Watering down our understanding of apartheid

I was intrigued to see on what basis Human Rights Watch thought it appropriate to accuse Israel of ‘apartheid’.  I didn’t need to read very far, because they open with this as a definition of the crime:

The crime of apartheid under the Apartheid Convention and Rome Statute consists of three primary elements: an intent to maintain a system of domination by one racial group over another; systematic oppression by one racial group over another; and one or more inhumane acts, as defined, carried out on a widespread or systematic basis pursuant to those policies. Among the inhumane acts identified in either the Convention or the Rome Statute are “forcible transfer,” “expropriation of landed property,” “creation of separate reserves and ghettos,” and denial of the “the right to leave and to return to their country, [and] the right to a nationality.”

This definition is so loose and so wide that it could apply to almost every developed country.  The accusation of systemic or institutional racism (along with inhumane acts) can reasonably be levelled at the USA, Britain and  France.  When it comes to such issues as the denial of nationality or denial of movement between countries, it applies to most of southern Europe.  The ‘creation of separate reserves or ghettos’, and denial of freedom of movement,  has been the fate of hundreds of thousands of migrants, mainly to Europe and the USA but also to other countries such as Australia.  And the creation of special statuses and services, by countries such as Jordan (which distinguishes Jordanian citizens, Palestinian Jordanians and Syrian refugees) falls under the same category.  If we go back only a little time in history, then we’ll find the forced population transfer and expropriation of property of millions of people in central Europe, India and Pakistan.  All of these issues were, and are, serious – but none of them amounts to apartheid.

Apartheid was defined as a specific crime against humanity for good reasons.  It had, apart from general systemic repression, at least three key elements: racial segregation, laws about miscegenation (and so the regulation of interpersonal relationships), and the ‘pillarisation’ of services – not just segregation, but the construction of separate, parallel structures for different racial groups.  A comment by Richard Goldstone – a South African judge otherwise known for a report that accused Israel and Palestine of war crimes – is instructive. “I know all too well the cruelty of South Africa’s abhorrent apartheid system, under which human beings characterized as black had no rights to vote, hold political office, use “white” toilets or beaches, marry whites, live in whites-only areas or even be there without a “pass.” … In Israel there is no apartheid.”

The policy in South Africa was unique, distinctive and extreme, though at some points policy in the southern US states might have met the criteria.  If however we were to accept the definitions used and cited by Human Rights Watch, none of this would distinguish apartheid from any other sort of institutional racism.

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