Just a few days ago, the UN accused Israel of committing acts that constitute the crime of apartheid, even calling Israel guilty of crimes against humanity, and then immediately afterward, the UN was like, “lol jk, we didn’t mean that.”
Seriously? What just happened? A Freudian slip?
The report in question was written by two known critics of Israel’s practices: Virginia Tilley and Richard Falk. It was titled “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” and published by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
The report was written with the intention of convincing and pushing governments to support BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) activities against Israel.
Why does the word “apartheid” matter so much? The words we use don’t inherently matter in and of themselves; they matter because depending on what words we use to describe or define a situation, we are more or less likely to take actions to influence the situation.
The words we use not only reflect, but also affect, what we think and how we see things; the media and advertisers use this phenomenon to their advantage all the time.
Apartheid in South Africa, like the Holocaust, is widely accepted as a bad thing; something we do not want to imitate or repeat or allow ever again. The word is heavy, it carries weight, it carries regret, it carries shame, it carries a sense of responsibility.
Because of this, it necessitates action.
For this reason, so many people, myself included, were thrilled by the UN’s initial report. “Finally!”
We thought to ourselves and exclaimed to one another. “They finally figured it out! It took them long enough, but better late than never!”
But just as quickly as the word spread, the report was taken down. Our celebration was short-lived, to say the least. UN spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said the report had been “published without any prior consultations with the UN Secretariat and its views do not reflect those of the secretary-general.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines an “apartheid” as “racial segregation; specifically: a former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in the Republic of South Africa.”
The UN, however, takes a broader approach in defining the term. According to Article II of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, the term applies to acts “committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”
The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid was adopted by the US General Assembly in 1973 and ratified by most UN member states (with the exception of the US and Israel).
The way it’s used in the UN’s definition, “racial group” doesn’t necessarily only mean race or color of a person’s skin; the definition, while it refers to South Africa, is not designed to be inapplicable anywhere else.
Strange then, isn’t it, that it has never been used in any other situation, not even when it comes to Palestine?
Actually, no, it’s not that strange. In 1994, President Bill Clinton similarly refused to refer to events in Rwanda as genocide – the UN refused to, as well. This way, neither the US nor the UN had to do anything about it. At one point, Clinton deliberately chose to refer to the events in Rwanda as “acts of genocide,” diluting the phrase to make it seem less serious than it was.
In a sense, the word “genocide,” much like the word “apartheid” today, was almost too powerful. With it, action had to be taken. But without it, no action would need to be taken. And at the end of the day it’s just a word; history has proven that it’s far too easy to not use a word.