Criticizing Israel Cost Me a State Department Nomination. What Does This Mean for the US and Human Rights?

By James Cavallaro

As a human rights advocate for more than three decades, I have become accustomed to the ire, as well as sanctions, from governments that I criticize for rights abuses. That’s part of the job. But I was deeply disappointed that only days after nominating me to the western hemisphere’s principal human rights body, my own government withdrew my nomination, in effect sanctioning me for doing what I was selected to do: recognize and condemn violations of human rights.

On February 10, the State Department announced my selection as the US national candidate to serve as an independent expert on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. While the Commission is little known in the United States, it is a high profile and powerful force for justice in most Latin American countries. In its press release, the State Department lauded me as “a leading scholar and practitioner of international law with deep expertise in the region as well as the Inter-American human rights system.”

Three days after the US nominated me, a right-wing media outlet published an article with several of my tweets critical of the Israeli governmental practice of apartheid against Palestinians and of the influence of money in US elections and policy regarding Israel and Palestine. The article reverberated within the State Department. The following morning, a high-level staffer and then the US Ambassador to the OAS called to tell me that the State Department had decided to withdraw my nomination.

What happened?

In my conversations with State Department officials, it became clear to me that the views expressed in my tweets on the human rights situation in Israel and occupied Palestine — views that diverged sharply from those of the US government — were the basis for the withdrawal of my nomination. State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed this in his press briefing that day, stating that my views “clearly do not reflect U.S. policy” and “are not a reflection of what we believe.”

But as Human Rights Watch and over 500 other leading human rights organizations, advocates, and scholars wrote in an open letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the reinstatement of my nomination, Commissioners neither serve nor represent their countries of origin. Rather, Commissioners are nominated in their individual capacities, based on their independence and commitment to human rights. Indeed, Commission rules contain codified safeguards to prevent influence by countries on their candidates.

As a human rights advocate, my role is not to advance the political policy of any nation. Instead, it is to rigorously study and document rights abuses and then condemn abusers. This is how I have always approached my work, which has involved documentation of abuses in dozens of countries in the Americas as well as in states in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, including Israel and Palestine.

I have traveled to occupied Palestine several times to document rights abuses — always via Tel Aviv, as required by Israeli policy. On each occasion I witnessed firsthand the disparate treatment afforded Israelis and Palestinians by the Israeli government. The Israeli military controls all aspects of life for Palestinians in the occupied territory — what roads they may (and mostly may not) use, where they may go, whether they may build on their own land (permits are almost always denied), how much water they may receive, whether they may build a cistern (again, rejection is the norm), whether they may vote (millions in the occupied territory cannot), the legal system to which they are subjected (military rule for Palestinians in the occupied territory, but civilian law for settlers) and so on. Palestinians are subject to military occupation and systematic discrimination, the purpose of which is to maintain the domination of one group over another.

My analysis that this discriminatory treatment meets the legal definition of apartheid is shared by the most important human rights institutions that study the matter, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program, and leading Palestinian and Israeli rights organizations Al Haq and B’tselem.

It is worth reiterating that the post for which I was nominated in no way involved policy issues in the Middle East. Further, I was not nominated to represent the United States, but rather to assess — critically and independently — the human rights situation in the states of the western hemisphere. My views on Israel/Palestine would be utterly irrelevant. Yet they were the basis for the withdrawal of my candidacy.

One might be tempted to see what happened to me as an isolated instance. But it is not. Just a few months ago, the Kennedy School at Harvard withdrew an offer to former Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth to serve as a fellow at its Carr Center on Human Rights. The basis for that decision, as with me, was his outspoken criticism of rights abuse in Israel. Weeks later, after intense pressure and broad support from across the country and the globe, the Kennedy School reversed course and offered Roth the fellowship. Currently, Lara Sheehi, a professor at George Washington University, faces suspect accusations that stem from her outspoken defense of Palestinian rights. There have been many other similar cases. There will likely be more.

I fear that what happened to me raises new dangers. The cases of Ken Roth, Lara Sheehi, and many others involve academia. Mine involves the State Department. Recently, Sarah Margon withdrew her nomination to serve in the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the face of staunch opposition by a single senator over her views on Israel. Margon, though, would have been a representative of the US government and would have worked on issues directly related to Israel and Palestine. (Her defense of Palestinian rights would have served her well in that role.)

The standard applied to me — and presumably to others in the future — appears to require approval or at least acquiescence to the US policy of unquestioned support of Israeli practices of apartheid against the Palestinian people. And it appears to require as much for nomination to a post focused on an entirely different region of the world.

The position of the United States on Israel and the Palestinians and its adamant refusal to even engage with the growing consensus regarding the practice of apartheid has made the possibility of a just resolution of the conflict far less likely. Now, US government denial of the realities on the ground in Israel/Palestine has seeped into foreign policy matters in other parts of the world, undermining the independence of experts nominated to serve on a human rights body that has no engagement with Israel or Palestine. This erodes US credibility on human rights and sets a grim precedent for the United States and the world.

James Cavallaro is the Executive Director of the University Network for Human Rights. He teaches at Columbia, UCLA, Wesleyan and Yale and served on the Inter-American Commission (2014–2017) and as its president (2016–2017).



The Institute for Middle East Understanding

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