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“Text-Book Case of Genocide”: Top U.N. Official Craig Mokhiber Resigns, Denounces Israeli Assault on Gaza

StoryNovember 01, 2023
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A former top United Nations official in New York joins us for an in-depth interview about why he has resigned after publicly accusing the U.N. of failing to address what he calls a “text-book case of genocide” unfolding in Gaza. Craig Mokhiber is a longtime international human rights lawyer who served as director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. His resignation letter (embedded below) has gone viral. In one of his first interviews since leaving his post, Mokhiber tells Democracy Now! the U.N. follows a “different set of rules” when addressing Israel’s violations of international law, refusing to utilize its enforcement mechanisms and thus “effectively” acting as “a smokescreen behind which we have seen further and worsening dispossession of Palestinians.” He says it is an “open secret inside the halls of the United Nations that the so-called two-state solution is effectively impossible,” and calls for international actors to push for a “new paradigm” in the region based on “equality for all.” We also discuss the inaction of the International Criminal Court, global suppression of pro-Palestinian advocacy, bad-faith accusations of antisemitism and more.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A top United Nations official in New York has resigned and accused the United Nations of failing to address what he calls a “text-book case of genocide” unfolding in Gaza. Craig Mokhiber is a longtime international human rights lawyer who served as director of the New York Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He had worked at the United Nations since 1992 and lived in Gaza in the 1990s.

In a letter addressed to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, Craig Mokhiber wrote, “In Gaza, civilian homes, schools, churches, mosques, and medical institutions are wantonly attacked as thousands of civilians are massacred. In the West Bank, including occupied Jerusalem, homes are seized and reassigned based entirely on race, and violent settler pogroms are accompanied by Israeli military units. Across the land, Apartheid rules.”

Craig Mokhiber went on to write, “What’s more, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe, are wholly complicit in the horrific assault. Not only are these governments refusing to meet their treaty obligations 'to ensure respect' for the Geneva Conventions, but they are in fact actively arming the assault, providing economic and intelligence support, and giving political and diplomatic cover for Israel’s atrocities,” unquote.

On Tuesday, the U.N. released statement about Mokhiber’s resignation, saying, quote, “I can confirm he is retiring today. He informed the U.N. in March of his upcoming retirement, which takes effect tomorrow. The views in his letter made public today are his personal views,” the U.N. said.

Craig Mokhiber joins us now in New York, the first day he’s not working for the United Nations.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Thank you, Amy. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about why you left.

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, I originally registered my concerns in writing to the high commissioner in March, as you heard from that statement, in the wake of a wave of human rights violations on the West Bank, including the pogrom Huwara at that time. And at that time, I complained, really, about what I saw as a trepidatious response by many in the United Nations, and an effort to try to silence some of the human rights critique of U.N. officials, including myself. And I admit to feeling a great deal of frustration, and at that moment indicating that I would be resigning from the U.N., effective this month. So, of course, the situation got much worse since then, which is why I was — particularly the events in Gaza — which is why I was compelled to write this latest letter to the high commissioner, to put on record my very serious concerns about how we were failing to address the unfolding events in the Occupied Territories.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think the United Nations, the United States, the West, U.K. should be doing right now?

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, I think there is an obligation on the part of all member states of the United Nations, including those states in the West, to respond in accordance with their obligations under international law, including international humanitarian law. My central point in the most recent letter was that we had effectively left international law behind when the international community embraced the Oslo process, which sort of raised up notions of political expediency above the requirements of international law. And that was a real loss for human rights in Palestine. I think there is an obligation on the part of all states not just to respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law, but, under the Geneva Conventions, to ensure respect. And it’s clear that many states, including the United States itself, have not only — are not only in breach of their obligation to ensure respect vis-à-vis those states over which they have influence — in this case, Israel — but have been actively complicit, actively engaged in arming, in diplomatic cover, in political support, intelligence support and so on. That is a breach of international humanitarian law. We need the opposite of that. We need all states, members of the United Nations, to use whatever influence they have to ensure an end to these attacks on civilians in Gaza, to ensure as well accountability for the perpetrators, redress for the victims, protection for the vulnerable there.

It’s interesting, Amy. We have a formula at the United Nations that is applied to virtually every other conflict situation. But when it comes to the situation in Israel and Palestine, there’s a different set of rules, apparently. And that’s, I think, a big source of my frustration. Where is the transitional justice process? Where is the U.N. protection force to protect all civilians? Where is the tribunal for accountability? Where is the action on the part of the Security Council, the only mechanism in the United Nations that has enforcement to ensure protection in the Occupied Territories? Obviously, every effort in the Security Council is vetoed by the United States itself, a further indication of the kind of complicity about which I am referring.

And I think the other thing that needs to happen in the international community is that we have to abandon the failed paradigms of the past on a political level and get back to the roots, which is international law, international human rights. What has happened in the context of the so-called Oslo process, the two-state solution, the U.N. Quartet, is that they have acted effectively as a smokescreen, behind which we have seen further and worsening dispossession of Palestinians, massive atrocities, such as those as we are witnessing now, the loss of homes and land, further settlement activity. You know, it’s an open secret inside the halls of the United Nations that the so-called two-state solution is effectively impossible now — there’s nothing left for a sustainable state for the Palestinian people — and takes no account of the fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people. The new paradigm has to be one based upon equality of all people there, equal rights for Christians, Muslims and Jews. And that needs to be the new approach.

And I think, as well, you know, it’s interesting that this year we are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. That same year, the Nakba occurred in Palestine, and apartheid was adopted in South Africa. We have seen, because of a consistent international law and international human rights approach in the U.N. and the international community, that apartheid in South Africa fell. We did not take the same approach in Palestine. We’ve deferred to these political processes. And as a result, not only have we not seen an end to the oppression of the Palestinian people, we’ve seen a continuing worsening of the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re a longtime human rights lawyer. I want you to respond — I played this already for Yousef Hammash in Gaza right now, in Khan Younis, to respond, but I’d like you to respond to it, as well. After Israel’s attack on Jabaliya yesterday, the IDF spokesperson, Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, appeared on CNN and was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER: But you know that there are a lot of refugees, a lot of innocent civilians, men, women and children, in that refugee camp, as well, right?

LT. COL. RICHARD HECHT: This is the tragedy of war, Wolf. I mean, we — as you know, we’ve been saying for days, move south. Civilians that are not involved with Hamas, please move south. We —

WOLF BLITZER: Yeah, I’m just trying to get a little bit more information. You knew there were civilians there. You knew there were refugees, all sorts of refugees. But you decided to still drop a bomb on that refugee camp attempting to kill this Hamas commander. By the way, was he killed?

LT. COL. RICHARD HECHT: I can’t confirm, yeah. There will be more updated. He, yes, we know that he was killed. About the civilians there, we’re doing everything we can to minimize.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he’s saying they’re doing everything they can to minimize. He’s talking about Ibrahim Biari, whom it identified — Israel has identified as Hamas’s commander of the Jabaliya center battalion, saying he was killed in those recent strikes. Can you respond to every aspect of what he said? They were trying to get a high-value target, as they put it, and they are not trying to kill civilians.

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, I think what’s important in that interview is that is another of many indications of intent on the part of Israeli authorities, that will be very important in a court of law. He has said very openly that they knew of the concentrations of civilians there, and yet, in violation of the principle of distinction in international humanitarian law, and on the pretext of killing one combatant, wiped out the better part of an entire refugee camp, densely populated refugee camp. And I think what’s been interesting in this war is the very open statement of intents. I referred in my letter to the case for genocide which is happening now. And, you know, “genocide” is a very politicized term, often abused. But in this case, the hardest part of proving genocide has been proven for us with these very open statements of genocidal intent by Israeli officials, including the prime minister and the president and senior Cabinet ministers and military officials, who in their public statements have indicated very clearly their intention not to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to carry out the kinds of wholesale slaughter that we are witnessing in Gaza. That is not a justification in international law, saying that there was a combatant there, for that very disproportionate use of firepower against what was a civilian target. And that’s what we’ve been seeing in all of Gaza, from the north to the south.

The other thing is this claim that, “Well, we told them to move south, and therefore we can kill everybody who didn’t move.” This is an extremely dangerous and unlawful tactic that is being used, first because we know that evacuations in Gaza in the best of times, in this densely populated small territory with 2.3 million civilians crowded in, with very limited infrastructure, is a huge challenge. But most of Gaza has been bombed into rubble. It is just not physically possible for civilians to move en masse in the ways that Israel has required them to do so. And we know, already well documented, that when they do so, they’re still subjected to bombings even in the south of the Gaza Strip. So, all of this, it seems to me, is evidence of intent and a prima facie case for violations of the laws of war.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel has called for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to resign, after he said Hamas’s October 7th attack did not happen in a vacuum. This is Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan.

GILAD ERDAN: Mr. Secretary-General, the U.N. was established to prevent atrocities, to prevent such atrocities like the barbaric atrocities that Hamas committed. But the U.N. is failing. The U.N. is failing. And you, Mr. Secretary-General, have lost all morality and impartiality, because when you say those terrible words that these heinous attacks did not happen in a vacuum, you are tolerating terrorism. And by tolerating terrorism, you are justifying terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Craig Mokhiber, your response?

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, of course, you can imagine why the ambassador would want to start the clock only in October and to ignore the decades upon decades of persecution against the Palestinian people in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, inside Israel proper. But that is not the kind of assessment that leads to peace or leads to an improved situation on the ground. The secretary-general was doing his job. He had condemned the loss of civilian life in the Hamas attack, and he also criticized not just what Israel was doing in Gaza, but all of the events that have led up to this situation.

And that’s what I mean by a need to break from the failed paradigm of the past. We really need to get into something that says that human beings are entitled to human rights under international law and that the duty of the international community is to ensure protection for all under the rule of law, but also accountability for perpetrators and redress for victims.

So, I am not surprised at that statement. We’ve seen a lot of extreme statements from that particular ambassador, a lot of theater, as well. I don’t think we should allow it to distract us to what’s happening on the ground, which is the wholesale loss of life of innocent civilians in their thousands, including thousands of children in the Gaza Strip, and the need to get to an immediate ceasefire and then to shift into a new approach that will prevent this from happening again and again and again.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering about the role of Karim Khan, the lead prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. I think he was in Rafah just a few days ago. We see the world’s response, or the West’s response, when it came to Russia invading Ukraine and occupying Ukraine. Karim Khan, very soon after, opened a whole investigation into crimes against humanity that Putin was committing in Ukraine. Can you respond to the difference in approach to Russia and Ukraine and Israel and the Occupied Territories, officially, international law, the OPT, the Occupied Palestinian Territories?

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, there has been a stunning inconsistency with the rapidity with which the court was able to move and the prosecutor was able to move with regard to Ukraine and the years upon years in which it has dragged its feet with regard to Palestine. This is just one of many critiques of the court, including the fact that it does not have a very strong record of holding Northern countries — Israel, the United States and others — to account for their crimes under international criminal law, and yet is very anxious to move forward on cases in the Global South.

Now, that is not to condemn the court. The court is a young institution. It needs to be strengthened. It needs to insulate itself from the kinds of political pressure that have led to its inaction in the case of Palestine. But our hope, ultimately, is the peaceful resolution of disputes through the use of international law. And if that’s going to happen, we need a robust and fair International Criminal Court that doesn’t provide for exceptionalism for powerful countries of the North, like Israel, for example, but that holds all perpetrators of international crimes to account. The court has a long way to go before it’s going to have the reputation that will bring confidence globally that it’s meeting its mandate under the Rome Statute.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre compared pro-Palestinian protesters to the white supremacists who took part in the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. She made the comment in response to a question from Fox News’s Peter Doocy.

PETER DOOCY: Does President Biden think the anti-Israel protesters in this country are extremists?

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: What I can say is what we’ve been very clear about this: When it comes to antisemitism, there is no place. We have to make sure that we speak against it very loud and be — and be very clear about that. Remember, what the president decided to — when the president decided to run for president is what he saw in Charlottesville in 2017, when we — he saw neo-Nazis marching down the streets of Charlottesville with vile, antisemitic just hatred. And he was very clear then, and he’s very clear now. He’s taken actions against this over the past two years. And he’s continued to be clear: There is no place — no place — for this type of vile and despite — this kind of rhetoric.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Biden’s spokesperson, Karine Jean-Pierre. Craig Mokhiber, your response?

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, I think one of the most disturbing aspects of this current situation in the North, in countries like the U.S. and in Europe, has been this rather unprecedented crackdown on human rights defenders speaking up to defend the human rights of people in Gaza during this situation. And that has come from official statements that try to critique in that way people who are defending human rights, and to compare them with far-right neofascist protesters, for example. I mean, it’s an outrageous comparison to make. And it doesn’t stop there. We have also seen very strong efforts on the part of government institutions, including local governments and state governments and the federal government, and universities and employers and others to punish people for daring to speak up, criticizing the human rights violations that are happening, or criticizing the U.S. role in these violations.

But I think what is most hopeful, Amy, and where there is a glimmer of hope, which has, I have to say, moved me very much, it’s that people are not allowing themselves to be intimidated by these tactics. We have seen massive demonstrations, in all parts of the country and in Europe, from people many times risking arrest, risking police beatings, risking other consequences, because they refuse to allow this to go forward and to have the human rights claim be silenced. And I think most encouraging, we have seen — you know, just a few blocks from here a few days ago, we saw a large group, organized by Jewish Voices for Peace, IfNotNow, of Jewish protesters standing up and saying, “Not in our name,” and taking over Grand Central Station, and in one move stripping away the Israeli propaganda point that they are somehow acting in the defense of Jews. Jewish people are not represented by Israel. These protesters have made that perfectly clear. Israel pushes an old antisemitic trope that it somehow represents Jewish people around the world. Not only is that not factual, but it’s very dangerous. And everyone needs to know that Israel is a state that’s responsible for its own crimes, and that responsibility does not extend to our Jewish brothers and sisters, many of whom are standing up alongside Muslim and Christian and others in demonstrations across this country and across Europe, saying that this must end.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to a comment in The Guardian by Anne Bayefsky, who directs Touro College’s Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust in New York, who accused you of overt antisemitism, saying you used U.N. letterhead to call for wiping Israel off the map. Craig Mokhiber, if you could respond?

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, Anne Bayefsky is a well-known entity amongst human rights defenders. She has made a career of attacking anyone who dares to criticize Israeli human rights violations, in particular. I have responded to this idea of wiping Israel off the map by saying I’m not looking for an end to Israel, I’m looking for an end to apartheid. And it’s very telling, what Anne Bayefsky tweeted in her attack on me. She accused me of antisemitism, and the quote that she took from my letter to prove that was my call for equal rights for Christians, Muslims and Jews. I had to reply to her tweet by saying that she had become a parody of herself, because if calling for equal rights for Christians, Muslims and Jews is a new form of antisemitism, then there’s no conversation to be had.

But I don’t think people are falling for these smears anymore. They are almost automatic. But the point needs to be made again and again that criticism of Israeli human rights violations is not antisemitic, just as criticism of Saudi violations is not Islamophobic, criticism of Myanmar violations is not anti-Buddhist, criticism of Indian violations is not anti-Hindu. If any of those are true, then there is no international human rights framework. And if only the case of Israel is true, well, that’s a racist proposition that only Palestinians can’t have their human rights defended in this globe. So, I don’t think anyone listens too much to those kinds of smears anymore. And luckily, people are speaking up louder, not lowering their voices, to demand human rights in the Occupied Territories.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you go off to do, Craig Mokhiber? I mean, you have been at the United Nations for decades. Talk about your plans now. Today is your first day that you’re not working at the U.N.

CRAIG MOKHIBER: Well, I intend to remain involved in the cause of international human rights, in which I’ve been involved since 1980, in fact. There’s no question about that. I will do it under my own name, unconstrained by diplomatic protocol and the constraints of the U.N. I will continue to support my colleagues. I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m criticizing the whole U.N. You know, U.N. humanitarian workers, U.N. human rights workers, the UNRWA colleagues in Gaza, dozens of whom have lost their life just in the last couple of weeks under Israeli bombs, are doing absolutely heroic work all around the world. But I want to try to influence the political side of the house to take up a more realistic and principled approach to this particular conflict, one based in international human rights, one based in international humanitarian law, and one based in achievable goals, if not in the immediate term, of a paradigm based upon equality, an end to apartheid, and, as I said, equal rights for Christians, Muslims and Jews.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your final response to the protesters just yesterday in Washington, D.C., in the Senate, repeatedly disrupting Secretary of State Antony Blinken while he was testifying before the Senate on President Biden’s request for $106 billion for Ukraine, Israel and militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border. A group of protesters with members of Muslims for Just Futures and Detention Watch Network, sitting behind Blinken, held up their hands covered in fake blood. He was also interrupted by members of CodePink, including the former State Department official Ann Wright, who resigned over the Iraq War. This is what she said.

ANN WRIGHT: Three thousand five hundred kids dead. Come on. I’m an Army colonel. I’m a former diplomat. I resigned on that War in Iraq that you talked about. That was a terrible thing. And what you’re doing right now in supporting Israel’s genocide of Gaza is a terrible thing, too. Stop the war! Ceasefire now!

AMY GOODMAN: She was holding a sign as she was taken out by security, “Ceasefire in Gaza.” Craig Mokhiber, your final comments?

CRAIG MOKHIBER: This is where I find the most hope, Amy. I have lost confidence in official institutions of government after all these years in the international human rights movement. I am losing hope in international — important parts of international institutions. Where there is hope, it is in civil society. It is in those ordinary people, here in the United States and elsewhere, who are willing to stand up and demand respect for human life and for human rights. And these kinds of protests in the halls of Congress, before the State Department, in front of the White House, in Grand Central Station, in the streets, everywhere, particularly with this climate that is trying to —

AMY GOODMAN: Three seconds.

CRAIG MOKHIBER: — suppress critique of these current policies, it’s only going to come from civil society —

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Mokhiber — 

CRAIG MOKHIBER: — that these will be shaken loose.

AMY GOODMAN: — we thank you so much, international human rights lawyer.

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