Special Report

The Right to Development (in Gaza)

What was once thought an international right now applies only to Palestinians.

By 3.5.09

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In the early 1980s, the Strasbourg-based European Parliament held a conference on the "Right to Development," and I was the Reagan Administration's representative. Peter Berger, our regular delegate to these meetings, couldn't attend because, if memory serves, he was attending a torture conference. I suppose the reason I was chosen to replace him was because, as Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams' speechwriter in the State Department's Human Rights Bureau, I helped prepare some of the material critical of the Right to Development. (Another reason for my selection may have been the fact that this was not a very high-profile conference, so even if I made a fool of myself, not many would notice.)

The Right to Development was an attempt by such knavish Third World dictatorships as Cuba, Algeria and Libya to create a new, internationally recognized human right -- the right of all nations to full economic development -- equal in status to such well-established civil and political rights as freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of religion. The basic idea was that even if a regime systematically violated these rights, it still enjoyed an inalienable Right to Development.

Before going to Strasbourg, I promised myself that I wouldn't be an "Ugly American" throwing my weight around and dominating the proceedings, but would sit back and let the Europeans hash out their differences by themselves. This, I assumed, was what the Europeans themselves wanted -- but I was dead-wrong. After the French expert delivered an impassioned opening statement in support of the Right to Development, the Conference's Chairman -- a distinguished-looking Luxembourger --declared that it was now time to hear the American viewpoint, and looked expectantly at me.

When I am nervous, I tend to speak quickly, and I must have been very nervous that morning in Strasbourg, because the Chairman actually interrupted me at one point and asked me to slow down -- the translators were having trouble keeping up with my verbal torrent. In any event, the argument I made (more or less well) was that recognizing a human right also meant recognizing a corresponding obligation to enforce that right. For example, if I have a right to worship freely, and someone interferes with that right, then the government is obliged to step in and help me exercise my right. Similarly, if Cuba has a right to development, but remains sadly impoverished thanks to what enlightened opinion the world over recognizes as dastardly imperialist machinations, then the international community has an obligation to step in and help Cuba. That, I stressed, was the logic of the Right to Development. But did we really want to go down this road -- funding the world's worst dictatorships in the name of a newly concocted human right?

Although all of the other participants (with the surprising exception of the Swedish expert, who argued that human rights only belonged to individuals, and not to states) disagreed with me and strongly backed the Right to Development, we adjourned without achieving any sort of consensus. In that very limited sense, I suppose, my one and only foray into international diplomacy ended successfully.

But while the "Right to Development" has stalled, the Right to Development in Gaza has apparently won universal recognition. On March 2, the Egyptian government hosted an "International Conference in Support of the Palestinian Economy for the Reconstruction of Gaza." The Conference, attended by delegates from 71 states, raised $4.5 billion. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $900 million.

Why is the international community so seized with the plight of Gaza? The conventional answer, that the people of Gaza are living in a virtual rubbish heap because of Israeli attacks, is false. As a recent visitor to Gaza, Yvonne Green, reported in the March 3 Jerusalem Post, "The Gaza I saw was societally intact. There were no homeless, walking wounded, hungry or undressed people. The streets were busy, shops were hung with embroidered dresses and gigantic cooking pots, the markets were full of fresh meat and beautiful produce…Mothers accompanied by a 13-year-old boy told me they were bored of leaving home to sit on rubble all day to tell the press how they'd survived…"

But even if Gazans were living in a rubble heap, why are Western nations obliged to help them out? After all, the Palestinians are part of the Arab world, Arab states are not exactly cash-poor and (so they never tire of telling us) are obsessed by Palestinian suffering. So why not let them pick up the tab for Gaza reconstruction, while we attend to our own needs?

But even if the Arabs were cash poor, why must we begin the Gaza reconstruction process now -- even before a ceasefire has been reached, and while Palestinian rockets continue to rain down on Israeli towns and villages? And why lift a finger to support the main beneficiary of the world's largesse -- the Hamas government of Gaza, a totalitarian regime that cynically uses its captive population as "human shields," while relentlessly seeking Israel's destruction?

Evidently, the world has bought into the logic of the Right to Development --not as a universal right for all (Darfurians and Tibetans, for example, need not apply) -- but as a right that applies solely to Palestinians. The reasoning goes like this: Palestinians have an inalienable right to development; Israeli aggression is preventing the Palestinians from exercising that right; Israel was foisted on the Arab world by the West -- therefore the West is indirectly responsible for Palestinian underdevelopment; hence, it must pay…and pay… and pay.

The only way out of this trap is for the West to tell the Arab states that it is their refusal to come to terms with Israel that is responsible for the Palestinian plight, and that it is therefore their responsibility, not ours, to fund Palestinian reconstruction. But no Western statesman (or stateswoman) has ever summoned up the courage to say anything so bold, and it is unlikely that anyone ever will.

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About the Author

Joseph Shattan is the author of Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War.