Richard Falk is a well-known American academic and writer who from 2008 until 2014 was the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine since 1967, a post that invariably invites controversy. For Falk, who has never been shy of taking provocative stances, the work compelled him to declare, among other things, that Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza in 2008 amounted to “war crimes.” He has been banned from Israel since.
His appointment in 2008 by the Human Rights Council was criticized at the time by John Bolton, who was the United States ambassador to the UN from 2005-2006 and is now the national security adviser for the Trump administration. Bolton said of Falk’s appointment: “This is exactly why we voted against the new Human Rights Council”; and “He was picked for a reason, and the reason is not to have an objective assessment — the objective is to find more ammunition to go after Israel.”
Falk, who is 87, was born in New York City and raised on the Upper West Side, near Central Park. He said that his family atmosphere “gave no emphasis to ethnic identity or religious observance, and was oriented toward a rather conservative understanding of the American experience.” His father was a “smalltime Wall Street lawyer” and his mother came from a wealthy family, on the Fifth Avenue side of the park. Falk graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania before completing a bachelor of laws degree at Yale. He has a doctorate in law from Harvard.
His academic career started at Ohio State University and eventually landed him at Princeton University for 40 years as a professor of international law. He and his wife, Hilal Elver, also a professor of law, are now affiliated with the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The interview with Falk was done by email over several days in July 2018, from his house in the Turkish coastal village of Yalikavak on the Bodrum Peninsula, where he stays for months at a time with his wife, who is the current UN special rapporteur for the right to food.
The interview concentrates mostly on the Palestinian-Israeli fight in the Trump era and the treatment of the current White House toward the UN but also touches on the latest politics in Turkey. The interview was edited and condensed.
Q: First things first, what you have been doing since your work ended as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967? And what are you up to in Santa Barbara, where you live with your wife, Hilal Elver?
Falk: Since ending my role as special rapporteur in 2014, I have continued to write on international topics, publishing two books on general international relations, “Power Shift: On the New Global Order“and “Revisiting the Vietnam War and International War,” as well as a book on the ongoing Palestinian national struggle, “Palestine’s Horizon Toward a Just Peace.” I was also the co-author of a controversial report to the UN Economic and Social Council of West Asia [Escwa], released in 2017, as to whether Israel’s practices and policies toward the Palestinian people amounted to apartheid. The report was harshly attacked by Ambassador Nikki Haley [currently, US envoy to the UN] with a demand that it be repudiated by the new UN secretary-general, António Guterres, and included an attack on me but without specific criticism. The SG [Guterres] ordered the report removed from the website of Escwa, but the director [Rima Khalaf, a Jordanian] resigned in protest rather than follow this instruction. Formally, the report has never been repudiated and was always an academic study without pretending to reflect UN thinking with a clear disclaimer to this effect.
I am continuing to live most of the year in Santa Barbara, where my wife and I maintain an affiliation with UCSB, as research fellows. We spend several months in Turkey every year, and have some academic and journalistic affiliations here. I am completing work on a volume of my collected writings over the years on issues affecting nuclear weapons, as well as struggling with a memoir. All in all, I think I am entitled to claim “an active retirement,” at least from Princeton, where I taught from 1961-2001.
Q: What is it like to be in Turkey now, as an American, as the nature of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s so-called “executive presidency” becomes apparent?
Falk: This had been a period of intense contestation in Turkey, especially in view of the national elections on June 24, the most important in the history of the country, which not only resulted in the re-election of Erdogan as president, but involved implementing the constitutional transformation of Turkey from being a parliamentary system to a presidential system with a very strong concentration of power in the presidency and few of the constraints that we associate with a “republican democracy” (checks and balances, separation of powers, independent judiciary, human rights as beyond governmental reach). At the same time, two things should be kept in mind: the changes have not yet altered state/society relations in Turkey; what had previously been done by Erdogan in a de facto manner over a period of almost 16 years is now given the blessings of law, making it de jure. Also, it should be remembered that before Erdogan and the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] came on the scene, the elected government was subject to a military tutelage system with periodic coups taking place whenever the military leadership felt dissatisfied with the policies pursued by the elected leaders. It should also be kept in mind that when the Turkish government made many changes enhancing human rights in the early years of Erdogan leadership, from 2002-2009, partly to satisfy its ambition to gain membership in the European Union, it received no encouragement; in fact, the opposite. Nevertheless, in the period since the failed coup of July 15, 2016, there has been a serious repression of dissent, affecting freedom of expression in universities, media and the governmental civil service, as well as a clampdown on the Kurdish national movement. There are extenuating circumstances, involving the penetration by the [Fethullah] Gulen movement of all sectors of government, as well as security threats from the conflicts in the region. The Erdogan leadership has delivered many benefits to the more disadvantaged classes in Turkey and public funds for development of the previously neglected eastern part of the country.
Q. Your work as the UN special rapporteur was controversial, given the topic of Palestine. The US government, including Susan Rice, as ambassador to the UN, consistently rejected your findings. How did you feel when your work was refuted by the US? Would you have done your work differently, in hindsight?
Falk: I felt during the period disappointed by the criticism from high officials in the US government (during the Obama presidency) and that of a few other governments (Canada, Australia, UK), which seemed in all instances to be based on pressures exerted and “information” supplied by ultra-Zionist NGOs, such as UN Watch and NGO Monitor. These pressures took no account of the substance of my reports but attacked me as biased and unbalanced, misleadingly referring to my supposed views on other issues, taking them out of context and then exaggerating their contentions. I realized when I accepted the position that some of this defamatory pushback came with the territory, but its intensity and personal invective surprised me, as well as the irresponsible reinforcement by high officials in my own government. I would not report differently in hindsight.
I have told journalists that anyone with 10 percent objectivity would come to the same assessment of Israeli occupation policies and practices from the perspective of international humanitarian law. There was no need to be balanced to reach these conclusions, as the realities associated with Israeli control of Occupied Palestine were so clear, and really mostly beyond dispute and often confirmed even by official Israeli sources. I came to the view that this explains why the pushback on criticism of Israel is not substantive, but focuses on killing the messenger while ignoring the message, and even in discrediting the institution rather than refuting the criticisms.
Q: What was the most rewarding aspect of your work as UN rapporteur? How can that role be enhanced and more influential generally?
Falk: I found that despite the attacks that were directed at me, and possibly partly because of them, there was much offsetting appreciation from many governments, including those in Europe that conveyed views privately that were more critical of Israel than the posture taken publicly. Within the UN, my reports had some effect on changing the discourse with respect to the use of some words that were more illuminating than the standard ways of describing the situation. For instance, talking of “de facto annexation” with respect to the impact of settlement expansion in the West Bank rather than the static term “occupation,” and calling attention to the “colonialist” nature of the dispossession of the native population, which was a long-term phenomenon continued after the mass dispossession in the 1948 War through the “settlements,” which violated Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
I also discovered that several important governments relied on my reports to shape their understanding of the situation, and shaped their policies responsively. Perhaps, most importantly, these comprehensive reports that I submitted twice a year (once to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and once to the General Assembly in New York) were relied upon by many influential groups in the NGO world, including religious organizations like the World Council of Churches.
The role of special rapporteurs [SRs] has become more recognized in recent years, and receives more attention and respect from the global media. The position is unpaid and voluntary, and as a result, SRs are not formally part of the UN civil service, giving those selected a valuable degree of independence, and this has come to be more widely understood in public spaces concerned with various issues of global concern. Even amid my difficult tenure, many excellently qualified persons applied to be my successor, and despite a great effort being made by the US government and Israel to influence the electoral process in the Human Rights Council, which did have some effect in disqualifying suitable candidates but not enough to avoid the selection of someone who has turned out to be as critical of Israel as I was, Michael Lynk, a widely respected law professor from Canada.
Q: What do you see as the most profound changes in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since you stopped being the UN rapporteur?
Falk: The advent of the Trump presidency has changed the tone of the relationship between the United States and [Israel] with Washington abandoning any pretense of impartiality, making clear that Palestinian interests and concerns are irrelevant to the US government’s public discourse and concrete policies. This development has been accentuated by the shifts in approach taken by Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which have been outspoken in their comments encouraging the Palestinian Authority to accept whatever is offered to them by Washington.
In the opposite direction, the BDS [Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] campaign, having its 13th anniversary, has gained momentum in the last year; and governments, including South Africa and Ireland, are moving toward endorsements of boycotts. There is also a sense in the European Union that if a diplomatic solution is to be reached, it will require a more balanced intermediary than what the US has provided.
In this context, Israel has felt empowered to move to maximize settlement expansion and legalization (within Israeli law), while using excessive force in response to shows of Palestinian resistance.
The most basic development in the last few years has been the marginalization of the Palestinian issue due to the priorities of leading Arab governments, the sense that further diplomacy is futile, and some international acceptance of the Israeli claim that the conflict is essentially over, and a “solution” can be reached only if Palestinians can be persuaded to accept political defeat, abandoning their struggle to achieve the central national goal of self-determination, and some kind of sovereign polity, whether in a two-state or one-state format.
Q: Do you think President Trump has an actual peace plan? If so, what do you know about it and how do you think Palestinians will react to it? Some people think Trump will announce the peace plan close to US midterm elections in November to boost the prospects of the Republican party?
Falk: My understanding of the Trump proposals is that they are built around the idea of “economic peace” — support for enhancement of Palestinian material circumstances and daily experience, if and only if the political goal of genuine statehood and the normative pursuit of self-determination are quietly renounced, or nominally satisfied in a way that do not emancipate the Palestinian people from the realities of subjugation. Such proposals are likely to be so unsatisfactory to the Palestinian leaders and public, including from the perspective of the quasi-collaborationist Palestinian Authority, as to be rejected without any effort to negotiate on such a one-sided basis. If this happens, Israel will rejoice, and Trump will almost certainly condemn the Palestinians as “rejectionist,” allowing the Israelis to insist, as they have in the past, that they have “no partner” in the search for peace.
How this turn of events will play politically in the US prior to the midterm election is hard to foresee. Trump may get some credit from his base by claiming that he has done his utmost to promote peace but could not overcome Palestinian rejectionism. Without much doubt, his main Zionist donors will express gratitude by upping their donations, but whether this will make any tangible difference in an election that is almost certain to be essentially a popularity contest about Trump and Trumpism, even though the November elections are limited to Congressional races.
Aside from the balance between pro- and anti-Trump sentiments, the Republican electoral performance will likely hinge on the public perception of economic factors, and may reflect the outcome of the Mueller investigation, especially if the Special Counsel submits his final report in October, as rumored. As Mueller was my senior thesis advisee 52 years ago at Princeton, I have some sense as to his style of reasoning, and believe there are grounds for supposing that he will follow the trail of the evidence wherever it might lead. I attach here the link to my article that discusses what I learned from rereading his thesis a few weeks ago.
Q: What do you think that the Palestinian leadership — Mahmoud Abbas — can do for Palestinians in this increasingly difficult situation, with the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the murders of Gazans with impunity during the Great Return March and zero progress on a two-state solution?
Falk: It is a difficult, no-win situation for Abbas and the PA [Palestinian Authority] in this setting. The present posture of public defiance, indicating objections to the embassy move and Israel’s use of excessive force, while collaborating with the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] in maintaining West Bank security and suppressing Hamas is not contributing to the legitimacy of Abbas as leader or the PA as international representative of the Palestinian people. Abbas is caught in a swirl of contradictory dimensions of his leadership role, which is itself under attack by Palestinians under the PA administration and throughout the refugee and exile communities.
There have been some less-noticed PA initiatives that disturb Israel, such as recourse to the International Criminal Court, and continuing efforts to establish the trappings of statehood via increased diplomatic recognition (over 130 countries), membership in international institutions and adherence to international treaty arrangements. These formalities have raised the Palestinian status as a participant in the UN system and generally, but they have had no positive effect on the lives of Palestinians living under occupation or in refugee camps. For Palestinians, their living circumstances have continued to deteriorate.
It might be possible, given other pressures, for the PA to work out a sustainable reconciliation with Hamas that would give the Palestinian people a more unified and credible representation in international settings. Hamas seems receptive and has moderated its tactics, ideology and goals in recent years, but this has not led to lasting cooperation between the PA and Hamas. Israel strongly favors maintaining these tensions, which are regarded as contributing some political force to their apparent interest in separating Gaza from the rest of Occupied Palestine, encouraging Jordan or Egypt to resume administrative responsibilities, and thus allay Israeli concerns about “the demographic bomb” if Israel moves toward an Israeli one-state endgame.
Q: Why do you think the Trump administration — and Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN — seem so averse to remedying the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation? Do you think they have intensified the problem with their rhetoric and actions?
Falk: My sense is the Trump administration — and Haley as the lead voice — seek to please their domestic political base by killing two birds with one stone: attacking the UN and siding with Israel as supreme counterterrorist, anti-Islamic ally. In this regard, the policies are not qualitatively different than what was done during the Obama presidency, but more bombastically and belligerently articulated by Trump and Haley and backed by some tangible reinforcement –especially, the embassy move to Jerusalem while ignoring the massacre at the Gaza border, signaling that so far as Washington is concerned, Israel can do what it wants in the name of security and without any regard to international law or UN majority views. There was almost no prospect for a sustainable peace during the Obama years and less than zero now.
Q: Is the Trump administration’s increasing global isolationism seriously damaging the UN? What do you think are the motives of Trump and Haley for walking away from many aspects and agencies of the UN, such as the Human Rights Council? What do you predict will happen to the Council without the US as a member?
Falk: It is helpful to realize that the Trump hostility to the UN is part of a broader retreat from American involvement in international institutions and multilateral arrangements. In this regard, the UN posture is fully consistent with the American withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear agreement and the Transpacific Trade Partnership (TPP). Trump questions multilateralism in general as he seems to believe it weakens the bargaining advantages of the US as the strongest state, militarily, economically and diplomatically. For these reasons, Trump is seen as an advocate of transactional approaches to international cooperation, based on bilateral agreements worked out by threat, coercion and, above all, reflecting disparities of power. One outcome is the unfolding trade war with China and tension with even close allies in Europe and North America. Another is the great loss of soft-power leadership that had been exercised by the US ever since World War II, a reputational decline that leaves the world without much capacity for global policymaking amid several urgent global challenges.
The Human Rights Council loses some of its stature without the participation of the US, and creates enmity by withdrawing when it could not force its will on this leading UN human rights arena. At the same time, without US obstructionism, the proceedings of the Council should be more amicable and possibly more fruitful and constructive.
Q: If you had lunch with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, what would you say to him?
Falk: I would, of course, suggest meeting at the best Portuguese restaurant in New York City.
I would express empathy, first of all. It is not pleasant to become secretary-general as the UN faces financial pressures and the loss of prestige due to the rise of nationalistic tendencies throughout the world, the bullying diplomacy of Haley/Trump, the decline of human rights amid a rising tide of migration. Never has the global setting been more averse to the pursuit of UN goals. At the same time, never has the world more needed a robust global problem-solving capability. The UN suffered serious losses of credibility by its failures to protect Iraq against American aggressive warfare in 2003 and its seeming irrelevance to the Syrian strife that has continued since 2011 at great human cost.
I think that Mr. Guterres would do well to speak more openly and directly to the peoples of the world, accepting invitations to address influential conferences and set forth the case for a more responsible participation in the activities of the UN. His position as SG [secretary-general] still enjoys prestige as a source of commentary on the human condition — what is encouraging and what is discouraging. Along with Pope Francis, the SG post enjoys the greatest weight for voicing opinions on the morality of international behavior. If Mr. Guterres articulated effectively a positive role for the UN at this stage of world history, he could exert a benevolent influence on world public opinion that could affect governmental attitudes and behavior, especially if there are swings back to more internationalism in important countries in the next few years. In this regard, the US remains the most important national arena with respect to the UN, both because of its funding role and the symbolic fact that UN headquarters and its most important organs are situated in the US.
During dessert, I would encourage Mr. Guterres to focus on those issues that affect humanity as a whole. I would thus emphasize the importance of climate change, extreme poverty, nuclear disarmament and the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. The SG has an opportunity to become the most visible exponent of the conscience of the world. I think if this were done imaginatively, with a certain ironic humor, it would have spillover effects allowing the UN to become again more effective in addressing immediate challenges in the domain of war and peace, thereby recovering from its various disappointing roles in the Arab world, including Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.
To be effective, considering the UN structure, heavily weighted in favor of the five permanent members of the Security Council [Britain, China, France, Russia and the US], the SG must navigate between the pressures exerted by geopolitical actors and the high ideals and procedures embedded in the UN Charter. This requires skillful navigation, but it also holds out the possibilities of lighting candles that could illuminate a path to a safer and more sustainable and satisfying future for the peoples of the world.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.