The legacy of aggression and impunity: an interview with Noam Chomsky
"The violent action of opponents of the United States and its allies is terrorism. The violent - often very more violent action of the US and its clients is described as self-defence." With these words, Professor Noam Chomsky, the famed linguist and political activist, began our discussion. We covered the manipulation of language and international law, as well as Israel's culture of impunity with regard to Palestine, within a global framework of oppression.
Bolstered by an undeserved legitimacy which remains unchallenged by international organisations such as the United Nations, the US and Israel have perfected aggression into dual narratives. "Every relevant term of political discourse has essentially two meanings," suggested Prof. Chomsky. "One is its literal meaning. The other is the meaning that is used for political warfare and the terms are applied quite differently to others than they are for themselves."
Evoking the US as a protector of human rights violations, the discussion turned to the systematic aggression against "enemies". Memories of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the US-backed invasions of Lebanon led to Chomsky discussing aggression from the manipulation of international law which is submissive to force. "The world is not ruled by its law, it is ruled by force. I mean, there's a pretext that it is ruled by law but that is false. When the US wants to violate international law, it does so. And when one of its clients violates international law with the protection of the United States, it does so. That is true of all international law. The Nuremburg judgment describes aggression as a supreme international crime differing from other war crimes, taking into account the evil that follows." He cited as examples the US invasion of Iraq and Israel's invasion of Lebanon. "The invasion of Iraq is a supreme international crime; the killings of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement, the exile of millions of others, the destruction of much of the country, the Shia - Sunni conflict which has torn Iraq to shreds and is now tearing the region to shreds and leading to much worse." All of that is part of the initial crime of aggression carried out by George Bush and Tony Blair, he insisted: "Are they being called to account?"
The conversation veered towards the significance, or insignificance, of the UN, considering the leniency with which the international community has treated Israel's constant violation of human rights. What would be the greatest failure of the UN with regard to Palestine? Discrepancies are highlighted; the illegality versus "passive support" which other world powers bestow upon the US and Israel, for example. "Israeli activities in the West Bank, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights are illegal. The settlements are illegal; not just expansion but the settlements themselves, as is the expulsion of Palestinians. It's determined by the highest international legal authority." With regard to refugees outside of the former Palestine, "and there's millions of them out there", Chomsky believes that their rights are basically unclear in international law. "UN General Assembly Resolution 194 declares the right [of Palestinian refugees] to return or compensation, but General Assembly resolutions do not have the force of law under the international system; they're basically recommendations. And how this works would depend mainly on what the great powers decide."
The UN, he continued, cannot act on its own. "It can act at the discretion of the great powers, primarily of the US, and if you look at the way these choices have been shaped, it's very clear and striking." The Western societies are highly disciplined, he noted, and they keep to very narrow constraints on what they discuss and how they discuss it. "The very simple things are never discussed."
One way of determining the balance in which the UN can operate is by looking at vetoes. Until 1965 the US didn't veto any resolutions for a pretty straightforward reason: "Until 1965 most of the world was pretty much subordinated to US power because of the outcome of the Second World War." As the so-called Third World emerged from colonisation in the 50s and 60s, explained Prof. Chomsky, the position at the UN started to shift. "By the mid-1960s," he pointed out, "the UN was no longer a pliable instrument of the US; it began to reflect, to some extent, wider world opinion. At that point, the US veto started and increased." Although most US vetoes involve Security Council resolutions against the state of Israel, he said, there are many other issues which the US has blocked. "For example, the US vetoes UN Security Council resolutions calling on all states to observe international law. Britain and France have supported the US passively in this by abstaining instead of voting in favour of international law." Why? Obliquely, the resolution referred to the judgment of the international court of justice, calling upon the US to terminate its terrorism war against Nicaragua and to pay reparations. "The US, of course, rejected the judgment and when the Security Council tried to pass a resolution calling on states to observe international law, the US just vetoed it."
All of this, he stresses, is "beyond visual history"; you have to work hard to find out about it, and the same applies today. "UN resolutions calling upon Israel to stop expanding settlements in the occupied territories have been vetoed by Obama and so they can't be implemented. That's the way the world works."
Turning to the culture of impunity and lack of accountability in the light of the international criminal court, we reflected on the improbability of the US and Israel being held to account for aggression and war crimes. "Take a look at the international criminal court which has taken a number of leaders to trial. Who are they? Are they Western leaders? Are they Israeli leaders? They are Africans, or enemies of the United States. That's the criterion. The US can't be brought to trial because the US doesn't accept the jurisdiction of the international criminal court."
A portrayal of the dynamics of power makes it pertinent to consider the Israeli occupation within a global framework, and this applies to the effective role which activism can contribute towards aiding Palestinians in challenging Israel's historic denial of land and people. Chomsky deems the appeal to the UN for observer status - "which is just a step before recognition" as a "useful step forward that should be pursued further through participation in international institutions". That would open the way for the Palestinians to challenge Israel at the international court, a move which the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is under great pressure not to pursue.
"The US and Israel of course reacted very angrily to that. When the UNESCO allowed Palestinians to participate in accordance with the resolution, the US simply blocked funds to UNESCO and Israel reacted harshly, cutting off legally-obligated funds to the Palestinian Authority." Palestinians then had to make a choice: "Are they willing to face the consequences, illegal nevertheless, of the real world for pursuing these legitimate policies? That's the question."
The predicted retaliation, however, has seen formidable opposition from the American and European public. "States have become responsive to public opinion," added Chomsky, "they have to be. And public opinion is indeed shifting thanks to organisational and educational activities." He mentioned young people on college campuses. "Not many years ago, even at my own campus, I literally had to have police protection if I was talking about these topics. And now it has totally changed. Palestinians' rights issues have become one of the biggest issues on campus and receive enormous support." Sooner or later, he believes, this will all enter into the general public attitude. "Europe is already more supportive of the Palestinians, more critical of Israel, but that hasn't yet entered into government policy." The EU does little, he observed, almost nothing in fact, as they don't want to depart from US policy. "That can change if the European public exerts pressure, which is already being carried out, to some extent."
The sphere of activism should also include intellectuals and historians. "Historians should be ordinary, moral, human beings. They should be making use of their privilege, which is substantial, their access to resources, their capacity to reach the public, to publicise, explore and examine what happened. We all have moral responsibilities, basically proportional to our privilege."
The recent discovery of mass graves in Jaffa was discussed with regard to the role of activism in strengthening Palestinians' collective memory. "That's a very interesting discovery; it took a couple of days before there was a report in the Hebrew Press. And a couple of days later a translation of that appeared in the English version of Haaretz. A much weaker version appeared in the Jerusalem Post. As far as I know it has yet to be mentioned in the US, but it's an important discovery."
As far as he is aware, a couple of Israeli journalists and activists are pursuing this issue further, to look more deeply in to exactly what happened as it is evidence of what happened in 1948, and others are being uncovered.
"An Israeli organisation, Zochrot, has also been working to publicise these things, trying to bring out, uncover and unveil the truths of what happened in the past. A former member of the Israeli strike force testified recently that they had murdered 150 people when Lydda was cleared in 1948." The story had also appeared in a blog by Raja Shehada in the New York Times, where the former soldier described shooting an anti-tank missile in the Dahmash Mosque, crushing Palestinians to death due to the pressure of the blast. "That's what activism is all about," concluded Noam Chomsky, "trying to bring to the general public an understanding of links that are concealed, or marred by lies, or distorted."