Richard Falk is a soft-spoken and reflective man. He is a scholar, the author or editor of more than 50 books, including important books on human rights. For 40 years he was a professor of international law and practice at Princeton University. After becoming emeritus at Princeton, Falk moved to California, and became a distinguished visiting scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He continues to maintain a busy schedule of teaching at various universities, writing books and articles, and lecturing throughout the world.
I have known him as a friend and colleague for more than three decades. Despite his mild and scholarly manner, he can be tough on issues of human rights. He has dedicated his life to upholding and strengthening international law and has held human rights as central to international law. With regard to international law in general, and to human rights in particular, he has been a proponent of universal responsibility for upholding human rights and of individual accountability for egregious failures to do so.
Earlier this year, Falk was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories. In this capacity, he is the key person in the United Nations system to report on potential human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories. Falk was chosen by the UN Human Rights Council for this position out of 184 potential candidates.
This past Sunday, Falk attempted to enter Israel on his way to the Palestinian territories. He was denied entry, detained at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv by Israeli officials for 20 hours, and expelled from the country the next day.
Israeli officials defended their position in denying Falk entry on the grounds that he was hostile to Israel, having said in 2007 that the Israeli blockade of Gaza was a “Holocaust in the making” and for having said this year that Israel’s imposition of collective punishment against the entire population of Gaza is a “crime against humanity.”
Israeli officials are angry that Falk’s UN mandate as Special Rapporteur focuses solely on Israeli abuses in the Palestinian territories and does not call for reporting on Palestinian abuses of the human rights of Israelis. They also accused Falk of coming into the country on a tourist visa in June 2008 for an academic conference and of having used the occasion to gather information for work in his UN capacity.
It is clear that Israeli officials do not like the positions that Falk has taken with regard to Israeli actions affecting the Palestinian territories. The Israelis are not, however, taking action against Falk as an individual. They are refusing him entry to their country in his capacity as a United Nations official. In doing so, they are denying him access to the Palestinian territories and making it impossible for him to effectively do the job that has been assigned to him by the United Nations. This is unacceptable.
Upon his return to the United States, Falk commented on his experience, “My detention and denial of entry into Israel is part of a broader pattern designed to obscure the realities of the occupation by keeping qualified observers from getting out and, in my case, from getting in. Israel has been shifting attention as much as possible to the observer and away from what is observed. In doing so, they have distorted my views. The main point is not balance, but truth, and it is the rendering of what is true in Gaza, the harsh collective punishment, that gives the impression of imbalance. This isn’t about me. It’s about the Palestinian people.”
If we are to have an international community governed by international law, no state should be allowed to act against the interests of the whole, as Israel is doing in denying Falk the ability to do his work as Special Rapporteur. Sovereignty cannot trump the interests of the international community at large, and the interests of the community lie in the ability of Special Rapporteurs, such as Falk, being able to visit the territories of their responsibility and report on what they find.
Israel can, of course, take exception to Falk and continue their allegations of his bias, but they should not be allowed to deny him access to the territories where his responsibility lies. Israeli officials can counter the UN Special Rapporteur’s reports with their own facts and positions, but they should not be able to prevent the work of an agent of the United Nations.
Israel’s position on this matter is an affront not so much to Falk personally as to the United Nations system and to the Palestinian people. This is a situation on which the Secretary General of the United Nations should be speaking out in protest and his protests should be backed by both the General Assembly and the Security Council. This is not an issue of politics. It is an issue of human rights that demands the attention of the world.