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January 12, 2008

Lantos' Tarnished Legacy


by Stephen Zunes

Pundits responded to news of the retirement of Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) at the end of his current term with platitudes and praise. They have focused primarily on his heroic role as a Holocaust survivor and member of the anti-Nazi resistance in his native Hungary as well as his leadership on human rights issues in Congress, serving as the founder and longtime co-chair of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

There's no question that his personal history is both courageous and noble. Nor is there any debate that he stood up in support for the International Criminal Court, the people of the occupied nations of Tibet and East Timor, and the victims of oppression in Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and other countries.

At the same time, most peace and justice activists have found Lantos – who has chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs since the Democrats regained their Congressional majority – as a very inconsistent advocate for human rights.

Indeed, the Congressman has openly challenged the United Nations as well as reputable independent human rights organizations when they have raised concerns about human rights abuses by certain key U.S. allies, even to the point of directly contradicting their findings. In addition, his leadership in support of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and his resulting culpability in the human rights tragedies that followed, will no doubt be the most significant negative mark on his legacy.

Iraq Deceptions

Lantos' desire to have the United States take over Iraq was so strong that he was apparently willing to grossly exaggerate that oil-rich country's military capabilities to frighten the American public into giving up on diplomatic efforts and launch a war. In 2001, Lantos claimed Iraq was developing long-range missiles "that will threaten the United States and our allies" even though – as arms control experts correctly noted at the time – this was not actually the case. Similarly, though the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed that Iraq no longer had a nuclear weapons program and strict international sanctions prevented that country from restarting it, Lantos claimed that such peaceful and diplomatic means to eliminate Iraq's nuclear program had actually failed and that military means were necessary to prevent Iraq from developing its nuclear capability.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee, his willingness to co-sponsor the resolution granting President George W. Bush unprecedented power to invade a foreign country at the time and circumstances of his own choosing was critical in making the disastrous Iraq War possible.

The resolution co-sponsored by Lantos contained accusations that were known or widely assumed to be false, such as claims of Iraqi support for al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States despite the fact that a definitive report by the Department of Defense noted that not only did no such link exist, but that no such link could have even been reasonably suggested based upon the evidence available at that time.

The resolution also falsely claimed that Iraq was "actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability." In reality, Iraq had eliminated its nuclear program long before, a fact that was confirmed in a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1998, four years prior to the resolution. It also falsely claimed that Iraq at that time continued "to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability" when, in reality, as the U.S. government now admits, Iraq had rid itself of its chemical and biological weapons nearly a decade earlier and no longer had any active chemical and biological weapons programs.

Though Saddam Hussein's regime was notorious for its human rights abuses, this was not apparently what motivated Lantos to support the invasion. The September 30, 2002 issue of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz quoted Lantos telling an Israeli Knesset member, in reference to Saddam Hussein, "We'll be rid of the bastard soon enough. And in his place we'll install a pro-Western dictator."

Indeed, his support for a number of U.S.-backed dictatorships in the Middle East has raised serious questions regarding his actual commitment for human rights.

Denying Israeli Atrocities

Lantos has also been an outspoken defender of the U.S.-backed Israeli government in its frequent application of military force, even when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have engaged in serious violations of international humanitarian law.

For example, during the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented that both Hezbollah and Israelis forces were engaged in war crimes by attacking civilian areas, which resulted in the deaths of 43 Israeli civilians and more then 800 Lebanese civilians. In response, Lantos joined leading House Republicans in co-sponsoring a resolution praising Israel for its "longstanding commitment to minimize civilian loss" and even welcomed "Israel's continued efforts to prevent civilian casualties." The resolution also claimed, in the face of a broad consensus of those familiar with international humanitarian law to the contrary, that Israel's actions were "in accordance with international law."

Similarly, in April of 2002, Amnesty International published a detailed and well-documented report regarding the Israeli military offensive in the occupied West Bank, noting how "the IDF acted as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians. Actions were taken by the IDF which had no clear or obvious military necessity." The report went on to document unlawful killings, destruction of civilian property, arbitrary detention, torture, assaults on medical personnel and journalists, as well as random shooting at people in the streets and houses.

In response, Lantos introduced a resolution challenging Amnesty's findings, claiming that "Israel's military operations ... are aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure in the Palestinian areas." In an apparent retort to growing demands by peace and human rights groups to suspend military aid to Israel in response to these violations of international humanitarian law, the Lantos resolution called for an increase in military aid, which many of these activists felt was, in effect, rewarding Israel for its repression and attacking the credibility of Amnesty International, winner of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. (See my article Congress Ignores Human Rights Groups In Pro-Israel Resolution.)

Contempt for International Law

Lantos has also been an outspoken critic of the International Court of Justice in its ruling on the applicability of international humanitarian law, such as the 2004 decision against Israel's construction of a separation barrier deep inside occupied Palestinian territory. Lantos condemned the near-unanimous decision as a "perversion of justice" and praised Bush for "his leadership in marshalling opposition" to the UN's judicial arm.

Lantos also sponsored a resolution last year defending Israel's annexation of greater East Jerusalem, despite a series of UN Security Council resolutions citing the inadmissibility of any country expanding its territory by force and declaring the annexation illegal. His resolution also claimed that Israel had "respected the rights of all religious groups" during its 40-year occupation of that city and environs. However, a number of UN bodies – along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights organizations – have frequently cited Israel for its ongoing violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas, including the confiscation and destruction of homes and other property belonging to longstanding Muslim and Christian residents. (See my article Jerusalem: Endorsing the Right of Conquest.)

On a number of occasions, Lantos placed himself to the right of the Bush administration regarding Israeli violations of international humanitarian law. For example, when Bush expressed concerns that the Israeli government's policy of assassinating Palestinian opponents was leading to the deaths of innocent bystanders, hurting moderate Palestinian forces and proving counter-productive in enhancing Israeli security, Lantos expressed that he was "deeply dismayed" by the president's comments and insisted that such Israeli actions constituted legitimate self-defense and deserved "the full support of the United States."

Morocco's Occupation

Israel is not the only occupier power whose human rights abuses have been denied and defended by the Congressman. Lantos has been a strong supporter of Morocco's efforts to annex the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony invaded by Morocco in 1975, in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision by the International Court of Justice. He has declared Morocco's proposal for limited autonomy of that illegally occupied country as "a breakthrough opportunity" and a "realistic framework for a political solution." Given the widespread opposition in the international community to legitimizing Morocco's act of aggression, the letter concludes by urging Bush to "embrace this promising Moroccan initiative so that it receives the consideration necessary to achieve international acceptance." (See my article The Future of Western Sahara.)

Despite well-documented reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights groups monitoring the situation in the occupied territory that public expressions in support for self-determination are routinely suppressed, Lantos has also expressed his confidence that "Morocco will do nothing to stifle debate among the people of Western Sahara."

Blaming Victims

Lantos also has a history of exaggerating human rights abuses by governments and movements he opposes.

For example, despite consistent reports by United Nations monitors that the Western Sahara nationalist Polisario Front has scrupulously honored its 1991 ceasefire agreement with Morocco – despite the Moroccans' refusal to honor their reciprocal commitment to allow for a UN-sponsored referendum on independence – Lantos has insisted that "peace has been summarily rejected by the rebel Polisario Front in favor of guerrilla ambushes." He has also falsely accused the Polisario Front of forcing most of the Western Saharan population to live in arid refugee camps in neighboring Algeria, ignoring that fact that the refugees were forced to flee to these camps as a direct result of Moroccan repression in their occupied homeland.

In addition, Lantos cosponsored a resolution accusing Hezbollah of "cynically exploiting civilian populations as shields" during the fighting with Israel in 2006 despite the fact that Amnesty International found no conclusive evidence of such practices and Human Rights Watch, in a well-documented study, had found "no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack."

Tarnished Legacy

As these and other examples illustrate, Lantos' advocacy for human rights has been far from consistent.

For human rights advocacy to be credible, it must be based on empirical evidence rather than ideological biases. It must hinge on universal principles of international humanitarian law rather than a given country's relations with the United States.

The failure of Representative Lantos to recognize this fundamental reality will scar an otherwise noble legacy.

 

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  • Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for Foreign Policy in Focus and is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.

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