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Human Rights Quarterly 28.3 (2006) 783-795

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Through No Fault of Their Own: Punitive House Demolitions During the al-Aqsa Intifada, by Ronen Shnayderman (B'Tselem, The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in The Occupied Territories, Dec. 2004) [translated from Hebrew by Zvi Shulman].

Advocacy with Footnotes: The Human Rights Report as a Literary Genre

This piece is a somewhat uncommon attempt to deal with a report of a human rights non-governmental organization (NGO) in the format of a book review essay. It derives from a broader interest in the dilemmas and tensions in the work of human rights NGOs, and from a desire to highlight the "mode of production" of their advocacy. I suggest here to examine not only the fact-finding and legal analyses of specific human rights violations, for which we usually tend to look at these reports, but also to ask some "meta"-questions, to examine the actual "product" and what it tells us about human rights work.

Spending time on footnotes in a report by an Israeli organization about house demolitions in the West Bank and Gaza may seem slightly esoteric to some, but I think they are characteristic of a broader picture. The policy of house demolitions is a symptomatic expression of Israel's human rights violations in the Occupied Territories in general; B'Tselem, the leading human rights group in the area and one of the most prestigious local NGOs in the world, is a good example of how human rights organizations work and produce reports in general; and the use of footnotes can be seen as a symptomatic expression of this peculiar genre in general, its advantages and its limitations.

Human Rights Reports

The human rights movement has given us a new vocabulary, new standards, new mechanisms and a new literary form: the human rights report. Produced by numerous international and local NGOs in growing numbers over the last couple of decades, this type of publication has now quietly established itself as a genre of its own. Not a journalistic report, not a peer-reviewed academic piece, different from a legal brief, not quite a non-fiction documentary, and aiming at being something other than the old-fashioned political pamphlet: it is a whole new kind of publication, with its own rules of style and presentation.

Human rights reports usually consist of two inter-related aspects: "fact-finding," where the organization documents various factual aspects of a practice which it considers to be a "human rights [End Page 783] violation"; and a "legal analysis," where the organization shows why and how this practice violates universal legal norms. Quite often, these reports deal with very sensitive, emotional, controversial topics: ethnic conflicts, discrimination against minorities, gay rights. The report before us deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as emotional and sensitive as it can get. What makes it different from other genres, especially from other types of political advocacy?

Claiming to speak on behalf of "human rights," as opposed to being ideologically in favor of one side to a conflict, this type of publication aims to be viewed as objective and impartial, as a-political in the good sense of the term, as professional. And in this context, I would like to suggest that the best expression of this ambition, almost the defining feature of the human rights report, is the extensive use of footnotes.

As the eminent American historian Anthony Grafton wrote in his historiographical masterpiece The Footnote: A Curious History, footnotes "identify the work of history in question as the creation of a professional. Like the high whine of the dentist's drill, the low rumble of the footnote reassures . . . the footnote is bound up, in modern life, with the ideology and the technical practices of a profession."1 While Grafton's insights were developed mainly in relation to the development of the historian's craft, they are useful also for understanding the work of human rights organizations. In a modern, impersonal society, where individuals must rely on others they do not know...