Falk in Middle East with U.N. team

Feb. 12, 2001 3:06 p.m.

Professor Richard Falk, who has devoted his career to issues of humane governance, has taken that concern to the Middle East, where he is serving on a three-person team sent by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to investigate alleged human-rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Falk and two other experts in international law, John Dugard, a South African from Leiden University in the Netherlands, and Kamal Hussein, former Bangladeshi foreign minister, were scheduled to arrive in Tel Aviv Feb. 9 for 10 days to interview legal specialists, academics, and victims of and witnesses to the violence that has overtaken the Gaza Strip and the West Bank since September.

"We hope to meet with the leading personalities at the most crucial points of contact between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Falk said before departing.

Falk explained that the inquiry is "not so much attempting to establish facts, because these are largely known, but to use our legal background to interpret the information." The central issue, he said, "is to ask whether Israel has used excessive force in responding to the Palestinian political demonstrations."

The team will consider two major issues, he said. "One is evaluating whether the conditions of occupation are such as to give the Palestinians some kind of right of resistance," said Falk. "And if they have that right, then what are the limits to that right?"

Falk interprets the Palestinian struggle as a disrupted process of decolonization, dating to when Britain occupied the Palestinian territory and administered it as a mandate before the independence of Israel in 1948. He suggests that the Palestinian struggle is part of a long process of self-determination, and points out that the United Nations endorses self-determination as a fundamental human right.

The other issue, he said, "is to evaluate how Israel as the occupying power is carrying out its responsibility to protect the society that is subject to its control. The question is: have they used the most reasonable method to minimize the loss of life and the injuries being caused in maintaining order?"

Falk said it is crucial to understand how people in Israel and the Palestinian territories perceive the recent outbreaks of violence. When emotions are high, perceptions tend to be very different. "We must ask specific questions, such as what kinds of weapons were used?" he said. "And how does one interpret and understand the vulnerability of children? For example, the Palestinians contend that the Israeli army targeted children, and the Israeli army says Palestinians used children as human shields."

"The issue of settler violence is also important to this inquiry," Falk said. "Just to see the physical settings, such as Hebron, will help us understand what is happening there."

The Israeli government has said it would not participate in the investigation, claiming that it is one-sided.

Falk has visited the occupied territories before, most notably for a human rights conference in Gaza after the 1993 Oslo Accord. He also moderated the first open dialogue between an official Israeli and a member of the Palestinian Authority at an academic meeting in Jerusalem.

Falk has experience with international inquiries. He served on a 13-member commission to Kosovo, sponsored by the Swedish government and the secretary general of the United Nations, to examine issues regarding the NATO war after fighting had ended.

"Richard Falk is a humanist and an activist for humanity," said Miriam Lowi, a visiting fellow at Princeton's Center of International Studies and a political science professor at the College of New Jersey. "His insistence on justice for all peoples is what motivates his activism and his writing. He will take great pains to learn all that is possible on the ground, from all sides, and then to form a thoughtful, fair, multi-faceted and well-informed evaluation."

The inquiry team will submit its report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights at its annual meeting in Geneva in March, an event attended by representatives from all governments. The intention also is to use the report to address concerns at the U.N. General Assembly about what is happening in the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.

Falk expects the report to "provide a more authoritative rendering on alternative ways of thinking about what the problems are and to make some kind of adjudication between competing claims about what has been happening. It should help the international community understand what is going on and what it can do about it."

Falk is the author, co-author or editor of more than 40 books on international law. This summer, he plans to retire from Princeton after 40 years on the faculty and move to Santa Barbara, Calif. "It has been a great privilege to spend four decades here with so many gifted students and colleagues," he said.

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601