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Silencing Critics of Israel: Biden Pulls Nomination of Human Rights Lawyer for Decrying Apartheid

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Last Friday, the State Department announced the nomination of James Cavallaro, a widely respected human rights attorney, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But earlier this week, the State Department withdrew Cavallaro’s nomination after reports emerged that he had described Israel as an apartheid state and had criticized House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’s close ties to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Defending the withdrawal of Cavallaro’s nomination, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “His statements clearly do not reflect U.S. policy. They are not a reflection of what we believe, and they are inappropriate, to say the least.” The decision has sparked outrage within the human rights community. Cavallaro joins us to explain that this move by the Biden administration is particularly troubling because the role he was nominated for does not have any authority over U.S.-Israel relations and is an independent position.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

Leaders in the human rights world are criticizing the Biden administration for withdrawing the nomination of a prominent human rights attorney from a post over the attorney’s past comments criticizing Israel. Last Friday, the State Department announced the nomination of James Cavallaro to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He had previously served on the commission from 2014 to 2017, including a period as its president. This was all during the Obama administration, the Obama-Biden administration. Cavallaro is a widely respected human rights attorney, co-founder and executive director of the University Network for Human Rights. Earlier this week, the State Department withdrew Cavallaro’s nomination after reports emerged he described Israel as an apartheid state and had criticized House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries’s close ties to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This is State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaking Tuesday.

NED PRICE: His statements clearly do not reflect U.S. policy. They are not a reflection of what we believe, and they are inappropriate, to say the least. We have decided to withdraw our nomination of this individual from — to withdraw his nomination to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw James Cavallaro’s nomination has sparked outrage within the human rights community. Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, condemned what she called a, quote, “state driven attack on a brilliant human rights lawyer because of his view on Israel apartheid.” She went on to say, quote, “The US government has not engaged with the legal and empirical bases of positions on Israel apartheid. Instead it is censoring, shutting down debates, and threatening,” she said.

Omar Shakir, who’s the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said the move, quote, “suggests that, for the @StateDept, believing that Palestinians deserve basic rights disqualifies one from serving on a human rights body. Shameful & yet US foreign policy in a nutshell,” he said.

James Cavallaro has become just the latest figure to lose or risk losing a position due to his criticism of Israel. Last year, the dean at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government vetoed a fellowship for former Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth over his criticism of Israel’s human rights record. Under public pressure, Harvard recently reversed its decision, and Ken Roth is at Harvard Kennedy School now.

We’re joined now by James Cavallaro in Los Angeles, where he’s visiting professor at the UCLA School of Law, also teaches human rights at Wesleyan University.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jim. Thanks so much for being with us. Can you explain what happened? First, they’re praising you, and then they are withdrawing your nomination from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, that you had previously served as president of.

JAMES CAVALLARO: Yeah, it really was quite a turn of events. And many thanks for having me on your program, Amy.

So, on Friday, the State Department publicly announced that they had chosen me, after an internal process, to be the U.S. national candidate to serve as an independent expert — and let me underscore that; it’s quite important — as an independent expert on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And as you noted, I had the privilege of serving on the Inter-American Commission in the past as a result of the nomination of the then-Obama-Biden administration. So, on Friday, they issue a statement. They talk about my background, my knowledge of Latin America, my fluency in other languages, etc., all factors in their choosing me to be the candidate. That’s Friday.

On Monday, I’m contacted by a reporter for a small outlet who has gone through my Twitter account and pulled up tweets of mine critical of Israeli governmental policies that amount to apartheid, and also critical of the role of money in politics, in particular through AIPAC and its donations to candidates, who then, in turn, unfortunately, I would say, provide cover or reduce or eliminate any oversight by the United States government, that contributes $4 billion a year to Israel, of its human rights record.

As a result of those tweets, there’s some internal debate within State, and maybe above State. This is, again, on Monday. The journalist contacts me, contacts the State Department, publishes an article, I think, Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning, I’m called by folks at the State Department and then by the ambassador to the Organization of American States and informed that the State Department is withdrawing my nomination. And it’s made clear to me that it’s because of the tweets and the statements that you indicated, about my characterization of the situation in Israel and Palestine as apartheid and the critique of the role of AIPAC funding in U.S. politics.

Let me underscore two things, if I could, Amy. First, the role of a commissioner on the Inter-American Commission is not — is not — as representative of the United States if you’re a U.S. national, or representative of Mexico if you’re a Mexican national, and so forth, for the states in the Americas. It’s as an independent expert. The reason why they chose me is because for three-plus decades I have been an independent analyst, expert. I have documented human rights, primarily in Latin America but also in other parts of the world, including Israel and Palestine. That’s the first important point.

And the second important point is that the decision here, what it, in effect, does is it requires loyalty to a U.S. position on what’s happening in Israel and Palestine that is totally out of sync with what every major human rights organization has said. But notwithstanding it being out of sync, it is now, in effect, a requirement not just for service within the U.S. government but for service as an independent expert.

And the last thing I would say is, my views, based on my observation, my visits to Israel and Palestine, are entirely consistent with the views of Ken Roth, who was on your program when his fellowship was rescinded by the Kennedy School and then reversed; Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International; the leading Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem; Al-Haq; the Harvard Human Rights Program; and others who have documented. What a human rights activist and practitioner and scholar and expert does is document conditions, compare those conditions to international human rights standards and call out violations. And you can’t pick and choose states. Nobody gets a free pass. The U.S. doesn’t get a free pass. Israel doesn’t get a free pass. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t get a free pass. Egypt. You could go on. No one gets a free pass. That’s human rights documentation. That’s what it has to be.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Ken Roth, the former executive director at Human Rights Watch for almost 30 years. He tweeted about your case, saying, quote, “Biden’s dropping of a candidate for a Latin American human rights post because he criticizes the Israeli government’s apartheid — a completely mainstream position for any human rights defender — suggests that only Israeli apologists are acceptable,” Roth said. And again, as you said, then we did — last month, the Harvard Kennedy School restored Ken Roth’s fellowship, after initially rescinding it over his criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. He appeared on Democracy Now! to warn against the chilling effect of Harvard’s initial decision.

KENNETH ROTH: This is a very serious problem. I mean, it’s not just a problem for me personally. This is not, you know, impeding my career in a significant way. But I think about, you know, first of all, the younger academics, who don’t have the visibility that I do, who are going to take from this lesson the view that if you touch Israel, if you criticize Israel, that can be a career-killing move. You’ll get canceled. And that’s a disastrous signal to send.

AMY GOODMAN: To to see that whole interview, you can go to democracynow.org. And again, he’s now at the Harvard Kennedy School, because there was such international outcry, Harvard caved and reoffered him the position.

But now I want to ask you, Jim Cavallaro, about Sarah Margon, who was nominated to serve as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. Then she came under intense criticism from Senate Republicans, most notably Jim Risch of Idaho, for past tweets purportedly showing she supported BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Can you respond to that?

JAMES CAVALLARO: Yeah, let me first say that Ken made an interesting point about young academics. We’re seeing right now the unfair pressures that professor Lara Sheehi is suffering at George Washington University. Because of her defense of the rights of Palestinians, she’s facing, I think, spurious accusations, and she’s under significant amount of pressure. So let me just say that what Ken is talking about is quite real. And I, like Ken — Ken perhaps more because of his stature in the field of human rights — I have a platform. I have associations with leading institutions, Wesleyan University. I teach at Yale Law School. I teach at UCLA. I teach at Columbia Law School. And still — 

AMY GOODMAN: You’re a longtime professor at Stanford Law.

JAMES CAVALLARO: — this has been a really difficult experience.

AMY GOODMAN: Longtime professor at Stanford Law School. So, what do you do now? I mean, again, this —

JAMES CAVALLARO: Yes, I also — I’m sorry. I also taught at Harvard and Stanford law schools. Thank you. But the other —


JAMES CAVALLARO: I’m sorry, Amy. The other question you had was about Sarah Margon, no?


JAMES CAVALLARO: So, I’m sorry, but just to complete with her, you have a situation where, again, her positions, her stated positions, working for Human Rights Watch on Israel and Palestine, don’t square with U.S. foreign policy, which, again, is out of line — the view of the United States is a nonmainstream view. It is an extreme view. It is not the majority view of those who have documented conditions in Israel and Palestine.

And it’s probably worth flagging here, if I could, what we’re talking about. There’s a legal definition of apartheid. It’s domination by one group, one racial group or ethnic group, over another. And that is quite clear in terms of land confiscations, in terms of expansions of settlements, in terms of the building permits that are denied to Palestinians, voting rights that are denied to Palestinians, freedom of movement that is denied to Palestinians, which highway you can be on. You can’t be on it if you’re Palestinian. You can’t get a building permit. The situation in Gaza, etc., etc. Human Rights Watch put out a dense report documenting this. So did Amnesty. So have other groups.

But with Sarah Margon, her position was to serve within State, but with a focus on human rights. That person should be a human rights expert. That’s problematic when there’s a litmus test on Israel and Palestine which is not consistent with human rights, which is required in order to serve. It’s, honestly, even more concerning when it’s a litmus test, as well, to serve as an independent expert. I would not have represented the United States government, and I would have had absolutely no remit over Israel and Palestine. The Inter-American Commission oversees human rights in the Western Hemisphere. That’s the other hemisphere, Israel and Palestine. So, the expansion, unfortunately, of the areas in which one has to abide by U.S. policy, even as a human rights activist, even in Latin America, is really, really concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue to follow this. Jim Cavallaro, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor at Wesleyan, visiting professor at UCLA School of Law; before that, taught at Harvard, at Stanford Law School for many years. The Biden administration just withdrew his nomination to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which he already served on from 2014 to 2017 and was president of for a period of that time.

Next up, we speak with a Brazilian Indigenous leader about Lula’s trip to Washington and Bolsonaro committing genocide in the Amazon. Stay with us.

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