Normative frameworks focusing on human rights and international law have become highly influential in post-Cold War international relations. The institutions perceived as promoting and assessing the implementation of these norms, such as the UN Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court and conflict-specific tribunals, as well as numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have become important international actors. Journalists, pundits, political leaders, and academic researchers often repeat the activities and judgments of NGOs, in particular, which are seen as possessing technical expertise and moral objectives goals, untainted by partisan politics. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Federation of Human Rights, have formed powerful transnational advocacy networks. Through the “halo effect”, their pronouncements are protected from independent evaluation, in contrast to government officials, politicians, military officials and other actors. As result, there little effort is made to examine these claims for ideological bias, double standards, methodological defects, and false claims. This greatly enhances the political impact of these groups.
Israel has been a central focus of such reports and activity, from the 2001 Durban NGO Forum through the UN Goldstone Commission on the Gaza war, and the 2010 flotilla incident. The intense criticism has impacted significantly on Israel’s military strategy, contributed to diplomatic isolation, and generated a major internal political debate. By examining the case study involving Israel, the wider implications of this form of soft power and the impact of the human rights advocacy network in other asymmetric conflict situations can be considered.
Gerald Steinberg is professor of political science at Bar Ilan University; founder of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation, and president of NGO Monitor, a non-governmental research institute. He specializes in international relations, Middle East politics, negotiations and diplomacy, nuclear proliferation, and “soft power”, particularly regarding political advocacy NGOs. He has worked with a number of international organizations (NATO, UN University, OSCE, SIPRI); publishes opinion articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Wall St. Journal, the International Herald Tribune, the Age (Australia) and elsewhere, and is a commentator for the BBC, NPR, and CBC. Publications include The Politics of NGOs, Human Rights and the Arab-Israel Conflict, The UN Goldstone Report Reconsidered, The Centrality of Confidence Building Measures – Lessons from the Middle East, and Examining Israel’s NPT Exceptionality.