Moral Relativism and the Gaza Crisis: Whither Canada’s Voice for Human Rights?

This summer’s conflict in Gaza and southern Israel was wrenching. Day after day it did not let up. Rockets launched from Gaza. Relentless aerial bombardment by Israeli forces in Gaza. More rockets from Gaza. Missiles and ground assaults by Israeli forces. All of that in a wider context of serious and longstanding human rights violations, including the collective punishment of the Gaza blockade; and very legitimate security concerns. Against this loud and angry backdrop the toll on civilians, overwhelmingly Palestinian civilians, was heartbreaking. In a corner of the world that has been enmeshed in decades of repression, terrorism, reprisal, defence and revenge the summer of 2014 will long be remembered for the scale and ferocity of the violence.

The human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law have been relentless. Without a doubt, both sides have committed war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.

At such a time, faced with such a crisis, it is vitally important that the international community consistently and forcefully reject violations on both sides and demand that both sides comply with international law. When it comes to picking a side it should be clear; the only side to choose is human rights protection. Neither side’s population’s human rights matter more than the other’s.

That should be an easy calculation for Canada. But not this time out. In fact, Canada’s position could not have been more contrary to that imperative.

At every turn the Canadian government has steadfastly refused to criticize Israeli actions – even mildly. No matter the circumstances. No matter the nature of the attack. Blame was always directed back to Hamas. A hospital or a UN school is hit by Israeli bombs and it is Hamas’ fault. The argument goes something like this: if Hamas was not launching rockets, Israel would not have to respond and the unlawful attack would not have happened.

But that is not what international law says; not international humanitarian law and not international human rights law. Instead international law operates in accordance with that age-old playground maxim: two wrongs do not make a right. In the face of accusations of war crimes or crimes against humanity it is simply no excuse or defence to say, but the other guys did it first. Where and when would that ever end? Self-defence; yes, of course. But in accordance with international law. And certainly not by means of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The Canadian government and numerous commentators have harshly criticized human rights groups like Amnesty International and others who insist on condemning all violations and abuses, by both sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The current fashion is to accuse us of engaging in ‘moral relativism’. By criticizing Israeli forces for violating international law we are apparently implicitly equating them to Hamas, who we also condemn for violating international law. And that somehow means that we are saying both sides are equally bad.

Prime Minister Harper sharply rebuked those who criticize Israel’s human rights record in his speech to the Israeli Knesset in January of this year, essentially labelling us moral relativists who ‘go along to get along’. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made it clear in a speech to the American Jewish Congress in Washington back in May that when it comes to Canadian foreign policy with respect to Israel, “there is no room for moral relativism”. In a statement issued on 15 July of this year, responding to the Gaza crisis, Minister Baird insisted that, “the scourge of terrorism must be wholly rejected by all peace-loving people around the world. We must never allow moral relativism to act as cover for the indiscriminate attacks on Israel we have seen over the past eight days.”

Using outraged and lecturing rhetoric about moral relativism to deflect criticism of Israel completely misses what international human rights and humanitarian laws are all about. International law is never about assigning equal or equivalent blame between parties to a conflict or among countries. It is about blame, not about equivalency. If one side violates rights, that is wrong and blameworthy and should be stopped and remedied. If the other side violates rights, that is wrong and blameworthy and should be stopped and remedied. International human rights and humanitarian norms do not assess the good guys versus the bad and let the good guys off the hook when they break the law. That is politics, not law.

Amnesty International is pressed repeatedly by governments, reporters and others to do just that; to engage in equivalency. We are asked to rank and compare all the time. Which side is worse? How does country X compare to country Y? Are things better or worse in country Z this year?

And we refuse to do so. We refuse because that is not what universal human rights protection strives to achieve. It is not only about protecting rights against violations by whichever fighting force has the worst record. We are not only concerned about and ready to condemn the human rights records of the top twenty violating nations. And we do not excuse violations when committed by a democratically elected government. It is about protecting rights. Everyone’s. Everywhere. End of story.

That is what has been sold so grievously short amidst Canada’s hectoring and posturing throughout this summer’s Gaza/Israel crisis. Behind the defiant insistence that Canada will not engage in moral relativism, and thus not criticize Israel, is this implicit, chilling message: some people’s rights matter much more than others.

That is not in the interests of Palestinians, obviously. Nor Israelis. And for a country that believes in and strives towards universal human rights protection, it is not in the interests of Canadians.

It is time to take arguments about moral relativism out of Canadian foreign policy, particularly with respect to Israel. What Palestinians need, what Israelis need and what the world needs to hear from Canada is a principled, consistent defence of all human rights. It doesn’t get any more moral than that. And there is nothing relative about it.


  1. Alex,

    Unfortunately this articles illustrates precisely the sort of moral relativism for which your organization is, correctly, criticized.

    Consider this statement:

    “Blame was always directed back to Hamas. A hospital or a UN school is hit by Israeli bombs and it is Hamas’ fault. The argument goes something like this: if Hamas was not launching rockets, Israel would not have to respond and the unlawful attack would not have happened.

    But that is not what international law says; not international humanitarian law and not international human rights law. Instead international law operates in accordance with that age-old playground maxim: two wrongs do not make a right. In the face of accusations of war crimes or crimes against humanity it is simply no excuse or defence to say, but the other guys did it first”

    Not only is that a distortion of the position taken by Israel’s defenders, but it’s also a distortion of the relevant provision of international law.

    First, as a starting point, let us be clear that Hamas regularly engages in activities that are prima facie war crimes. Although Hamas is is probably guilty of numerous war crimes against the Palestinian people (in particular the practice of fighting from amongst civilians or civilian facilties or of fighting without a uniform), for the purposes of this discussion, I think it’s fair to say that Hamas’ intentional rocket attacks on Israeli communities (in violation of Article 8(2)(b)(i) of the Rome Statute) is prima facie a war crime (given the essentially unaimed nature of such attacks, it difficult to accept any argument that these attacks are intended to achieve a legitimate military objective).

    Second, let’s consider Israel’s alleged human rights violations in the example you gave above. The argument is not that Hamas’ (illegal) attacks on Israeli civilians justify attacks on civilian facilities like schools, hospitals or mosques (or Palestinian civilian population more generally) – that two wrongs make a right, as you suggest. It is that Hamas’ (well documented) use of such facilities to launch such attacks make such facilities potentially legitimate military targets for attacks.

    While the Rome Statute (and the Geneva Convention) provides a general immunity from military attack for civilian facilities, that immunity is not absolute. in particular, such facilities may be subject to attack where they are “military objectives” (Article 8(2)(b)(ii)). The use of schools, hospitals or mosques (or their vacinity) for military purposes by Hamas, as a matter of international law, renders those facilities vulnerable to potential attack.

    This is an important legal and moral distinction that your analysis doesn’t address – and that your organization’s public statements routinely ignore. Hamas’ actions don’t”justify” Israel’s attacks resulting in civilian deaths, they justify legal attacks on “military objectives” that result in civilian deaths. Indeed, the effect of condemning Israel for attacks on civilian facilities used for military purpose by hamas is to encourage the continued use of such facilities for military purposes in contravention of the laws of war. Not for nothing does international law hold that using the presence of civilians as a means of avoiding military attack constitutes a war crime, precisely because it exposes such civilians to legal (and legitimate) military attack.

    Granted, even if erstwhile civilian facilities are military objectives potentially subject to attack as a result of Hamas’ actions, Israel would be precluded from attacking such faciliites where the likey civilian casualties would be “clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated”. But the determination of whether such casualties are “clearly excessive” is neccesarily a judgement call, which requires a detailed analysis of the relevant facts and circumstances of each attack – which analysis is seldom present in the sort of knee-jerk instant assertion of human rights violations of the sort your organization regularily makes (and of which this article repeats). As the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court made clear in relation to allegations of war crimes violations on the part of the United States in Iraq, the threshold of whether civilian casulaties are “clearly excessive” to the military advantage to be gained is a high one, the mere “death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime”.

    This is not to say that Israel has not commited war crimes – it may well have, I don’t know and, frankly, you can’t possibly know. But the point is that an assessment of whether or not Israel has committed war crimes neccesarily involves an assessment of facts and circumstances which simply has not been (and cannot have been done) at this time. And yet, in your article (and in AI’s regular public statements) none of this ambiguity is on display.

    Instead, we are presented with a moral and legal equivalency between actions that are unambiguously war crimes (namely random attacks against civilian populations) and actions which may, or may not, be war crimes (civilian casulaties in the conduct 0f an armed conflict in a densely populated area), depending on an subtle assessment of facts and circumstances. That’s the form of moral relativism for which you, correctly, stand accused.

  2. “A hospital or a UN school is hit by Israeli bombs and it is Hamas’ fault.The argument goes something like this: if Hamas was not launching rockets, Israel would not have to respond and the unlawful attack would not have happened.”

    Woah – you missed just a minor detail there: “if Hamas was not launching rockets *from said hospitals or UN schools* , Israel would not have to respond”.

    Credibility: lost.

  3. A thoughtful comment on an important issue.

    It is difficult to reconcile that our federal government ignores the human rights violations occurring every day in Gaza, while it provides funding for a monument to Human Rights (the Canadian Museum for Human Rights).
    With what is likely be more than $100 million in federal government funding, will the Canadian Museum for Human Rights stand in stark (ironic) contrast to Canada’s Harperized human rights policy?

  4. Except that HAMAS’S ROCKETS DON’T ACTUALLY KILL PEOPLE. And they never have. As of 1 September, 7 Israeli civilians had been killed in the conflict, though it’s not clear how many by rocket. But how many Palestinian civilians? ONE THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND SIXTY TWO (1462). Not to mention the catastrophic damage to civilian infrastructure. It’s like blaming that shy, socially awkward skrawny kid from your grade 3 class for getting beaten up repeatedly by the athlete of the year. You can’t really blame if for throwing the odd hail Mary when nobody was looking, can you?

    Here is my source:

    Moral relativism? Hamas (which is quasi-fascist) is on the moral high ground here. Relatively.

    Well Matt, I take your point, except your analogy is flawed. The real question is how long would Canadians tolerate it if the US occupied, humiliated, colonized, brutalized, and otherwise oppressed us for almost 70 years? Would we not want to launch a few rockets southwards, even if they didn’t actually do any damage? What would we have to lose?

  5. To Daniel T.S.:

    Hamas’ rockets have hardly killed anyone thanks to Israel’s development of the Iron Dome system. If this system was not in place, the Israeli death toll would be much higher. The fact remains that Hamas is attempting to indiscriminately murder Israeli citizens.

  6. Well said Alex and ‘bravo’ to you and AI for continuing to stand up for human rights standards … for everyone … everywhere!

    On the application, in comments, of the laws of war to this latest Israeli/Palestinian disaster — while I can understand the need for those laws, there is something about resorting to them to justify ‘civilian deaths’ that seems morally unconvincing to me. The loss of lives and homes has been horrific and tragic … even if they are somehow justifiable under the laws of war, isn’t that pretty cold comfort?

  7. David,

    It’s perfectly fine to take the position that actions in war which may be legal are nevertheless illegal. This, after all, is the basis for pacifism which, at its most basic holds that all war is wrong. Granted, given the near universality of warfare in the human experience, that’s clearly not the dominant view, but it’s certainly a legitimate one.

    But that isn’t the argument that Alex is making. He isn’t asserting that Israel’s actions are immoral, he’s asserting that they’re illegal “war crimes and/or Crimea against humanity”. Surely you’ll concede that reference to the laws of war are rather pertinent in that analysis.

    And just to be clear, no one is suggesting that civilian (or, frankly, military) casualties in war aren’t tragic. They are, but the fact that such casualties may be legally justified does not reduce the enormity of that tragedy one iota. It does, however, relief the party who caused such death from legal and (generally) moral opprobrium.

    I will say though, on further thought, that what particularly annoyed me about Alex’s piece was that he presented such a cartoonish strawman as the position of the Canadian government and, more generally, Israel’s defenders. Rather that squarely addressing the claims made in Israel’s defense, we are presented with a ridiculous, and self-evidently baseless position, which he proceeds to demolish. Well, Bravo, maybe after lunch he’ll defend the proposition that water is wet. Personally, I’d be more impressed if he tried to demolish the position that Israel’s defenders ACTUALLY take.

  8. Daniel,

    Gotcha, Hamas’ missiles don’t kill people. Well except for the 7 they killed (I’d be curious how many Palestinians they killed – the inaccuracy of Hamas’ rockets mean they have a nasty habit of falling inside the Gaza strip). Just out of curiosity, in your view what is the threshold number of a country’s citizens who can be killed before it can go to war? In any event armed attack on a country’s civilian population, no matter how inept is, and always has been a Causus belli for war.

    And I hope you appreciate that you’re making the very argument that Alex (correctly) rejected as being wholly wrong (his problem is that it’s an argument that none of Israel’s defenders – but apparently one of Hamas’ defenders – would ever make). Even accepting your characterization of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, two wrongs don’t make a right. There is no action which can justify, either in international law or and mainstream moral ethos, launching attacks targeted at civilians (whether successful or not). Perhaps you should read his article more closely.

  9. Jonathan Westphal

    Daniel, are you really arguing that because the Iron Dome defence system has brought down most of the rockets Hamas has fired at Israel, Hamas should be allowed to continue randomly firing missiles at civilians without any commensurate response? I find it interesting that so many people appear to think that Israel, alone among nations, does not have the right to defend itself. Be that as it may, the main reason for the Israeli incursion against Gaza was Hamas’ use of tunnels to infiltrate terrorists into Israel to abduct and murder Israeli civilians. Israel left Gaza in 2005. Gaza has been in receipt of huge amounts of foreign aid since tha time. Instead of using that money to improve life for its own citizens, it used it to buy missiles and construct an elaborate network of tunnels under the border to attack Israel. Do you really think that people who deliberately site military assets in and near homes, schools and hospitals for the express purpose of maximizing civilian casualties among its own people to attract world sympathy for its cause occupy any sort of “moral high ground”? To address your analogy – I think that if Canada’s founding document called for the destruction of the US and the murder of all US citizens, and if Canada adopted a policy of launching missiles against the US civilian population and randomly abducting, torturing and murdering US citizens, that we could expect a very forceful US military response indeed.

  10. Nope, you are still missing the point, Jonathan. Israel left GAZA (half of Palestine) in 2005, but continues to colonize, brutalize, and oppress the Westbank. In addition, Israel continues to oppress even Gaza (which it had left in 2005, as you noted), through the vicious imposition of sanctions (also contrary to International Law).

    It is clear from your response, Jonathan, that you are unaware of the long history of brutal oppression. Israel is an island of European colonizers. They came a little too late in the game to carry out a total ethnic cleansing of Palestine (see “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” by Ilan Pappe, a Jewish Israeli author), but that hasn’t prevented them from pursuing the same objective as early European colonizers to North America of purging the the native population.

    The lesson: please never omit the historical context when debating politics.

  11. Daniel,

    Is the Israeli blockage of Gaza in violation of international law? To be sure, there are competing arguments on this point (amply summarized on the wikipedia page devoted to the issue). My own view is that the “No” side has the better view of it, particularly in light of the extensive history of economic sanctions and blockades as a tools of international policy and warfare throughout modern history, but I’ll concede there are competing views. In any event, the Palmer Report to the UN Secretary-General in 2011, which examined the Mavi Marmara incident, and the Israeli blockade more broadly, concluded that:

    ” The naval blockade was imposed as a legitimate security measure in order to prevent weapons from entering Gaza by sea and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law.”

    As for the claim that Israel is “an Island of European colonializer” engagd in “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine, boy talk about ahistorical. As a starting point, given the significant Israeli Arab population, if Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing, it’s doing a damned poor job of it (and while I wouldn’t deny that Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens has been anything to be proud of, it’s worth noting that whatever understandable sympathy those Arab citizens may have for their kith and kin in the Palestinian territories, they have no particular desire to join them, much less be governed by them).

    Likewise, the claim that Israel consists of “European colonizers” runs afoul of the fact that roughly half of Israel’s Jewish population have their roots in the Middle East, not Europe, reflecting the millenia old Jewish communities in the region which were largely destroyed post 1948. Indeed, if you wanted an example of ethnic cleansing, you might ask why it is that large communities of Jews who had lived throughout the Middle East since the dawn of civilization now find themselves almost exclusively living in Israel. In short, far from being “colonizers” a good chunk of Israel’s Jewish population consists of people who arived in Israel under much the same circumstances that Palestinians arrived in the West Bank and Gaza strip (and neighbouring countries) post 1948.

    So if you want to talk about historical context, it wouldn’t hurt to talk about the REAL historical context, not the cartoonish historical context spouted by extremists on both sides.

  12. Define irony: Using words and phrases like “brutalize”, “vicious”, “long history of brutal oppression”, “ethnic cleansing” and “island of European colonizers” then turning around and accuse your debating opponent of “omit[ting] historical context”.

  13. Daniel T.S. :

    Calling Israel an “island of European colonizers” or Jews “Europeans” is like calling Roma and Sinti “Europeans”. Sure, these groups have been living in Europe for centuries, but lumping them together with the gentile, Indo-European majority of Europe, who for most of history have not seen Jews and Roma as belonging to Europe, is a willful whitewashing and de-contextualization of history.

  14. Sadly, Gaza has been demolished yet again, to what purpose? The present government of Israel acts without restraint or conscience. The government of Israel as an occupying state has no legal authority at law to throttle the Palestinian people and destroy the foundations of the Palestinian State under military occupation. If people sincerely want peace they have to act peacefully. A civil society advocates for peace. Canada should advocate for peace. Ultimately it would assist the people in the region. We are lawyers. It is wrong not to follow the law. Canada has lost its way.

  15. Hamoody Hassan, can you demonstrate exactly how Hamas acts with restraint or conscience?

  16. Hamoody Hassan – I assume you are in favor of Hamas dropping its call for the destruction of Israel and the killing of all Jews from its Charter. Take your time answering.