Falk evaluates Mideast violence with U.N. team

Karin Dienst


Princeton's Richard Falk is investigating alleged human rights violations in Israeli-occupied territories for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Richard Falk has devoted his career to finding ways of creating a more humane structure of governance. This month, the Albert Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice at Princeton is continuing his search in one of the world's most politically complex and violent locations: the Israeli-occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights selected Falk and two other experts in international law (John Dugard, a South African from Leiden University in the Netherlands, and Kamal Hussein, former Bangladeshi foreign minister) to investigate alleged human rights violations in these occupied territories. For 10 days, the team was scheduled to interview legal specialists, academics, and victims of and witnesses to the violence that has overtaken Gaza and the West Bank since September. "We hope to meet with the leading personalities at the most crucial points of contact between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Falk said in an interview before departing.

Falk explained that the inquiry is "not so much attempting to establish facts, because these are largely known, but to use our legal background to interpret the information." It is in the interpretation of events that there is disagreement between the two sides.

"The central issue is to ask whether Israel has used excessive force in responding to the Palestinian political demonstrations," said Falk.

Finding an answer to that question depends on two big issues.

"One is evaluating whether the conditions of occupation are such as to give the Palestinians some kind of right of resistance," said Falk. "And if they have that right, then what are the limits to that right?"

Historical issues

Falk interprets the Palestinian struggle as a disrupted process of decolonization, going back in time to when Britain occupied the Palestinian territory and administered it as a mandate before the independence of Israel in 1948. He suggests that the Palestinian struggle is part of a long process of self-determination, and points out that the United Nations endorses self-determination as a fundamental human right.

"The other issue at stake in this current inquiry is to evaluate how Israel as the occupying power is carrying out its responsibility to protect the society that is subject to its control," said Falk. "The question is: Have they used the most reasonable method to minimize the loss of life and the injuries being caused in maintaining order? One thing we will try to understand is why there were much fewer casualties in the first intifada as compared to the high level of loss of life in this one."

Falk said it is crucial to get an idea of how people in Israel and the Palestinian territories perceive the recent outbreaks of violence. When emotions are high, perceptions tend to be very different. "We must ask specific questions, such as what kinds of weapons were used?" he said. "And how does one interpret and understand the vulnerability of children? For example, the Palestinians contend that the Israeli army targeted children, and the Israeli army says Palestinians used children as human shields. The issue of settler violence is also important to this inquiry. Just to see the physical settings, such as Hebron, will help us understand what is happening there."

The inquiry faces many obstacles, chief of which is the Israeli government's refusal to participate. Falk admitted that "nothing would altogether surprise me," and that no matter how much preparation went into this inquiry -- which has included trips to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to outline objectives and methods -- his team would not really know how much they could do until they arrived in Tel Aviv on Feb. 9.

Falk has never been appointed to a U.N. official investigation of this sort, but said he has had "direct contact with these issues over the years." Falk has visited the occupied territories before, most notably for a human rights conference in Gaza after the 1993 Oslo Accord. He also moderated the first open dialogue between an official Israeli and a member of the Palestinian authority at an academic meeting in Jerusalem. Falk's experience with participating in an international inquiry includes serving on a 13-member commission to Kosovo, sponsored by the Swedish government and the secretary general of the United Nations, to examine issues regarding the NATO war after fighting had ended.

Personal commitment

While Falk is modest about the reasons why he might have been chosen for this highly visible inquiry, his long and eminent career as a teacher and scholar of international law combined with his personal commitment to protecting human rights around the globe speak volumes for his suitability.

"Richard Falk is a humanist and an activist for humanity," said Miriam Lowi, a visiting fellow at Princeton's Center of International Studies and a political science professor at the College of New Jersey. Lowi holds a Ph.D. from Princeton's politics department and Near Eastern studies program. "His insistence on justice for all peoples is what motivates his activism and his writing. He will take great pains to learn all that is possible on the ground, from all sides, and then to form a thoughtful, fair, multi-faceted and well-informed evaluation," said Lowi.

Alternative ways of thinking

The inquiry team will submit its report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights at its annual meeting in Geneva in March, an event attended by representatives from all governments. The intention also is to use the report to address concerns at the U.N. General Assembly about what is happening in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. Falk expects the report to "provide a more authoritative rendering on alternative ways of thinking about what the problems are and to make some kind of adjudication between competing claims about what has been happening. It should help the international community understand what is going on and what it can do about it."

Falk, the honorary vice president of the American Society of International Law, is the author, co-author or editor of more than 40 books on international law. This summer, he plans to retire from the University after 40 years on the faculty and move to Santa Barbara, Calif. "It has been a great privilege to spend four decades here with so many gifted students and colleagues," he said.


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