Johann Hari: When hands across the sea are tied

The argument that outsiders should not be allowed to criticise countries is being used more and more to thwart human rights campaigns

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Should you shut up about human rights abuses because they are happening far away, to people you don't know, who have a different culture or colour or creed? There is now a growing movement across the world saying that, yes, empathy should be cauterised at national borders. The world is carved into cultures, and they should not try to comment critically on each other. Instead, they should be "respectful." You can criticise Your Own Kind, but not Foreigners, because they are unbridgeably different to you. This claim is now made by a strange coalition stretching from the Israeli government to African dictators to Western multiculturalists – and they are trying to give it the force of law.

Let's look at how this is being imposed in three parts of the world I have reported from: Israel/Palestine, Ethiopia, and Central America. Everyone now knows the Israeli navy committed a machine-gun massacre on a ship in international waters that was carrying humanitarian aid for the blockaded people of Gaza, who Israeli officials joke they have "put on a diet". The boat was armed with Holocaust survivors, Nobel Peace Laureates, food, medicine, cement to rebuild bombed-out homes, and a couple of metal bars that were grabbed at when armed gunmen illegally boarded the boat. Several of the photos released by the IDF "proving" there were other weapons there have already been exposed as old images that have been on the web for years. Some even still had tags on them identifying them as having been taken in 2003.

But how many people know that the Israeli government is slowly obstructing and silencing the organisations within Israel that are trying to get the country on to a saner and safer path? Israel has some of the most admirable peace campaigners in the world – people who remember the lessons of Jewish history and so document every abuse against human rights their government commits. But they are now facing – as Daniel Sokatch, the director of the pro-peace New Israel Fund, puts it – "a co-ordinated effort to stifle dissent and shut down the human rights community in Israel".

It began a year ago. The Israeli government and military refused to co-operate with the UN's investigation into the war on Gaza, but the Israeli human rights groups did. When it was published, authored by a Jewish judge, it proved to be a meticulous and accurate documentation of what happened: it rightly also condemned Hamas's war crime of indiscriminately firing rockets at Israeli civilians. But rather than face up to what their leaders had done, many Israelis decided to attack the messenger by declaring the report's criticisms were down to the "fifth columnists" who had "collaborated" with the UN.

The feverish protests – depicting the human rights groups' leaders as horned demons or Hamas flunkies – focused on one fact: they receive some of their funding from European governments. The Israeli government announced this was an "unacceptable infringement" on "Israel's autonomy." At a Knesset hearing, one of the human rights groups' foremost critics demanded to know: "What right do they have to criticise the Israeli government?"

A new law is being passed that would strip any group receiving a shekel from other governments of their tax-empt status, and require them by law to describe themselves as paid agents of a foreign government every time they made a public statement. Their leaders have been arrested and detained on several occasions. Some Israeli politicians are calling for further restrictions still. There is, of course, a comical double standard here: the Israeli settler-right is drenched in money from the US, but there is no suggestion of restricting them.

But this argument – why should outsiders be allowed to criticise us? – is being used more and more as a reason for governments and groups to thwart human rights campaigns. In Ethiopia, the government of Meles Zenawi passed a law last year requiring all human rights groups to receive 90 per cent of their funding from within the country itself. It's cleverer than a ban – it sounds less authoritarian – but it has the same effect. As I saw earlier this year, the organisations that were rescuing little girls from having their vaginas hacked out, or being kidnapped and forced into life-long servitude to a "husband" they didn't want, have had to lay off almost all their staff. And there was nobody left to monitor Meles' claim to have won 99.6 per cent of the vote in the presidential election last week.

Half a world away, in Honduras, the same arguments are appearing, with the same motives. A year ago, President Manuel Zelaya was kidnapped and forced out of the country by a far-right military clique after making the mistake of mildly redistributing the elite's wealth to the poor. Fake elections were then held, boycotted by more than half of the population. Now the members of the peaceful National Front of Popular Resistance are being mysteriously murdered across the country, along with the journalists who try to document these crimes.

They are people like Claudia Brizuela, a left-wing talkshow host, who was shot in the face in front of her two kids, aged two and eight. A Honduran government spokesman laughed when asked about this and suggested the Resistance are killing their own members "to cause trouble." The critics of these new death squads are being described as "agents" of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, foreign governments with "no right" to talk about Honduras.

These arguments crop up in more unexpected places. Whenever I write articles supporting the rights of Muslim women or African gays or Iranian trade unionists, I get a pepper-spray of critics claiming I am being "imperialist". It's not "your culture". You're not Muslim, or African or Iranian. Stick to your own kind. These arguments usually come from people who consider themselves to be liberal, and would be astonished to discover they are using the same arguments as the Israeli right and the Honduran junta.

But this view exaggerates cultural differences. When delegates from all over the world came together in the wake of the Holocaust to write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they thought there would be a massive and irreconcilable row about how to define them. It didn't happen. People everywhere, it turned out, want the same basic rights – and in every culture, there remain thugs who will try to take those rights away.

The differences between cultures are less significant than what we share. No human being wants to be tortured. No human being wants to be starved. No human being wants to be imprisoned without trial or reason. Even in cultures where these acts are normalised by some, the victims still scream and beg for it to stop. In the moment the torture begins, or the cell door slams shut, the cultural difference disappears, and the basic human desire for dignity and safety is all that remains. It is universal. It is never the "culture" of a torture victim to want the torture to continue.

So who are we to talk about Israel or Ethiopia or Honduras? We are humans, like them. Just as people there can – and should – oppose our Government's crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should oppose their governments' crimes against innocent people. It's called solidarity. It's one of the few things that can help the people of Gaza, or the women of Ethiopia, or the dissidents of Honduras now. Instead of sealing ourselves away behind cultural borders, we need more ships carrying hope to suffering strangers.

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