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Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth on Obama’s Use of State Secrets and Israel’s 22-Day Attack on Gaza

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Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, criticizes Obama for continuing a Bush administration policy of invoking “state secrets” to dismiss a lawsuit accusing a Boeing subsidiary of helping the CIA secretly transport prisoners to torture chambers overseas. Roth also addresses criticism of Human Rights Watch’s reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, you were just in Washington around — talking about issues like state secrets. What is this latest on the Obama administration twice invoking the state secrets privilege over the past two weeks, most recently in a closely watched spy case weighing whether a US president can bypass Congress and establish a program of eavesdropping on Americans without warrant?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. I mean, this was a huge disappointment. Clearly, President Obama has begun to change a number of the disturbing aspects of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy, whether it’s, you know, insisting on a single interrogation standard for the whole US government and basically taking the CIA out of the torture business or vowing to close Guantanamo. But there are some parts that either they haven’t focused on yet or they’ve made the wrong decision.

And one of them is the one, Amy, that you mention, which is they seem to be continuing the Bush administration’s policy of relying on the doctrine of state secrets to cover up inquiries by civil litigants into what went wrong with the Bush administration’s policies, whether that’s snooping on Americans or torturing suspects. But the Bush administration regularly used the claim of state secrets in order to basically block these sort of civil litigation efforts. And unfortunately, President Obama’s administration seems to be continuing that practice. We don’t know whether this is just, you know, continuing on autopilot or whether there’s a deliberate decision that has been made. But it’s been a big disappointment.

AMY GOODMAN: What else are you demanding now of the Obama administration?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I was just in Washington talking in particular about the question of how do you close Guantanamo, because the President has vowed to do so. He’s begun a review of the cases there. And Human Rights Watch and others have been pushing him to adopt a policy of either prosecute or release. Clearly, many people there are there by mistake or are small fish and should just be released. Some of them are serious criminals, and they should be prosecuted in regular courts, not these substandard military commissions.

The problem is that there are some in Washington who are pushing a third option. They want President Obama to continue having the possibility of detaining people without criminal charge or trial. And in our view, that would simply be continuing Guantanamo. It may be moved to, you know, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or Florence, Colorado, but it would be the same thing by a different name. And so, we’re urging the President to resist that, to adopt a clean policy of prosecute or release. But he’s not there yet. I think he’s leaning in that direction, but there’s pressure coming in from the other direction, and we’re trying to resist that pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing on Israel and the Occupied Territories, with the latest assault on Gaza?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. Well, Human Rights Watch was barred from Gaza during the war, as was most anybody else, but we did have observers just on the outside, who, for example, broke the story about Israel’s use of white phosphorus, and they broke the story about Israel’s use of these high-explosive artillery shells, which basically can injure people within a 300-meter radius, an utterly inappropriate weapon to use in heavily populated areas such as Gaza.

Right now, we have four people on the ground, and we are closely looking at how the war was conducted. And we’re looking, you know, obviously at the claims that Hamas was shielding or hiding among civilians, but we’re also looking at the allegations that Israel was using extraordinarily excessive force, that it was firing indiscriminately, and that its claims to care deeply about protecting Gazan civilians were simply not true. We will be issuing a series of reports over the next few weeks with our conclusions, but this is a very deep preoccupation of ours at this stage.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read you an excerpt of a piece by Mouin Rabbani, who’s been very critical of Human Rights Watch in dealing with Israel and Gaza. This is just two paragraphs from what he has said. He said, “The Middle East has always been a difficult challenge for Western human rights organizations, particularly those seeking influence or funding in the United States. The pressure to go soft on US allies is in some respects reminiscent of Washington’s special pleading for Latin American terror regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. In the case of Israel such organizations [also] face a powerful and influential domestic constituency, which often extends to senior echelons of such organizations, for whom forthright condemnation of Israel is anathema.”

And then he writes, “In the years since 2000, [HRW] pursued a consistent — and consistently effective — formula: criticize Israel, but condemn the Palestinians. Challenge the legality of an Israeli aerial bombardment, preferably in polite, technical terms, and vociferously denounce the Palestinian suicide bomber in unambiguous language — especially when raising questions about the latest Israeli atrocity. In [HRW] publications, explicit condemnations and accusations of war crimes were almost wholly monopolized by Palestinians. With Israeli citizenship a seeming precondition for the right to self-defense, the right to resist was for all intents and purposes non-existent.”

That was a piece from Mouin Rabbani. Your response, Kenneth Roth?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Amy, he obviously gets into a number of things there, but let me make three quick points. I mean, first of all, his claim about, you know, pressure from US funders is just pure fiction. I mean, Human Rights Watch, in the last four or five years, when we’ve, I think, been most criticized for our work about Israel, where we’ve been, you know, denouncing war crimes by Israel, we’ve doubled in size. It has had zero impact on our funding. And we’ve been very fortunate in that we have attracted a group of funders who believe in the principles that we uphold and understand you can’t have principles for the rest of the world and not apply them to Israel. So we’ve built an organization that can survive that kind of criticism and has very well. Thank you very much.

And second, we don’t hesitate at all to call Israeli actions war crimes when they are. I mean, it’s obviously easier to denounce as a war crime, say, Hamas’s efforts to shoot rockets into civilian areas. That’s, you know, blatantly obvious. It doesn’t take a huge investigation to figure that one out. Israel, it does take more of an investigation. If they are firing into a civilian area, you need to figure out what were they shooting at, could they have hit it deliberately, were they using the right weaponry. Yes, these are more complicated investigations. But if you look, for example, at the investigation that Human Rights Watch did in southern Lebanon, we were very capable of deeply criticizing Israel and calling things war crimes when they were. We have a long history of that.

So these sorts of criticisms — I mean, frankly, we get them from both sides. You know, the people who reflexively support Israel regardless say that we must be biased against Israel, and we hear that all the time. People like Mr. Rabbani, who, you know, think we can never do enough, want to criticize us from the other perspective.

Final point, he says that we don’t uphold the right to resist. And that again — I don’t even know where he’s coming from there. Human Rights Watch never takes a position on why a war is fought, regardless of the side. We look at only how a war is fought. We apply the Geneva Conventions, and we say, you know, whatever your cause is, whether it’s suppressing terrorism or fighting for an end to occupation, that’s your business. Our business is to look at how you fight and, as objectively and carefully as possible, to hold both sides to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. That’s what we do, day in and day out.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things I’ve been — that — on Democracy Now! we’ve been broadcasting the voices of Israeli Jews who have been fiercely critical. Just a few days ago, we had Avraham Burg here, who was the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, a former Labor Party leader, who was fierce in his criticism. Avi Shlaim, the Oxford University professor, former Israeli soldier, who has been fierce in his criticism. Neve Gordon, the professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University, whose family was under the gun, the Hamas rockets in the Negev — they were in a bomb shelter — was debating Lanny Davis of the Israel Project, and here he was, afraid for his family, but they were marching in the Tel Aviv peace protest, and they were saying that this assault is unacceptable. This latest assault, did it shock Human Rights Watch?

KENNETH ROTH: What was shocking to me was just the magnitude of the destruction that Israel seemingly deliberately tried to impose on the Gazan people. You know, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, because if you look at the blockade over the last year or so, this was designed to destroy the Gazan economy. You know, this was far more than Israel’s legitimate interest in keeping arms out of Gaza. This was an effort to simply squeeze Gaza. They didn’t want people starving, because they knew that that would lead to outrage, so basic levels of humanitarian assistance went in. But other than that, there was no commerce allowed. And the economy ground — just basically ground to a halt. And that was a form of collective punishment that Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized. I guess, in that light, it’s not surprising that once formal armed conflict breaks out, there also seemed to be an effort to force the people of Gaza to suffer, because we’ve seen already that Israel didn’t simply target Hamas militants. It had targeted a number of symbols of Hamas, political symbols, police stations, the parliament building. And, you know, Israel has said, “Oh, well, we were just attacking anything that indirectly supported Hamas.” But by that theory, Hamas would be entitled to, you know, attack post offices within Israel or attack the Knesset, because these might provide some kind of indirect support to the Israel Defense Forces. I mean, this is the wrong standard. International law is clear that unless something is directly supporting a military effort, it is inappropriately ever to target it. And Israel seemed to breach that basic requirement time and time again.

AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Roth, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

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