The November 25th afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ included a long item (from 14:05 here) relating to the ‘Human Rights Watch’ employee Omar Shakir whose work visa was not renewed by the Israeli authorities in May 2018 and who – following several court cases – left the country on that day.
Presenter Razia Iqbal introduced that eight minute and thirty-nine second item as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Iqbal: “Now, a controversial fight [sic] between Israel and one of its most vociferous human rights critics. The outcome is the expulsion of the director of Human Rights Watch based in Israel, Omar Shakir, who is a US citizen but was accused by the Israelis of advocating BDS – a Palestinian-led campaign calling for the boycotting, disinvestment and sanctioning of Israel until it meets what it des…what is described as Israel’s obligations under international law.”
Anyone familiar with the long years of BBC refusal to inform its audiences of the BDS campaign’s aims would not be surprised by Iqbal’s blatant whitewashing of that subject. The BDS campaign – which is not “Palestinian-led” as claimed by Iqbal – does not aspire to have Israel ‘meet international law’. Rather it seeks to end the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” and promotes a right of “Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties”: goals which undermine the fundamental right of the Jewish people to self-determination.
Yet as we see, Iqbal refrained from providing listeners with that obviously relevant background information before she went on to introduce her two sole interviewees – both from ‘Human Rights Watch’. She did however promote one of HRW’s long-standing talking points while referring to “a 2017 law” (actually an amendment to existing legislation) which she failed to explain.
Iqbal: “The Israelis say that Mr Shakir is in violation of a 2017 law. Human Rights Watch say Mr Shakir’s expulsion places Israel in the same camp as Venezuela, Iran and Egypt in barring Human Rights Watch researchers. I’ve been speaking to Ken Roth. He’s the head of Human Rights Watch.”
In breach of BBC editorial guidelines on “contributors’ affiliations”, listeners were not given “appropriate information” about HRW’s “affiliations, funding and particular viewpoints” and beyond the short description of Ken Roth’s title, they heard nothing of his record – a serious omission which obviously compromised the ability of audiences to put his assorted claims and allegations into context.
Roth: “I’m actually driving in the taxi at this moment toward the airport with Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, and I will accompany him out of Israel later today in compliance with the deportation order that the Israeli government has issued for him. The Israeli government wants him out of the country in essence because of his reporting on Israel’s illegal settlements and in particular the advocacy that he has done asking businesses to avoid complicity in that illegality. This kind of advocacy is similar to what Human Rights Watch does around the world, whether it’s child labour in gold and diamond mining or avoiding forced labour in cotton picking in Uzbekistan or the internet companies avoiding censorship in China. But Israel objected to this advocacy with respect to the illegal settlements and it’s retaliating against Omar by ordering his deportation.”
The claim that HRW’s work in Israel is no different to what it does in the rest of the world has long been one of the political NGO’s talking points but as NGO Monitor points out:
“HRW lobbies for boycotts of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israeli institutions and businesses and companies doing business in Israel, including in the UN (“BDS blacklist”), FIFA, and Congress. Even if HRW can point to a handful of isolated calls for businesses to cease their operations in other places due to human rights concerns, there is no parallel in terms of the zeal, intensity, language, and continuous campaigns regarding Israel. […]
HRW misleadingly portrays its support for BDS against Israel as “calling on businesses to uphold their human rights’ responsibilities by cutting settlement ties.” First, there is no such obligation under international law, and every national court that has looked at these issues has rejected attempts to bar or criminalize such activity (for example, France, the UK, Canada, the US, and Israel). Second, HRW does not limit itself to BDS against settlements, seeking to have Israel sanctioned by FIFA and targeting Israeli banks, among other campaigns.
Finally, this claim is irrelevant. At the end of the day, HRW and Shakir are calling for boycotts in a way that expressly and directly meets the criteria in the Israeli law.”
Iqbal failed to challenge Roth on that point – or on his portrayal of Israeli communities as “illegal” – but did presume to present “Israel’s view”, once again without explaining the “law of 2017”.
Iqbal: “Israel’s view is that Mr Shakir is advocating the policies of the BDS movement – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – which is contrary to an Israeli law of 2017. Are you saying that he is not doing that?”
Roth: “That’s correct. I mean the Israeli pretext is the BDS law but in fact, you know, Human Rights Watch has never endorsed BDS. We have not called for a boycott. We don’t appeal to consumers. This was just kind of a concocted pretext to get rid of Omar Shakir. All this is to avoid complicity in human rights violations which is what we do around the world. This is nothing exceptional and frankly that’s what makes the Israeli government’s move so dangerous because this is not an action against some extremist position. This is an action against completely mainstream run-of-the-mill human rights advocacy. And if they can penalise Human Rights Watch for this completely ordinary position, they can go after anybody.”
“There are over 350 NGOs in the field of human rights listed with the Israeli Registrar of Non-Profits, and an additional 400+ Palestinian and international groups that are active in the West Bank. Many of these strenuously and stridently oppose Israeli policy, with some deploying BDS and antisemitism in their campaigns. They get significant media coverage in Israel and internationally, as well as platforms in the UN and national parliaments. None of this will change, regardless of the court’s decision on Shakir.
In addition, the visa law is only relevant to non-Israelis and non-Palestinians, and as previously decided by the Israeli Supreme Court, is only applicable to active leaders of BDS. HRW, which has other employees in the region and is not in danger of disappearing, could replace Shakir with an Israeli or a Palestinian. If they hire an international staffer, they can select an individual who is not a long-time leader of demonization and BDS.”
Pursuing the same line of questioning but failing to specifically mention HRW’s failed campaign against Airbnb last year, Iqbal handed Roth yet another cue to repeat his talking points.
Iqbal: “Mr Shakir is a US citizen and it is the case, is it not, that Human Rights Watch does urge businesses to stop operating in the settlements and a broad interpretation of that 2017 laws [sic] would suggest that Human Rights Watch and in this case Mr Shakir are breaking that law.”
Roth: “If you want to interpret a call on businesses to live up to their global responsibilities to avoid complicity in human rights violations as a boycott then you get to the Israelis’ extreme position. But in fact it’s not a boycott. We don’t appeal to consumers. We’re not in any sense, you know, urging any boycott of Israel. We’re focusing simply on the illegalities of the settlements and that’s why I say this is such a mainstream position. It’s such an uncontroversial position within the human rights movement that if Israel’s gonna get away with trying to censor this kind of position, then no human rights advocacy is safe in Israel.”
Iqbal could have challenged Roth’s false claim that “we’re not in any sense, you know, urging any boycott of Israel” by reminding audiences that, together with other BDS supporting NGOs, HRW tried – unsuccessfully – to get Israel thrown out of the international football federation FIFA but she did not.
The rest of this item will be discussed in part two of this post.