The Weaponization of Human Rights and What to Do About it

Israel is in the middle of a very difficult war – the most painful since 1973, and perhaps even the 1948 War of Independence. Accompanying the brutal slaughter of October 7 and thousands of rockets, a parallel battle is being fought in the form of the demonization of the Jewish state as the world’s most evil violator of human rights and international law. In universities, hated Zionists (meaning most Jews) are the targets of antisemitic attacks, and in major cities, violent mobs attack Jewish targets.

The weapons of this demonization have been twisted out of the same principles and institutions that were originally forged to protect the Jewish people and mankind from a repetition of the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies. These principles were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. In the years that followed, institutions were established to monitor and implement these instruments, including UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Yet, for the past fifty years, these frameworks, created as a direct result of the Holocaust, have been systematically subverted and weaponized to demonize the Jewish State. A toxic brew was concocted from the antisemitism emanating from the Kremlin and assorted Arab capitals, combined with Cold War political dynamics. In the Soviet bloc, Jew hatred was rampant, and it was amplified within the UN and elsewhere by the 21-country Arab League. In debates on human rights and racism, whenever the US and Israel would raise the issue of Soviet Jewry, the Soviets and Arabs countered with attacks against Zionism. Just 30 years after the UN was created, these forces produced the infamously antisemitic 1975 “Zionism is Racism“ Resolution 3379 in the General Assembly. And though the resolution was repealed in 1991, the accompanying UN committees and funding mechanisms for demonizing Israel remain.

Another major source of human rights weaponization was the emergence of the neo-Marxist left in the US and other western democracies, which merged a focus on exploitation by “racist, capitalist, imperialist, colonial oppressors” with the Palestinian victimization narrative. These once-fringe ideologues became powerful voices within leading universities, building alliances with ostensibly oppressed peoples in the “global south” (an early version of intersectionality), while Israel, particularly after the 1967 war, was branded as the tool of American and European imperialism. In this tortured version of morality and human rights, western nationalism, including Zionism, was automatically “evil,” but Third World nationalism was good—the victims could never be unjust oppressors, and the colonialists could never be righteous victims.

This combination produced a powerful human rights industry that largely erased its origins being anchored in the Holocaust and UDHR. Universities began to teach courses and offer degrees in human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), attracting idealistic college activists who built careers through UN agencies, government service, journalism and NGOs. Amnesty International, based in London, was the first major organization, followed by Human Rights Watch, based in New York.

Initially, these NGOs focused on campaigning on behalf of political prisoners and in opposition to the South African apartheid governments. But with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the human rights movement changed its focus to the ideological battle against the West and Israel, bringing substantial resources to promote these themes. Ken Roth was the leader of this process, and used his position as executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) from 1993 to 2022 to advance the demonization of Israel. In addition to the ideological dimension, Roth’s interviews, op ed articles and social media posts reveal a deeply personal and obsessive hostility[1] towards the Jewish state. He also employed numerous staff members at HRW who shared and furthered this agenda (In 2009, HRW’s founder Robert Bernstein denounced the organization and Roth in an op ed published in the New York Times[2], and in a series of speeches.). The leaders and activists at Amnesty International and many other NGOs, funded by European governments and private political foundations, embodied the same ideology, in some cases mixed with classical antisemitism.

The weaponization of human rights to target Israel was solidified at the UN World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa in September 2001, which was ostensibly to celebrate the end of apartheid. At the UN preparatory meeting held in Tehran, the agenda for the conference was composed, with an unexpected hijacking of the event to revive the campaign to demonize Israel. Following this script at Durban, the NGOs, led by HRW and Amnesty, repeated accusations of war crimes, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, as well as blocking representatives of “Zionist” NGOs from addressing the NGO Forum. Yassir Arafat was a keynote speaker, accompanied by a man identified as the father of 12 year old Mohammed al-Dura, who, according to the “human rights community,” was killed by the IDF in a firefight with terrorists while cradled in his father’s arms (The evidence is inclusive and contradictory – according to some analysts, his death was staged[3].). In its final declaration, the 1500 NGO representatives called for “the complete international isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.“

The Durban strategy has been applied and amplified continuously in every subsequent conflict, based on weaponizing the language and institutions of human rights to condemn Israel and prevent the IDF from protecting Israeli citizens by labeling any form of national defense as a war crime. The two NGO superpowers — HRW and Amnesty — which together have annual budgets of over $500 million, lead the attacks. Their massive war-chests pay for hundreds of staff members who push the “reports,” press releases and social media attacks across a wide front. Dispensing with basic verification of the accusations, journalists automatically give these “highly respected independent experts” banner headlines, particularly when condemning Israel. They cooperate closely with a network of like-minded Palestinian, Israeli, and European organizations operating under the facades of human rights and IHL. These NGOs receive most of their funds from western governments and the UN, with a total of about $100 million annually.

Through a system of revolving doors and close alliances, these NGOs shape (in practice, write) the reports, resolutions and condemnations employed in UN agencies—particularly the Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The UNHRC, controlled by the 56 states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — including such paragons of human rights as Iran and Syria — is a major force multiplier, wrapping the NGO attacks in the UN facade. Every Council session features numerous opportunities to attack Israel, including Permanent Agenda Item 7,  which is the only item devoted to attacking a single country. In parallel, these NGOs lobby the ICC prosecutor continuously, including through the quasi-official Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

The impacts of this strategy were already visible in March 2002, in the form of high-profile war crimes accusations regarding IDF responses to the Palestinian mass bombing attacks (aka the “second intifada”). HRW and Amnesty led in issuing what were labeled as “research reports,” officials gave numerous media interviews, and war crimes accusations, as well as the Jenin massacre myth, were copied in UN documents.

During the 2006 Lebanon War, the NGO industry redoubled the demonization, and again in the first Gaza war (Operation Cast Lead, December 28, 2008-January 18, 2009). In both cases, Israelis were attacked and killed, and then the human rights community demonized the IDF response through wholesale accusations of war crimes, violations of IHL, use of outlawed weapons (white phosphorus) and deliberate killing of civilians. The inherently unverifiable evidence came from “eyewitness testimonies” curated by the NGOs, journalist reports, social media posts and similar sources. For the allied UN officials, journalists, academics and diplomats, the “human rights experts” had spoken, and no further investigation was required.

In September 2009, the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, headed by Richard Goldstone, an HRW board member, published a 575-page report accusing Israel (and Hamas, in a show of artificial and meaningless balance) of war crimes. The text was copied directly from the NGOs without any independent verification, including calls on the Security Council to refer the accusations to the ICC. Eighteen months later, on the pages of the Washington Post, Judge Goldstone acknowledged that his report was fiction—but by then the demonization process had reached an even more destructive level. The image of Israel as the world’s worst violator of human rights was firmly established.

Since then, there have been many more examples—the strategy, methodology and language was sharpened with every clash between Israel and Palestinian terrorists. The accusations of Israeli war crimes and violations of international law, originating with the NGOs and amplified by allies in the media, UN and academic frameworks have been continuous and omnipresent. In March 2021, following intense lobbying by the Palestinian Authority and the NGO network, led by HRW’s Ken Roth, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced the opening of “war crimes” investigations targeting Israelis[4].

In parallel, the weaponization of human rights and international law have increasingly incorporated a different set of accusations that uniquely target and demonize Israel: apartheid, settler colonialism, and ethnic cleansing. As noted, these terms were introduced during the Soviet-Arab league era and the 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution, and were amplified in the Durban NGO Forum. This process was facilitated by the inclusion of apartheid as a crime against humanity in the 1998 Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The emphasis on this dimension expanded in 2015, after the ICC prosecutor accepted the Palestinian application for membership. HRW and Amnesty began to submit “evidence” of these crimes. As explained by Amnesty[5], “After the ICC announced it had jurisdiction… we began to look at the way in which we can make international justice a central part of the human rights work that Amnesty does on Israel-Palestine… the crime of apartheid immediately emerged [sic].” Since the end of the South African apartheid regime, no country other than Israel has been labeled with this term. When challenged on the singling out and unique demonization of Israel, HRW and Amnesty officials dissimulate, acknowledging that Israel has nothing in common with the original practice of apartheid, but nevertheless attempting to justify the label and accompanying campaigns.

In January 2021, the Israeli NGO B’tselem and the Palestinian Al Haq (designated by Israel as a PFLP terror front) published reports promoting the apartheid libel. HRW followed in April with a report and high visibility media promotion under the title “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” In February 2022, Amnesty published a very similar document alleging that, “This system of apartheid originated with the creation of Israel in May 1948.” In the UN, the flood of documents and social media posts of the Human Rights Council’s “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967” provide an echo chamber, as do the activities of the permanent “Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel,” created in 2022.

Following Hamas’ massacre on October 7 and the beginnings of Israel’s response in Gaza, the “human rights” campaigns waged during the 22 years since Durban and Jenin have been immediately duplicated to demonize the IDF, Israel and the Jewish people. Following a few words of sympathy for Israeli victims, attention immediately shifted to humanitarian suffering in Gaza, and allegations of war crimes, genocide, and ethnic cleansing (Ken Roth’s slogan of the month.)  HRW and Amnesty [6]“experts” were interviewed continuously on the major media platforms. Under the title “Israel/Palestine: Devastating Civilian Toll as Parties Flout Legal Obligations,” HRW briefly acknowledged (with the qualifier apparent) “Hamas’ apparent deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate attacks, and taking of civilians as hostages.” This was followed by the usual condemnations of Israeli policies that “systematically repressed Palestinians for decades” and “inhumane acts committed against Palestinians as part of a policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians [that] amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

Amnesty followed the same script. While Israelis were still being slaughtered and dragged to captivity in Gaza, Amnesty’s first statement[7] recycled slogans condemning “Israel’s 16-year-long illegal blockade on Gaza, and all other aspects of Israel’s system of apartheid imposed on all Palestinians.” Secretary General Agnes Callamard included a brief comment on the slaughter, without mentioning Hamas: “Palestinian armed groups from Gaza, must refrain from targeting civilians and using indiscriminate weapons,” as always, erasing the Israeli victims. In the flood of statements and social media posts that followed, the NGO called on the ICC to “urgently expedite its ongoing investigation in the situation of Palestine, examining alleged crimes by all parties,” including “the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians.”

These slogans, under the facades of morality and human rights, are repeated daily on respected media platforms, chanted by the mobs of Israel haters and Hamas supporters, and painted on the signs brandished in city centers and by students and professors on university campuses. They are mindlessly repeated in textbooks and taught in classes on international law, thereby turning terror-supporting propaganda into established wisdom.


Strategy to End Human Rights Weaponization

The war to delegitimize and demonize the Jewish state, using the distortion and exploitation of the moral principles of human rights and international law beyond recognition, is now deeply embedded in the strategy to demonize and even erase Israel from the map. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which this changes—indeed, the screaming accusations of war crimes, bombing hospitals, deliberate killing of children, apartheid, ethnic and the rest are even more shrill and dangerous.

But perhaps this time will be different. Perhaps the enormity of the October 7th massacre of 1200 Israeli men, women, children, and the capture of 239, including 33 children, in a display of unimaginable barbarism will leave more than a fleeting impression. Perhaps the depravity and moral inversion embodied by the weaponization of human rights, including its Jew-hating antisemitic foundations, can be exposed, its architects named and shamed beyond rehabilitation.

This will require an intense long-term campaign to return the institutions that claim to speak in the name of human rights to the principles and values of the 1948 Universal Declaration, and to put an end to the singling out of Israel. Among other basic changes, the facile indoctrination employed in law school programs on human rights, often taught by NGO activists with minimal credentials, and in pseudo-academic international law clinics that dot the academic landscape must be challenged and reversed.

To begin this process, it is necessary to repeatedly expose the hypocrisy of the NGO industry, and to press their wealthy foundation donors to stop the automatic gifts that pay the army of demonizers and pathological Israel-haters hiding beneath the facade of morality.

To succeed in this vital war, a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals who support Israel, embrace Zionism, and work to counter antisemitism must be centrally involved. Through this way, the weaponization of human rights against the Jewish people will be halted, and the values in the universal declaration restored.




photo: Bigstock, oliverdelahaye









Gerald M. Steinberg

Gerald M. Steinberg is emeritus professor of politics at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor.

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