UPDATED WITH UNESCO RESPONSE BELOW
Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu
UNESCO Chair & Executive Director
Institute of Comparative Human Rights
Director, University of Fort Hare Linkage Program
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT.06269, USA.
Dear Dr. Omara-Otunnu
I understand that your office, as part of the annual International Conference on Comparative Human Rights to be held on Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at the University of Connecticut, will be honoring several individuals (through their representatives) for their stellar contributions to advancing human rights in its fullest sense in their specific regions of the globe.
These include social justice, peaceful resolution of conflicts, advancing women’s rights and children’s rights, freedom, dignity, tolerance and respect for all peoples and their faiths as well as cultures, especially the indigenous, oppressed and colonized of the world. The people you have selected are:
Salmaan Taseerof Pakistan, Shimon Peres of Israel, Kwame Nkrumahof Ghana, Yuri Kochiyama of USA/Japan and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja of Bahrain.
Your own experience in the struggle of the people of South Africa against apartheid is evidence of your commitment to these pursuits. In this context it is very disturbing for me to understand the rationale for your selection of Shimon Peres, President of Israel, as one of your honorees next week.
I write to you as a peace and human rights activist and an alumnus of the University of Connecticut (PhD, Physics, 1981).
There is no other country in the world that continues to colonize, humiliate, oppress, kill and maim wantonly another people, indigenous to the region, than Israel does to the Palestinians. Shimon Peres presides over the highest office of Israel and has overseen the many wars waged against the people of Palestine and the neighbors of Israel since before the country was founded in 1948. He is the person who is credited with establishing Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear weapons program that poses an existential threat to the people in the region. Israel’s leaders, including Mr. Peres, have refused to acknowledge these deadly instruments of death and destruction in their possession. They have also refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty even as they threaten Iran with war for developing its nuclear program for avowedly peaceful purposes. On the issue of the nuclear program of Iran President Peres stated, "We must quickly and decisively, establish a strong, aggressive coalition of nations that will impose painful economic sanctions on Iran".
In 1947, Peres, coming from Poland, joined the Haganah, the predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces. As early as 1948, Israel terrorist groups were involved in killing Palestinian civilians, forcibly evicting them from their homes and making them into penniless refugees. Just yesterday a report titled, “Israeli army veterans admit role in massacres of Palestinians in 1948 ” has the following confession from an Israeli army veteran:
“Amnon Neumann is 82 and from Haifa. He said that he was a member of the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Yeshuv Jewish community during the period of the British Mandate of Palestine. Neumann joined the Palmach in 1946 after he came to Palestine from Poland at the age of 16.
He said that there were no real battles due to Palestinian poverty and lack of organisation, training and arms. The official Israeli account of that period claims that the displacement and killing of Palestinians was the normal result of a war.
Mr. Neumann admitted that he took part in displacing Palestinians from the villages of Simism, Najd, Kawkaba, Burayr and other places which were fully inhabited by their owners; this runs contrary to Zionist claims. Confessing to his participation in the massacre that was committed against the people of Burayr, Neumann noted that they had Czech-made guns which they used to expel the local inhabitants towards the Gaza Strip.
The Haganah forces were surrounding the village on three sides, he recalls, and firing in the air before entering and expelling its people forcefully. The houses were burnt down, as per the orders the armed forces had received. According to the veteran, he heard a confession by a Haganah officer after the occupation of Burayr that he had shot a Palestinian girl in the head after raping her. It was later revealed, said Neumann, that the girl had indeed been raped.”
As Miko Peled, the Israeli peace activist and author (“The General’s Son”) wrote after President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to Shimon Peres earlier this year:
“Officially, Peres oversees a state which under his watch has held thousands of political prisoners; a state where people are governed by different laws based on their ethnic and religious background or, in other words, an apartheid state; a state where some children are denied food, medicine, school and freedom because they were not born Jewish but rather Muslim or Christian; a state where the army can drop hundreds of tons of bombs on a civilian population and where a soldier can take aim and shoot a little girl because she is Palestinian and never be brought to justice.
Peres is the head of a state where water is distributed based on a person’s national identity: Israelis, on average, get an estimated 300 cubic meters of water per year, while Palestinians, depending on where they reside in the West Bank, receive between 35-85 cubic meters of water per year. Israelis who agree to settle on stolen Palestinian land receive 1,500 cubic meters of water per year.
Peres heads a state that in the West Bank routinely kidnaps children from bed in the middle of the night. Subjected to beatings and psychological terror, the child’s “testimony” is then used against other Palestinian defendants.”
Under Shimon Peres’s presidency, Israel waged one of its most brutal (of many) wars against the Palestinians in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead, 2009-10) that killed more than 1,500 people, a majority of them innocent children, women and men. Hospitals and schools (including a U.N. school) were not spared. To this day, under Mr. Peres, the belligerent Israeli military occupation of the West Bank continues, including the relentless expansion of Jewish settlements. These actions, among many others, have grossly violated the human rights of the Palestinians and of many other people living in the Middle East (such as in neighboring Lebanon and the occupied Golan Heights of Syria).
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking earlier this year at a conference in Boston on Ending the Israeli Occupation of Palestine said, “I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. What of the Palestinians who have lost their land and homes? The Israeli government is placed on a pedestal [in the US], and to criticise it is to be immediately dubbed anti-semitic, as if the Palestinians were not semitic. And how did it come about that Israel was collaborating with the apartheid government on security measures?”
He has called for an international divestment from Israel similar to that against apartheid South Africa, saying, “Yesterday's South African township dwellers can tell you about today's life in the Occupied Territories. To travel only blocks in his own homeland, a grandfather waits on the whim of a teenage soldier. More than an emergency is needed to get to a hospital; less than a crime earns a trip to jail. The lucky ones have a permit to leave their squalor to work in Israel's cities, but their luck runs out when security closes all checkpoints, paralyzing an entire people. The indignities, dependence and anger are all too familiar. Many South Africans are beginning to recognize the parallels to what we went through. Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, two Jewish heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, recently published a letter titled 'Not in My Name'. Signed by several hundred other prominent Jewish South Africans, the letter drew an explicit analogy between apartheid and current Israeli policies. Mark Mathabane and Nelson Mandela have also pointed out the relevance of the South African experience.
Dr. Omara-Otunnu - as leader of the first UNESCO Chair in Human Rights in the US and as someone who has long standing connections with the African National Congress and other institutions that fought apartheid and for human rights in South Africa, I appeal to your good conscience to revoke the honor to be bestowed on Shimon Peres next week by your office, the University of Connecticut and UNESCO. Otherwise it will disgrace the institutions involved and your office as well and come as an insult to the other honorees at this distinguished function.
Central Connecticut State University
Cc: Nana Amos
Institute of Comparative Human Rights
Dear Professor Nanjundiah Sadanand:
Thank you for your note. We take it that you have written it in good faith and to alert us to some of the possible pitfalls attendant on our choice of individuals to focus on for their contribution to human rights. It is also apparent that you know more about the various issues and individuals and social groups in the Middle East than we could pretend to know. We have, therefore, taken due note of it and very much appreciate your concern.
I would like to assure you that we take very seriously violations of human rights in all regions of the world. As our motto says eloquently, we subscribe to the notion of a common humanity. Perhaps, when an opportunity avails itself, we could explore the possibility of organizing an ongoing forum to educate people about the various human rights issues in the Middle East? We would, indeed, be amenable to consider some reasonable suggestions for such education and dialogue.
As we ponder over your note and learn from it, we are reminded of the words of arguably the greatest peace activist the world has ever known, Mahatma Gandhi, when he said that an eye for an eye would make the world blind. We believe that it is important that those of us who care deeply and genuinely about human rights and a common humanity should always commit ourselves to promote understanding through dialogue. We hope that you will be able to come and respectfully pose your concerns directly to the speaker and in the process raise the level of debate on the issue and perhaps even begin a critical dialogue among various people.
Wishing you well and peace in your endeavours.
In hope and understanding,
Amii Omara-Otunnu, D.Phil. (Oxon.),
UNESCO Chair & Executive Director,
Institute of Comparative Human Rights,
Professor of History.
University of Connecticut