Divestment from Palestine: A human rights farce

Feb. 22, 2015, 8:38 p.m.

The ASSU Undergraduate Senate has fallen prey to a highly politicized narrative surrounding divestment. By passing a bill to divest from “companies violating human rights in occupied Palestine”  this past Tuesday (Feb. 17) , the Senate has endorsed a narrative about human rights abuse that is prejudiced, inaccurate, and disingenuous.

It seems entirely inappropriate that the ASSU Undergraduate Senate and the Stanford name should be instrumentalized for political purposes. The Senate has no business judging contentious and complex geopolitical problems, and it has no business aligning itself with a narrow partisan agenda — irrespective of what that agenda might be. The Senate and ASSU do not exist to serve as political vehicles. The Senate concerns itself with questions of student life on and around campus — it does not exist to abuse the Stanford brand name or ethos as a platform to further divisive political aims. It also seems more than a little presumptuous for 15 undergraduate students to rule on an issue they have no mandate and no qualifications to tackle.

Advocates of the bill have long asserted that the bill is in fact not political, that it does not take sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that it is not directed against Israel. Instead, the bill supposedly intends to merely punish “companies that violate international humanitarian law.” The idea is that Stanford as an institution has a simple moral obligation to stand up for human rights — and to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to opposing human rights abuses. That, in principle, sounds fine.

But if our goal is to stand up for human rights, why are we only talking about Palestine? Indeed, why are we starting with Palestine? There are 196 countries in the world today. According to Freedom House, the standard-setting NGO when it comes to measuring political freedom in the world, 51 of those countries are “not free.” This means they are governed by authoritarian regimes, which violate their citizens’ basic human rights with impunity. Many of these abuses involving repression, violence, and intolerance dwarf anything occurring in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

If we’re talking about human rights, and we actually want to tackle this issue in its most pressing form, why aren’t we talking about the systematic oppression of women in Saudi Arabia? Why aren’t we talking about sweatshops and censorship in China? Why aren’t we talking about the imprisonment of journalists in Turkey? Or the persecution of the Roma people across Europe? Why aren’t we talking about the maltreatment of migrant workers in Qatar? Or the discrimination of homosexuals in Russia?

The list of flagrant violations of international humanitarian law goes on and spans many countries. The question then remains: why aren’t we divesting from companies that do business in parts of the world with far worse human rights track records than Israel or Palestine? For that matter, why doesn’t the bill even cursorily acknowledge human rights violations and terrorist acts perpetrated by Hamas against Israel? How can a bill that “calls upon our university to affirm its commitment to justice for all people” fail to even mention rocket attacks, suicide bombings, and other human rights crimes committed by Palestinian groups?

I don’t have a problem with standing up for human rights; in fact I applaud it. I do, however, have a problem with “human rights” being used as a fabricated façade to hide a pernicious political agenda. How can anyone claim with a straight face that this bill is only about human rights, when it is being so arbitrary, selective, and inconsistent in its treatment of human rights abuses?

This bill is not neutral. It is not genuinely about human rights. Instead, it advocates a specific political agenda — one directed squarely against Israel, the only liberal democracy in a region characterized by totalitarianism and intolerance. It takes sides in an incredibly complex conflict, something it has absolutely no business doing. This bill tries to reduce an extremely complicated geopolitical issue to a one-sided, specious narrative of human rights abuse. Unlike the ASSU Senate, don’t let yourself be fooled. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Daniel Kilimnik ‘16

Contact Daniel Kilimnik at dkilimni ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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