When Hamas and other Palestinian militants attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, murdering over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals, most of them civilians including children, while kidnapping another 240 or more, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky voiced the concern that his country’s brutal war with Russia would now be side-lined. And indeed, the massive international media coverage coupled with largely western condemnation of the Hamas operation followed by Israel’s own military assault on Gaza slaughtering thousands almost completely eclipsed global attention of the Kremlin’s ongoing assault on the Ukrainian people.
But not quite.
While relegated to second row attention, Kyiv’s predicament still stands in the forefront with the United States, Europe and other mainly western nations reasserting their commitment to Ukraine’s ongoing resistance to Vladimir Putin’s invasion and continued occupation of the Crimea. As some human rights and humanitarian advocates point out, whether we like it or not, Israeli and European lives matter more with everyone seeking to prove that their trauma is worse than anyone else’s.
For a reporter who has covered wars and humanitarian crises worldwide for more than 40 years, such assertions are unethical, but nevertheless a harsh and sad reality. As one British journalist, who preferred not to be identified but defines himself as Jewish and having previously lived in Israel, noted: “Basically one Israeli life is worth dozens if not hundreds of Palestinians. It’s the way Israel has always dealt with prisoner exchanges.” When major western news organizations, including the BBC, announced the first Gaza hostage exchange on November 24, 2023, the release of 10 Thai and one Filipino did not even feature in the leads.
Young girl in Gaza during a bombing lull. (Photo: UNICEF)
Inequalities have deepened worldwide
As UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Türk pointed out at the 23rd International Humanitarian and Security Conference hosted by Webster University in Geneva, the problem is confronting all the other wars and humanitarian crises that are being forgotten. “We need to come back to what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands for,” said Türk. “Worldwide, the inequalities have deepened.” While calling on both Israel and Hamas for an unrestricted ceasefire to halt the mass killing and destruction, he added: “All wars have rules…but a war where civilians pay the price only plays into the hands of extremists.”
Türk was referring to a host of other predicaments that have been relegated to the backburner of global attention, or are starkly ignored, ranging from the Taliban’s repression of human rights in Afghanistan to Sudan’s own vicious war with two self-centred military despots fighting it out over the lives – and increasingly, bodies – of their own people.
Volker Türk: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Photo: UN)
To these horrendous situations one can add the Burmese military junta’s war on the Rohingya, China’s repression of Muslims and Tibetans, Yemen’s still unresolved conflict, gangland wars and civilian murders, rapes and kidnappings in Haiti, the relentless killing in eastern Congo (DRC) whereby some six million people are believed to have died since 1996, the drowning of refugees and migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean …The list is long.
For much of the world, such atrocities barely figure. The same goes for many natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods. As one representative of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) observed, would the 2004 Tsunami in Southeast Asia have received as much global attention had not so many Europeans and other westerners been amongst the 230,000 people who died? “I think not,” he said. “We can be candid by saying that had only local populations in the Philippines or Indonesia been affected, it would have been off the agenda within a week,” he said.
Respect for Human Rights is the ultimate tool
Pointing to Israel-Palestine but also other wars across the globe, Türk stressed the need for accountability. “Respect for human rights is the ultimate tool.” While senior Israeli Defence Force (IDF) officials repeatedly assert that their actions will ultimately prove justified, critics are not so sure. International opinion is rapidly turning against the brutally harsh approach of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government with policymakers demanding an immediate and permanent ceasefire.
As Türk and others stress, the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of peaceful and fair co-existence. Both sides need to think about what happens “the day after” the fighting stops in Gaza.
Civilians in Gaza hospital. (Photo: WHO)
As key human rights and humanitarian advocates ranging from former Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth to Rony Brauman, ex-head of Médecins sans Frontières, both recently asserted, no one can insist that they have the right to bomb civilian populations as part of their military response to destroy suspected terrorist havens. This goes completely against the Geneva Conventions. Israel and Hamas must be held accountable, and liable for possible international prosecution at The Hague, they argue. Human rights groups cite the cases of Serb politicians Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadzic as examples.
For Roth, whose father was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Israel’s continued “bombing and besieging” should persuade the United States to urgently assume a far more assertive role. Speaking on BBC Weekend, he said that the Netanyahu government should be persuaded to halt its onslaught, even after the first hostages have been exchanged. This should include halting aid and arms to Israel until it stops.
As Brauman, who is French of Jewish-Israeli background, noted on TV5 Monde it is crucial to consider what happened prior to October 7. Chastising the current Tel Aviv regime as “fascist, violent and brutally right-wing” for holding all Palestinians in Gaza responsible for Hamas’ actions, Brauman maintained: “Israelis has been persecuting the Palestinians while installing settlers who are little more than hooligans by putting up barrages, destroying their crops, burning their houses and taking their land, and chasing away the Bedouins.”
Furthermore, Brauman noted, the European Union, which has placed sanctions against other abusive states, absolutely refuses to impose sanctions against Israel which it claims to be the only true democracy in the Middle East. “Without doubt, Israel has freedom of expression and a functional democracy for its own Jewish citizens, but for the Palestinians its more like a colonial apartheid system not unlike South Africa.”
While such assertions are taken harshly by supporters of current Israeli policy, both at home and abroad, criticism of the Netanyahu or Hamas regimes are often perceived as a form of antisemitism or Islamophobia rather than an effort to hold both sides to account. As the OSCE and other international monitoring groups point out, hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe, the United States and elsewhere have increased significantly since the October 7 Hamas attacks ranging from overt anti-Muslim abuses and attacks in Germany to the desecration of Jewish graves in Ohio and Illinois. There is also a tendency to condemn legitimate criticism in the press and social media as racist, severely curbing freedom of expression and open debate of the issues at hand.
For Gillian Doreen Triggs, the UN’s Assistant Secretary General for the Protection of Refugees, what is currently happening in Gaza has only underlined the importance of taking stock of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and its contemporary relevance. The world, she said, was now witnessing the fastest displacement of people since the Second World War from countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, the DRC, and Sudan. “Over 13,000 people have been killed in Gaza in addition to those killed in Israel,” she added, not to forget those humanitarians working for the UN and other aid organizations who have also died. “This represents an absolutely unprecedented situation for the UN.”
For Türk, the problems – and possible solutions – remain global. They need to incorporate a far more imaginative vision of what universal respect for human rights is all about. “The pathways to solutions must include sustainable development, dealing with climate change and incorporating human rights in all aspects,” he said. As various advocates regularly point out, this means constantly highlighting the role of frontline human rights defenders such as those honoured every year by the Martin Ennals Foundation in Geneva.
They also have to be ideologically neutral, the UN High Commissioner maintained, as well as complementary, incorporating both solidarity and compassion from each and every member of society. “This is why we need a more imaginative return to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said. “We have to make sure that everyone understands the cost of inaction. It is our core values embodied in human rights which will help us.”
Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a journalist and author focusing on conflict, humanitarian crises, environment and development worldwide. He is currently working with filmmaker Tom Woods on developing a three-year multi-media project on the Mediterranean.
Girardet is well-known for his dedicated coverage of Afghanistan since just prior to the Soviet war in 1979. His 2011 book “Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan” is considered a ‘classic’ (New York Review of Books) and one of the most informed on this country’s apparently never-ending humanitarian and economic turmoil since civil war first broke out in the summer of 1978. Other books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.” Girardet is currently working on a new book, The American Club: The Hippy Trail, Peshawar Tales and the Road to Kabul.