, the rest of it to be rendered unlivable in the hopes that any surviving Palestinians will then be compelled for survival’s sake to leave for the Rafah border and either fade away in the Sinai Peninsula or enter into the Palestinian diaspora. So, the takeover of historic Palestine will then be complete.”
Mokhiber further believes that countries such as the US and the UK are in breach of their international humanitarian law obligations in the Palestinian crisis by providing financing, arms, intelligence and diplomatic support to Israel, and so could face legal liability for their actions.
He said: “The US and the UK are parties to these international conventions. They’re bound by international humanitarian law, international human rights law, which is clear. First, the Geneva Conventions don’t only require that you respect them in your own conduct, they require that all high contracting parties ensure respect vis-a-vis others over whom they have influence, in this case Israel.
“Not only have the US and the UK and others not done what they needed to do to stop this, but they’ve actually been actively complicit. The US, for example, in providing financing, arms intelligence, support, diplomatic cover, even the use of the veto in the Security Council.
“Those are direct acts of complicity in breach of their humanitarian law obligations. The crime of genocide as defined in the convention includes the act of genocide, attempted genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy for genocide, and complicity in genocide.
“Active support going on, even while these acts are taking place, exposes the US, the UK and other states that have been involved so directly to legal liability for their actions. What they should be doing is using all their influence, diplomatic and otherwise, to stop what’s happening, including stopping the arming, financing, intelligence support, diplomatic cover (for the Israeli government), so that there is accountability, so that human life can be saved and human dignity protected.”
Asked what took him so long to resign given that he had made clear his concern that the rights of the Palestinian people were not being addressed, Mokhiber acknowledged that the conversation began in March between himself and the OHCHR in the wake of “a series of Israeli atrocities on the West Bank, including some military attacks on civilians in the West Bank and the pogroms by Israeli settlers in Hawara.”
He said: “At that point, I was speaking quite publicly about those violations in public and on social media. The UN was taking a more careful, inappropriately trepidatious, approach to those events.
“I was speaking particularly forcefully about that publicly, as I have on human rights situations in countries around the world for 32 years. But what happened in this case, there was an organized campaign by a group of Israeli lobby organizations that decided to target me by smearing me on social media, and also by (handing a protest note to) the UN in an effort to have me punished, in spite of the fact that I’m a UN human rights official, whose job it is to speak out on human rights violations.
“That created an atmosphere where there was even more trepidation and an effort on the part of the UN to tell me to be silent on these issues, which was something that I clearly could not do.
“So, already in March, as a result of this, I wrote and indicated, one, that I thought that this deference to powerful states — because the critique was coming also from Western countries and to these lobby groups — was undercutting our principled application of UN norms and standards, and that we needed to stand up against these things and not be intimidated into silence by them. To the contrary, I would encourage that we should be speaking out more loudly.”
As opposed to most politicians who are calling for a two-state solution, Mokhiber believes the world must support a single democratic secular state in all of historic Palestine, with equal rights for Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Told that the only other known politician who called for it was the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, he responded that there are a lot of public figures around the world who have been calling for it for “many, many years, including people from the human rights community who see this as consistent with our standards.”
Explaining why he did not consider a single-state solution unconventional, he said: “The interesting thing is that in every other situation around the world, the international community calls for solutions based upon equality between all of the people there. They call for a democratic secular state with equal rights for everybody who is involved in the application of international human rights standards.
“It’s only in this particular situation that there’s been a kind of muzzle around this consistency. So, it’s a very conventional response. It’s just that it’s been constrained by an application in this one case. The reality is that there is already one state de facto: the entire area of historic Palestine in Israel is controlled by the Israeli government. There is nothing left in the West Bank and Gaza for a viable, sustainable Palestinian state as a second state.
“Even if they were to adopt that, it wouldn’t remedy the central human rights challenge because Palestinians inside the Green Line would still be second-class citizens, they would have no right to return, so on and so forth. (The two-state solution) never answered that. And the question is, if we demand equality everywhere else, in this case, equal rights for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, why do we not demand it in the case of Israel and Palestine?”
Mokhiber firmly rejected the notion that advocating for a single state was effectively a call for the end of Israel’s Jewish state status, the existential idea on which the state of Israel was founded some 75 years ago.
“Netanyahu’s government doesn’t even agree with stopping a genocide. They are not my audience,” he said.
“This is not a call for the end of Israel; this is a call for the salvation of Israel and Palestine. It’s a call for the end to apartheid and the end to settler colonialism, and the embrace of the norms and standards of the UN that call for democratic secular states with equal rights for all of the people who are there to be protected.”