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The Toronto Star

Same Rights Standards Must Apply to All Nations

New York-based Human Rights Watch probes human rights abuses. Not surprisingly, it is attacked by various governments and interested parties. Recently, its founder, Robert Bernstein, accused it of being selectively tough on Israel. On Tuesday, I spoke by phone to Kenneth Roth, executive director.

Here are some excerpts:

Q: Comment on Mr. Bernstein?

A: He's making three arguments. One, that we should focus only on closed societies, not open societies. But George Bush showed us the danger of that approach. It would undermine the rights movement if we ignored serious abuses just because a society is open. Everybody should be held to the same standard.

Two, that we should hold Israel to a lower standard because it is fighting a war of self-defence. But that's not what the law says. The Geneva Conventions say that everybody be held to the same standard. The reason for that is that everybody thinks they are the defender, not the aggressor.

Three, that Human Rights Watch is focusing too much on Israel. But our Middle East and North Africa division covers 17 countries. The work on Israel constitutes only 15 per cent of the work of that entire division, which is one of our 16 programs. So the work on Israel is a tiny, tiny proportion of our work.

Q: Those who support Israel feel strongly, for obvious reasons. Critics are called anti-Semites or self-hating Jews, etc.

A: The idea that, by describing what Israel did in Gaza, one is an anti-Semite is ridiculous. It is an insult. It cheapens the concept of anti-Semitism. (Benjamin) Netanyahu would like to discuss anything other than what Israel did in Gaza. He'd do anything to change the subject. That's a tacit admission of indefensible conduct. If there were a defence, they would discuss the facts. But they are running away from the facts and hiding behind charges of anti-Semitism.

Q: Travelling the world, one hears about U.S. double standards.

A: This monster has emerged from a number of African governments who are saying: Why is the international community regularly prosecuting African offenders but ignoring the offenders among their allies, such as Israel, Sri Lanka, Russia in Chechnya, the U.S. in Afghanistan?

One emphasis I'd place is for broader ratification of the International Criminal Court Treaty. One reason why the U.S., Israel, Russia or Sri Lanka aren't being investigated by the ICC is that they haven't signed the treaty (100 states have).

Q: The Mideast peace process.

A: Everybody knows what an agreement would look like. But how do you build the trust to get to that?

The greatest obstacle are the attacks, by both sides, on civilians. We're not going to make any progress until we end the attacks on civilians and bring the perpetrators to justice.


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Q: That's what (Richard) Goldstone said in his Gaza report.

A: He is right.

Q: Overall, where's the human rights movement?

A: Governments are always tempted to violate human rights. That's a given. The question is: Is the human rights movement strong enough to increase the cost of succumbing to that temptation.

The good news is that the cost of the abuse is much higher. Twenty years ago, there would have been no Goldstone report, there'd have been no outcry over the conduct of Israel in Gaza. That's progress.

Q: And Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. led to Obama's election.

A: Exactly.

Q: His record, so far?

A: He stopped torture and mistreatment by American interrogators. He shut the secret CIA detention facilities where people disappeared and were susceptible to torture.

But he has not been willing to prosecute past torturers. That's an abdication of responsibility. It will only encourage some future president to resort to torture again.

He has also been disappointing on the question of how to close Guantanamo. We urged him to adopt a policy of either prosecute or release. He is insisting on maintaining a third option - prosecuting people not in regular court but before the substandard military commission, or not prosecuting people at all but simply detaining them without trial (just like Bush).

Q: Anything you want to add?

A: I was in Montreal recently talking about Canada's role in the world. I spoke as a long-time admirer of Canada's' tradition of support for human rights, peacekeeping, international institutions, international law. (But) we've seen a disappointing backing away from that tradition in recent years.

Haroon Siddiqui

Haroon Siddiqui is the Toronto Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday (

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