Although many of the details of the violent clash that took place on the morning of May 31, 2010 on board the Mavi Marmara remain in dispute, there is no doubt that it was an affair of profound and far-reaching consequence—and not only for the parties involved. Most of the committees formed to probe the incident have had their say,1 yet all seemed to lack either the ability or the intention to situate it in its broader context, and to suggest its global ramifications. While investigations of Israel’s decision-making process before—and the Israeli military’s conduct during—the operation are essential, as is the strategic discussion of the situation in the Gaza Strip and the future of Israel-Turkey relations, it is no less crucial to consider what lessons may be learned regarding the objectives and influence of some of the leading players in today’s global arena: the international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).
Indeed, the very next day, alongside announcements of the death toll and the footage of the Mavi Marmara being towed to shore, the media were already reporting extensively on the identity and activities of the organization behind the “Freedom Flotilla”: the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH).2 Established in Turkey in 1992, the IHH is a non-governmental organization that purports to offer aid to Muslims around the world. Behind its humanitarian façade, however, lurks an activism of a very different kind. Evidence gathered by security services and research institutes in Turkey, Europe, and the United States points to the IHH’s elaborate connections with al-Qaida and Hamas, as well as the assistance it has provided to Islamic militias in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia.3 Clearly, the violent provocation on the deck of the Turkish ship was just the tip of the iceberg.
It is easy to dismiss the IHH as merely one bad apple, but the truth is slightly more complex. The world of INGOs is an exceedingly intricate constellation that operates in different ways and serves a variety of goals. Some organizations act out of a sincere commitment to universal human rights and the future of humanity, while some seek to protect groups or sectors suffering from discrimination and oppression. Others, however, are motivated by an antagonistic ideological agenda, and align themselves with a particular side in various political, social, or economic power struggles. The positions and methods that characterize many of these organizations suggest that the Gaza flotilla may well herald a significant escalation in their activities—and not just against Israel. We would therefore be wise to undertake a careful examination of the normative status and legitimacy of INGOs, whether as independent entities or as part of the general matrix of “global civil society.” The findings, as we shall see, leave much room for concern.
The rise of INGOs can only be understood against the backdrop of the fundamental changes that have taken place in the global order in recent decades. Academic and popular literature frequently refers to such changes as “globalization” or “globalism”—and, of late, “glocalization,” an amalgam of globalization and localization. This widespread use of in-vogue concepts might create the mistaken impression that they have a generally accepted meaning in academic discourse and public debate; in fact, these terms are highly obscure, and subject to a multitude of different interpretations.4 What is clear, however, is that they reflect certain trends whose influence on our lives is vast and inescapable.
One of the prominent characteristics of the current era is the collapse of the barriers of awareness that have hitherto divided nations and cultures. Mass media and the Internet have transformed the world into a “global village,” to use Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase.5 A Norwegian fisherman whose grandfather knew nothing about the goings-on outside his village can now receive news of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via his local TV broadcast; an Argentinean student is informed about riots on the streets of Tehran through the real-time “tweets” of young Iranians; and the Israeli reader can follow the Mexican drug wars in the pages of his daily newspaper. Through intensive, cross-border traffic of information, more and more people are becoming increasingly conscious of—and consequently, involved in—events taking place beyond the confines of their immediate surroundings. “International public opinion,” which in the past was but a vague phrase, is gaining a scope and stature that can no longer be ignored.
One cannot overstate the importance of this mass awakening and its impact on the global arena. Once the loci of power and legitimacy, countries are now forced to re-examine their traditional position and role. The paradigm that governed international politics over the past centuries, which centered on the state and privileged its concerns, has gradually ceded ground to an attitude that grants greater significance to the well-being of the individual on the one hand, and the welfare of humanity (or the planet) on the other. Naturally, this approach has no reverence—or even much concern—for considerations of “national interest.” The state, in many people’s eyes, is no longer the supreme authority, the source of identity, or the object of identification.
Thus was the groundwork laid for a sweeping change in the role played by non-state actors in the global scene. These actors—which include transnational corporations, international media agencies, religious movements, guerilla groups, terror networks, and a growing number of INGOs—gnaw away at the authority of nation-states, effectively exploiting modern information channels and confidence gaps between citizens and their governments for their own needs. If in the past one could measure these actors’ strength based on the weapons or assets they possessed, today their power must be assessed by their success in rallying public opinion in their favor.
A well-known example of this trend is the public scandal that erupted following the sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior on July 10, 1985, under the direct orders of French President François Mitterrand. The incident caused France great embarrassment: It was obliged to pay heavy compensation to the government of New Zealand, in whose territory the sabotage took place, and to the family of photographer Fernando Pereira, who lost his life in the operation. Moreover, the incident halted—albeit temporarily—nuclear experiments in the Polynesian region, against which Greenpeace had been protesting, thereby bolstering the organization’s image as a force of goodwill capable of reining in a major Western state.6
Greenpeace is only one of countless INGOs active in the world today. Their number grew from 6,000 in 1990 to 26,000 in 1999,7 and over the past decade has swelled, according to some assessments, to an astonishing 40,000.8 A majority of these INGOs presume to represent broad public interests and seek to establish international coalitions committed to their promotion. Many are funded by intergovernmental institutions (such as the United Nations and the World Bank), European entities (particularly the European Union, as well as certain Western European countries),9 and individuals who identify with their causes.10 The remarkable flourishing of these organizations, and the constant pressure they apply to governments, coalitions, and international bodies in the name of humanitarian goals, has given activists and observers alike the impression that they constitute a sort of global civil society11—an amorphous, supranational, all-embracing sociopolitical body that ostensibly advances democratization processes, protects human rights, and assists peacemaking efforts in regions of conflict. Unfortunately, in too many cases, that image has very little to do with reality.
To be sure, the vigorous activism of INGOs contributes to the decentralization of power and hinders the oppressive conduct of states. However, in contrast to most of the governments with which they clash, these organizations are not elected bodies, are not founded on the principle of representation, and are not in any way accountable to the public. This fact raises serious concerns regarding the legality and legitimacy of their activity, and calls into question their ability—and willingness—to obey the rules of the democratic game.12
Until recently, many of these organizations still tried to ground the legitimacy of their activities in the claim that they were serving a higher cause, and representing, impartially, broad public interests. Today, few people take these pretensions seriously—not even, it would seem, the officials of the INGOs themselves, who wear their politics on their sleeves. Many organizations do not hesitate to take a one-sided position in various conflicts and confrontations; what’s worse, this position is not always consistent with the humanitarian agenda or enlightened worldview they purport to represent. A prominent example is Amnesty International, whose reports on human rights violations around the globe attract much international attention—as well as accusations of political bias.13 In April 2010, the organization found itself embroiled in an embarrassing public scandal on account of its connection to Moazzam Begg, a British activist previously imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay and considered a staunch supporter of radical Islam in general and the Taliban in particular. When Gita Sahgal, head of Amnesty’s gender unit, ventured to express reservations about cooperating with Begg, she was suspended from her job. In response to the protests against her dismissal, the organization’s secretary general, Claudio Cordone, issued a public response in which he praised Begg and explained that supporting jihad as “self-defense” was not necessarily “antithetical to human rights.”14
The case of Amnesty International is but a symptom of a wider phenomenon. Hostility toward the West, and particularly toward Israel and the United States, is rampant in today’s global civil society. It serves as a common cause for radical leftist organizations and militant Islamic movements, often with the tacit approval of the UN and other international institutions. The UN’s World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, for example, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, was supposed to be a universal demonstration of tolerance and pluralism, but became—under the orchestration of a coalition of INGOs—a veritable hate fest, the object of which was Zionism and the Jewish people. Indeed, the impression created by the conference was so negative that many countries—including the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy, Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands—boycotted it the following year in Geneva.
If that were not enough, a number of INGOs are not content simply to express sympathy for terrorism. Instead, they offer support to hordes of militant anarchists who do not hesitate to sow violence and destruction.15 We may recall, in this context, the violent outbursts directed against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in late November and early December 1999, and the G8 conference in July 2001 in Genoa, which resulted in extensive property damage and even the loss of life. Moreover, experts point to the possibility that the INGOs are exploited by terror networks as easy points of infiltration into the civic space.16 It is not for nothing that former UN secretary general Kofi Annan—an enthusiastic supporter of global civil society—emphasized in a speech delivered in Brazil in July 1998 that “Not all effects of globalization are positive; not all non-state actors are good.”17
And yet, even with a number of disturbing precedents in mind, the Gaza flotilla constitutes a significant development. Though allegedly an act of defiance against Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian population of Gaza, the flotilla was in fact something far more dramatic: It was a challenge to the fundamental principles of world order.
The term “world order” often arouses a sense of discomfort, and with good reason. After all, humanity has not yet achieved a peaceful state of stability; for millions of people, the reality is one of chaos, subject to the constant threat of civil war, tribal violence, plagues, and starvation. For the majority of the world’s population, however, anarchy does not prevail. The international system is governed by an impressive, if not infallible, order. This order—which took over four hundred years, two world wars, and countless bloody struggles to achieve—is based primarily on the recognition of equality between sovereign states, and the demand that their territorial integrity be respected; on the understanding that conflicts must be resolved through peaceful means; and on the perception of the state as the agent that holds the monopoly on the use of force.18
The calculated provocation of the Freedom Flotilla flew in the face of these principles. The cooperation between “peace activists,” who view themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of the “global human conscience,” and terror organizations, which saw a golden opportunity to elevate their status in international public opinion, led to a head-on collision with a sovereign state—Israel—despite that state’s explicit efforts to avoid any confrontation. Worst of all, the IHH activists on board the Mavi Marmara not only prepared for, but provoked, a fatal showdown with Israeli soldiers, who were caught off guard by the lethal violence directed against them.
The dire outcome of the incident—nine protesters dead and thirty people (including ten Israeli soldiers) wounded—received enormous attention in the global media. Countries and international organizations with an anti-Israel agenda, both governmental and non-governmental, were quick to present the clash as an example of Israel’s brutal use of excessive military force against courageous peace activists, who sacrificed their lives on the altar of humanitarian aid.19 Unfortunately, disinformation and media manipulations obscured the fact that the bloody skirmish between IDF troops and the flotilla activists reflected an inevitable collision between two conflicting systems of value—the traditional, state-centric approach, which has guided world politics for hundreds of years, and a radical approach that challenges the authority of the sovereign nation.
Of course, the positive contribution of INGOs to protecting human rights and improving the lives of the poor and disenfranchised around the world cannot be denied. The commendable activity of Doctors Without Borders (MSF—Médecins Sans Frontières) and the coalition of organizations behind the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL) is obvious to all. Movements such as these come to the aid of populations that have been abandoned by the state; they enter a space where law and order do not apply, in which people’s lives are exposed to arbitrary violence or forces of nature, and provide irreplaceable humanitarian aid.
Nonetheless, in the virtual realm of global civil society, something rather alarming is under way. Anarchist groups and radical elements are exploiting the supranational space in which INGOs operate to destabilize the foundations of world order. They do not recognize the normative boundaries that even the most arrogant of dictators must respect. They are willing to drag countries into bloody confrontations, to sow political chaos, and to disrupt the delicate system of checks and balances that form the basis of international relations. The violent tactics employed by these rogue actors threaten not only to besmirch the philanthropic enterprise of INGOs, but also to transform it into a weapon of global terror.
We stand at the advent of an era in which non-state actors have the power to wreak havoc on an unprecedented scale. Just recently, Wikileaks, a non-governmental organization of relatively meager resources, managed to embarrass the United States on the world stage by means of no more than the shrewd use of the Internet and mass media. Yet the potential damage caused by exposing classified information pales in comparison to the destruction wrought by determined rabble-rousers such as the activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, who waited for IDF soldiers with knives and steel pipes.
The threat posed by incidents such as that of the Gaza flotilla—an act of armed sabotage in the guise of a humanitarian gesture—demands a re-examination of the fundamental principles of international relations. The legal doctrines and security concepts that suited the “old” world order simply cannot contend with a reality in which the big, clumsy leviathan of the state is surrounded by swarms of small, quick, and at times more aggressive bodies. To prevent such an onslaught, the result of which may be cataclysmic, we must formulate new rules and conventions that can limit the more dubious non-state actors and establish clear boundaries for their conduct. Such a move, which will require a diplomatic, legal, and political effort of global proportions, is not only a military necessity—it is also a humanitarian interest.
Har’el Ben-Ari is a lecturer on international law at Bar-Ilan University.
1. On June 2, 2010, the UN Human Rights Council, a distinctly anti-Israel entity, was quick to establish an “independent, international fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international law… resulting from the Israeli attacks on the flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian assistance.” See the Human Rights Council resolution, “The Grave Attacks by Israeli Forces against the Humanitarian Boat Convoy,”A/HRC/RES/14/1, June 2, 2010, para. 8. The fact-finding mission was staffed by three experts: Karl Hudson-Phillips, an attorney from Trinidad and Tobago who served as a judge at the International Criminal Court in 2003-2007; Sir Desmond de Silva, a lawyer with “extensive experience in human rights, war crimes, terrorism, business crime, espionage trials, and sports law,” who served as chief prosecutor of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone; and Mary Shanthi Dairiam, formerly a member of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, who serves on the Gender Equality Task Force of the United Nations Development Programme. See the Human Rights Council press release, “United Nations Human Rights Council Panel to Investigate Israeli Raid on Gaza Flotilla Established.” On September 27, the mission released its report, which, not surprisingly, determined that Israel had demonstrated “an unacceptable level of brutality” and had blatantly violated international law; moreover, it maintained that the perpetrators could be tried for “willful killing, torture, or inhuman treatment and willfully causing great suffering or serious injury.” For the full report, see UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the International Fact-Finding Mission to Investigate Violations of International Law, Including International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law, Resulting from the Israeli Attacks on the Flotilla of Ships Carrying Humanitarian Assistance,” UN doc. A/HRC/15/21,September 27, 2010. The UN secretary general also announced the establishment of a panel of inquiry to investigate the flotilla incident, headed by former prime minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer. Among the panel’s members were former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry Joseph Ciechanover and Turkish diplomat Özdem Sanberk. See UN News Service, “Statement on the Establishment of the Panel of Inquiry on the Flotilla Incident of 31 May 2010,” August 2, 2010.
For its part, the Israeli government decided on June 14 to “appoint an independent public commission, headed by former Supreme Court Justice J. Turkel, to examine… the actions taken by the State of Israel to prevent vessels from reaching the coast of the Gaza Strip on 31 May 2010.” The commission was charged with examining “the security circumstances surrounding the imposition of the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip and the conformity of the naval blockade with the rules of international law”; “the conformity of the actions taken by Israel to enforce the naval blockade in the incident of 31 May 2010 with the rules of international law”; and “the actions taken by the organizers of the flotilla and its participants, as well as their identity.” Likewise, the commission was asked to “examine the question of whether the mechanism for examining and investigating complaints and claims raised in relation to violations of the laws of armed conflict, as conducted in Israel generally, and as implemented with regard to the present incident, conforms with the obligations of Israel under the rules of international law.” For the full text of the government’s decision to establish the commission, see the Prime Minister’s Office,“Appointment of an Independent Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of 31 May 2010,” government decision 1796, June 14, 2010. The first part of the commission report, published on January 23, 2011, concluded that both Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and the IDF operation were, from an international standpoint, completely legal. See Dan Izenberg, “Turkel: Flotilla Raid in Accordance with International Law,” JPost.com, January 23, 2011. The IDF also assembled a team of experts, led by Major General (Res.) Giora Eiland, to investigate the military action against the flotilla and draw conclusions from the incident. The findings of Eiland’s team were submitted to the minister of defense and the IDF chief of staff on July 12, 2010. See Anshel Pfeffer, “IDF Blames Intelligence for Gaza Flotilla ‘Mistakes,’ But Defends Use of Commandos,” Haaretz.com, July 12, 2010.
Also on June 14, the Turkish government declared the establishment of a commission led by the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of justice to “assess the national and international law dimension of [Israel’s raid against the Freedom Flotilla in high seas on May 31, 2010] and conduct preparations for the international inquiry.” For the press release from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, see www.mfa.gov.tr.
3. See Yossi Melman, “French Judge: I Knew Turkish Group Behind Gaza Flotilla Had Terror Ties in 1996,” Haaretz.com, July 17, 2010. Melman discusses the discovery of an “indirect link between the two organizations [al-Qaida and Hamas]… via the Turkish group IHH, the organizers of the flotilla of aid ships that sailed to Gaza in late May.” Jean-Louis Bruguière, a French investigative magistrate and an authority on the global war against terror, who was appointed by the European Union to cooperate with the U.S. Department of the Treasury in exploring ways to combat the funding of terrorism, is quoted in the article as saying that the IHH has had links to al-Qaida networks in the past, and that already in 1996 he reached the conclusion that the IHH “is a terror organization and not a charity group.” Bruguiere notes that his investigation “revealed a broad and global terror network that reached Bosnia and Afghanistan, whose center was at the Turkish IHH quarters.” The dark side of the IHH and its support of Islamic terrorism were also discussed in a report published in 2006 by the Danish Institute for International Studies. For the full report, see Evan F. Kohlmann, The Role of Islamic Charities in International Terrorist Recruitment and Financing, Danish Institute for International Studies,working paper no. 2006/7 (Copenhagen, 2006).
4. See, for example, Marjorie Mayo, Global Citizens: Social Movements and the Challenge of Globalization (Toronto and London: Zed Books, 2005), pp. 13, 16, 18.
6. For a fascinating description of the affair, see David Robie, Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior (Philadelphia: New Society, 1987).
7. See Joseph S. Nye Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York:Public Affairs, 2004), p. 90.
8. See Union of International Associations, Yearbook of International Organizations: Guide to Global and Civil Society Networks 2009/2010, vol. 1B, apps. 2-3 (Munich: De Gruyter Saur, 2009), pp. 2999-3003; Michael Edwards, Civil Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Polity, 2004), p. 23; Helmut K. Anheier, Marlies Glasius, and Mary Kaldor, “Introducing Global Civil Society,” in Helmut K. Anheier, Marlies Glasius, and Mary Kaldor, eds., Global Civil Society 2001 (Oxford: Oxford, 2001), pp. 3-22.
9. As a rule, a tacit alliance exists today between the INGOs and the supra-national institutions, particularly the EU, which take as their aim the advancement of universal interests and multilateral arrangements. Not surprisingly, many INGOs express pro-European attitudes and establish their headquarters in the continent’s capitals. See, for example, a European Commission discussion paper, “The Commission and Non-Governmental Organizations: Building a Stronger Partnership,” January 18, 2000; Gerald M. Steinberg, Europe’s Hidden Hand: EU Funding for Political NGOs in the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Analyzing Processes and Impact (Jerusalem: NGO Monitor, 2008).
10. See Frances Pinter, “Funding of Civil Society Organizations,” in Global Civil Society 2001, p. 197.
11. Anheier, Glasius, and Kaldor note that the term “global civil society,” widespread though it may be, is subject to wildly varying interpretations, and that even political scientists do not always understand its exact meaning. As such, they conclude, it cannot be regarded as an “island of meaning” in the conceptual field of modern political science and policymaking. See Global Civil Society 2001, pp. 3, 17, 19. Political scientist John Keane claims that the term “global civil society” is somewhat elusive, and thus—for the purposes of descriptive analysis—is better used as an ideal model, “an intentionally produced mental construct or ‘cognitive type’ that is very useful for heuristic and expository purposes, for naming and clarifying the myriad of elements of a complex social reality, even though it cannot be found in such ‘pure’ form anywhere within the social world itself.” Keane further claims that the term is often used as a residual category depicting “everything and nothing,” in an attempt to refer to all those aspects of life that are not governed by the state. John Keane, Global Civil Society? (Cambridge: Cambridge, 2003), pp. 7-10.
12. See William F. Fisher, “Doing Good? The Politics and Antipolitics of NGO Practices,” Annual Review of Anthropology 26 (1997), pp. 439-464; Kenneth Anderson, Global Governance: The Problematic Legitimacy Relationship Between Global Civil Society and the United Nations, American University Washington College of Law research paper no. 2008-71 (draft of October 14, 2008), p. 29; Lisa Jordan and Peter Van Tuijl, eds., NGO Accountability: Politics, Principles and Innovations (London: EarthScan, 2006).
13. See Yael Beck and Merav Fima,“Amnesty’s Obsession with Israel,” Ynetnews, February 10, 2008; or the White House press briefing from May 25, 2005.
14. For the full text of the response, see www.human-rights-for-all.org/IMG/pdf/Claudioletter-2.pdf; see also Michael Weiss, “Amnesty International and the Taliban,” Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2010.
15. See, for example, Petr Kopecky and Cas Mudde, eds., Uncivil Society? Contentious Politics in Post-Communist Europe (London: Routledge, 2003); Simone Chambers and Jeffrey Kopstein, “Bad Civil Society,” Political Theory 29:6 (2001), pp. 837-865.
17. For the full speech, see www.un.org/News/Press/docs/1998/19980714.sgsm6638.html.
18. These principles are presented in the UN charter. See Charter of the United Nations, art. 2(1), (4), (7). See also General Assembly declaration from 1970, General Assembly, “Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations,” GA res. 2625 (XXV), October 24, 1970, www.un-documents.net/a25r2625.htm.
19. See, for example, the UN Human Rights Council’s report (note 1); the official response by Amnesty International: “Israeli Killings of Gaza Ship Activists Must be Investigated,” May 30, 2010; and similar claims made by representatives of Human Rights Watch: Human Rights Watch, “Israel: Full, Impartial Investigation of Flotilla Killings Essential,” May 31, 2010.