Readers will remember a post I wrote recently about the current imbroglio at the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development.
The seven Board members in the thick of the controversy are David Matas, Aurel Braun, Jacques Gauthier, Marco Navarro Génie, Michael Van Pelt, Elliot Tepper and Brad Farquhar. As reported, staff members have, by letter, explicitly demanded the resignations of Braun, Gauthier and Tepper, for what they describe as on-going harassment and intimidation, not to mention racial profiling:
À l'interne, des membres du CA auraient demandé l'origine ethnique de plusieurs employés et s'ils parlaient arabe. «Ils estiment que l'organisme est trop pro-arabe, ce qui est ridicule. On fait du développement démocratique là où la situation l'exige. Mais il y a du harcèlement constant depuis quelques mois», souligne une source à l'interne.
[Internally, the Board members have asked about the ethnic origin of many employees and if they speak Arabic. "They think that the organization is too pro-Arab, which is ridiculous. We do democratic development there, as the situation demands. But there's been constant harassment for several months," an internal source emphasized.]
All seven of the Board members in question have now responded.They attempt to throw doubt upon the reported unanimity of their opposition amongst their staff, claiming that managers pressured their employees to sign the letter, and that not all of them did so. They have heard from concerned non-signatories, they claim, but no numbers are provided.
Certainly some welcome clarifications have now been offered: for example, the freezing of the late President's discretionary fund had the support of the President himself, while a new financial accountability framework was being put into place. The reported refusal to fund a project assisting rape victims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is apparently erroneous: funds were indeed allocated, but there were "some adjustments to the staging of the project."
As I suspected, the central issue here is Middle East politics. And on that subject, the seven Board members reveal their own political parti pris. Here are the salient paragraphs:
[I]n February 2009, three questionable organizations were provided grants through discretionary funds which have had little to no board oversight. These organizations are Al Haq, headquartered in the West Bank, Al Mazan, headquartered in Gaza and BT’selem, headquartered in Israel. They were each granted $10,000.
Al Haq’s general director, Shawan Jabarin, has been denied exit visas by Israel and Jordan because of his ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PFLP is a listed terrorist organization in Canada. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Israel rejected Mr. Jabarin’s petition to have his travel ban lifted because “he is an activist in a terrorist organization.” It should come as no surprise that the board reacted with shock when it found Mr. Jabarin’s own signature on the paperwork accepting this grant from Rights & Democracy.
Furthermore, two of the three named organizations are active in the lawfare movement, which is a strategy of abusing law to achieve military objectives — in this case, to punish Israel for anti-terror operations. Al Haq has even pursued a strategy of lawfare in Canada, where it has backed the use of the courts to harass Canadian companies based in Quebec which have business operations in Israel.
Shawan Jabarin is a respected human rights worker in Ramallah, who has been harassed by Israeli authorities since 2006. He is accused by the Board members of having "ties" to a listed terrorist organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. ("Is linked to" is my favourite non-specific innuendo, followed by "associated with," but "ties" is effective as well.)
Jabarin himself strongly denies any such "ties," but the guilty always protest their innocence, right? After all, the Supreme Court of Israel says otherwise, and that's good enough for the Board members.
But the Court in question, it turns out, heard secret evidence ex parte, and upheld a travel ban on Jabarin, preventing him from receiving, on his organization's behalf, a prestigious human rights prize from the Netherlands last year. Ten Israeli human rights groups were less than impressed, and wrote to then-Defence Minister Ehud Barak to protest:
The blatant blow to the freedom of movement of one of the best-known human rights activists in the West Bank is contrary to the basic principles of a state that is governed by the rule of law.
Jabarin himself asked: "How can it be that my stay in the Netherlands constitutes a higher security threat than my being in Ramallah?" Good question.
So try to follow the chain here: secret evidence was delivered to a court in Israel, without the opportunity for an accused person to respond, much like the now-discredited CSIS evidence in two recent security certificate cases right here at home. The court ruled in favour of denying the man an exit visa to collect a human rights prize. And for the seven Board members, this was proof of guilt, and a grant to his human rights organization was accordingly repudiated.
We then learn that two of the "questionable" organizations that received grants from the President before his discretionary account was frozen have been going to court to settle issues of concern to them. Terrorism is bad enough: but now these wily Palestinians are pursuing legal remedies! "Lawfare," the seven Board members call this. But perhaps we should let the courts, and not the seven Board members, decide whether the legal cases in question have merit or not.
Never mind. The two organizations Al-Haq and Al Mezan have suitably Arabic-sounding names, and they're critical of Israel. Case closed.
But wait. There's a third "questionable" organization on the list: BT'selem, an Israeli human rights group. At this point the collective mask of the seven Board members slips.
There are no terrorist "ties" here: in fact, the organization is merely named by the Board members in classic McCarthyist fashion, and then never mentioned again. The very first commenter on their National Post piece is not slow to see what's going on:
The inclusion of B'Tselem in a list of groups called "questionable" and associated with the word "appalled" is a shameful smear. B'Tselem is a mostly Jewish organization of Israeli human rights advocates, and one of the beacons of democracy in the region. B'Tselem members face harassment and threats daily; it is an example of non-partisan courage.
Readers may quickly assure themselves with a Google search that B'Tselem is indeed a respectable human rights organization, painstakingly collecting data, distributing cameras in the West Bank to record human rights abuses, lobbying members of the Knesset (Israel's parliament), and so on.
No doubt it is a thorn in the side to the settlers and the Israel Defence Forces who would prefer not to be embarrassed by such publicity. Assuredly it has been a pain in the neck for various Israeli governments. Its data and methods have certainly been debated by organizations with their own right-wing agendas, like CAMERA and NGO Monitor. But B'Tselem is a prominent mainstream advocacy organization within Israel, and enjoys considerable international credibility.
By including B'Tselem in their mix of "questionable" organizations, the seven Board members reveal nothing less than crass partisanship on behalf of official Israeli state policy. It is their right, of course, to hold strong political opinions. But is acting upon them in this narrow fashion, throwing up clouds of innuendo and unsubstantiated accusations and smears, appropriate conduct for governing members of a non-partisan institution created by, funded by and accountable to Parliament?
UPDATE: (January 22) Paul Wells weighs in on destructive Board member hi-jinks and the underlying politics. [H/t Antonia]