New Amnesty leader calls BDS a tested “tool of resistance”

Amnesty International’s incoming secretary-general is calling the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights a “historically tested peaceful tool of resistance.”

He is also urging Palestine solidarity campaigners to make more use of civil disobedience.

Kumi Naidoo, who will take up his post as chief executive of the global human rights organization in August, made the comments in an interview during Israeli Apartheid Week activities organized by BDS South Africa last month.

The interview, in which journalist Janet Smith also talks to BDS South Africa’s Kwara Kekana, can be seen in the video above.

In the video, Naidoo slams as hypocritical the opposition to the BDS movement that has come from many governments.

“In terms of international law, people who are occupied and colonized … have a right to self-defense and they have the right to self-determination,” Naidoo states.

Yet he points out that when Palestinians take up any form of resistance, including nonviolent tactics such as BDS, they are lectured by the international community, “you cannot do that, it’s wrong … because it’s not peaceful.”

Naidoo slams the “contradiction” of telling Palestinians that “international law recognizes that you’re occupied, your kids are getting killed, you don’t have decent access to water, you can’t resist through armed struggle – fair enough – but now you can’t even resist by getting people to engage in a peaceful act of civil disobedience.”

BDS, Naidoo states, “is a peaceful act of citizens using their purchasing power to a make point [and] to get a government that is rogue to act in a more responsible way and in a more human rights respectful way.”

Naidoo has a long background as a human rights campaigner, including as executive director of Greenpeace International. In his home country, South Africa, he currently chairs Africans Rising, a pan-African campaign for social, economic, environmental and gender justice.

Naidoo also criticizes the Israeli government’s racially motivated moves to expel tens of thousands of African refugees: “We hope that sanity will prevail and that Africans will be treated fairly in terms of international law but I think we would be very naive given the track record of the Israeli state to believe that they could act with the level of magnanimity, humanity and compliance to international law.”

It will be interesting to see if Naidoo pushes Amnesty to take stronger positions on holding Israel accountable.

“Excessive force”

Last week, Amnesty urged Israel to avoid “excessive force” against Palestinians taking part in Great March of Return rallies in the occupied Gaza Strip.

Israel has killed dozens and injured thousands of unarmed protesters since 30 March.

“The Israeli authorities must respect the Palestinians’ right to peaceful protest and, in the event that there is violence, use only the force necessary to address it,” the group’s Magdalena Mughrabi stated. “Under international law, lethal force can only be used when unavoidable to protect against imminent threats to life.”

Amnesty relies on international law to defend Israel’s “right” to violence against an occupied people.

But while encouraging Israel to use less force against Palestinians, Amnesty acknowledges no Palestinian right to self-defense or resistance to occupation, only the right to “peaceful protest.”

Regardless of the intention, this effectively privileges and endorses Israeli violence – a perverse position for a human rights organization in the overall context of Israel’s regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid over Palestinians.

Yet the Palestinian right to self-defense and resistance – should Palestinians choose to exercise it – is clearly recognized by international law, if not by Amnesty International.

Resisting Israel’s war on human rights

Amnesty’s current policies allow the organization to join boycott and divestment campaigns on the authority of the secretary-general.

While Amnesty has not given a blanket endorsement to the Palestinian BDS movement, it has strongly defended the right to boycott and condemned Israeli threats, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders including BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti.

But as far as Israel is concerned, there is no difference between the most minimal measures or timid criticism, on the one hand, and full-throated support for BDS or other tools of accountability on the other.

Israel treats anyone who advocates any form of accountability as an outright enemy to be fought on all fronts.

For instance, in 2015, after years of hesitation and hand-wringing, the European Union decided to require the accurate labeling of goods produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights (a measure the EU is not even capable of properly monitoring and enforcing).

But Israeli leaders expressed no appreciation that the EU had not banned settlement goods, and had indeed insisted that such goods were still “welcome” in European markets so long as they had the proper labels.

Instead, merely because the EU required such labels, Israeli leaders compared European officials to Nazis.

In June 2017, Amnesty took the step – bold considering the generally cautious approach of international human rights organization towards Israel – of demanding that all governments “must ban Israeli settlement products to help end half a century of violations against Palestinians.”

Months later, Israel retaliated with threats to punish Amnesty by stripping its tax-exempt status, a move the organization called “the latest effort by the authorities to silence human rights organizations and activists who criticize the Israeli government and call for accountability.”

And a few weeks after that, Israel barred an Amnesty USA staffer from entering the occupied West Bank for a family visit following the death of his father.

According to Israel’s interior ministry, the staffer was denied entry due to “his [boycott, divestment and sanctions] activities.”

No point in half-measures

The clear message Israel is sending human rights defenders and governments alike is that no one can spare themselves Israel’s smear campaigns and revenge tactics by self-censoring or calling only for half-measures.

Israel is again showing its brazen disregard for verbal appeals and warnings from governments, human rights organizations and even the International Criminal Court prosecutor with its ongoing killing and maiming of unarmed civilians protesting their captivity in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Israel is in what it sees as an all-out war against the Palestinian people and their rights.

It is also waging an all-out war against anyone in the world who defends Palestinian rights.

With a regime as contemptuous of human rights and lives as Israel’s, only the most powerful tools and broadest campaigns will do.

As was the case with the South African anti-apartheid struggle, that means maximum mobilization of global grassroots power to boycott and isolate Israel through BDS, as Palestinians are asking.

In this year when Palestinians mark the 70th anniversary of their violent dispossession and exile, nothing less stands a chance of finally bringing justice.

Kumi Naidoo clearly understands the urgency of broad mobilization, calling for “a more intensive use of peaceful civil disobedience” more generally, but specifically for Palestine.

“If history teaches us one thing, when humanity has faced a major injustice or challenge, those injustices only started to begin to disappear when decent people said enough is enough and no more,” Naidoo states.

“The bottom line is that history is on the side of the Palestinian people and the justness of their struggle.”

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If his statements in this video are anything to go by, Kumi Naidoo's appointment to head Amnesty International is an encouraging step. Thanks also for a chance to hear from one of South Africa's leaders in the BDS campaign, Kwara Kekana. There are days when the avalanche of bad news threatens to bury our good intentions, and it's important that we receive reports such as this one as a reminder that the fight for justice is very much alive and advancing. As ever, the movement makes its biggest gains down on the ground before proceeding to the domain of institutional power. That's where we are right now, building pressure inexorably from below. Having Amnesty take a stronger line can only help.

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