Category: Alumni Spotlight, CCAS Newsmagazine

Title: On the Forefront of Human Rights

MAAS alum Omar Shakir has spent his career documenting and calling out mass atrocities committed against Palestinians.

By Vicki Valosik

Omar_Shakir headshot
Omar Shakir

While the eyes of the world have collectively turned in the past few months to the plight of Palestinians, and legal scholars to the questions of apartheid and mass atrocities committed against them, these are issues that MAAS alum Omar Shakir has been working for years to investigate and document. Since 2016, Shakir has served as the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), where he researches abuses committed by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities. However, in 2019, he found himself at the center of a contentious legal battle when Israel revoked his work visa, claiming that he had violated a law banning entry to anyone who promotes a boycott of Israel. Shakir appealed, challenging the legality of Israel’s anti-BDS law and noting that he and HRW had simply “call[ed] on companies to do the right thing and stop contributing to human rights abuses and discrimination by doing business in settlements.” The Israeli Supreme Court upheld the deportation, giving Shakir, a U.S. citizen, two weeks to leave the country.

Image of human rights day 2022
Published by the YWCA (Palestine); Courtesy of the Palestine Poster Project.

Shakir continued his work from other HRW offices in the region and became the lead researcher for a multiple-year study comparing Israel’s treatment of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Their groundbreaking report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” was published in 2021 and concluded that that the Israeli government had committed “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” against Palestinians. Apartheid is designated by the Apartheid Convention of 1973 and the Rome Statute of the 2002 International Criminal Court (ICC) as a crime against humanity and consists of three main components: Inhumane acts, systematic oppression, and the intent by one group to dominate another. As Shakir has noted, the finding of apartheid highlights that what’s happening in Israel and Palestine is not simply a conflict between two groups, but rather involves a “system methodically engineered to ensure one people flourish and one people do not.”

In discussing the study’s findings at an event at Yale, Shakir explained the importance of not only documenting but applying legal definitions to events on the ground. “The first step to solving any problem is to diagnose it correctly,” he said, “whether that’s a doctor treating you at the office or it’s us trying to understand how to deal with a protracted situation and conflict [because] the wrong diagnosis leads to the wrong remedy.” He also noted that HRW is far from the only organization to find that Israel’s repression of Palestinians amounts to apartheid, as Palestinians have for years have been using the term, and many others have reached similar conclusions, including Israeli human rights organizations like B’Tselem and Yesh Din,, Amnesty International, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and a range of UN experts and officials. “Apartheid is the daily reality for millions of Palestinians,” said Shakir.

Since the escalation in hostilities last October, Shakir’s work has become more urgent than ever. Yet, he has noted that the tactics currently being used by Israel—such as unlawfully indiscriminate attacks, collective punishment and sweeping restrictions on the entry and exit of people and goods—are not new. “What’s unprecedented is the scale of those atrocities, not the kind,” Shakir said at an event at Rutgers University in February. “Because many of these abuses we’ve been seeing, documenting, speaking out on have been happening for years and for decades. And it’s precisely the impunity for those grave abuses that produced the unspeakable atrocities that we’re seeing on the ground today.” Shakir condemned Hamas’ taking of civilians as hostage, calling it a war crime—but added that so is the collective punishment of “the entire civilian population for the acts of some individuals.”

Shakir, who holds a JD from Stanford Law School, has a longstanding passion for advancing human rights. Prior to joining HRW, he was a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where he focused on US counterterrorism policies, including the legal representation of Guantanamo detainees. But it was Shakir’s desire to do this kind of work in the Middle East—and to ensure that he had a solid understanding of the issues facing the region—that led him to Georgetown. “The MAAS program provided me with the space to think through the various challenges facing the Arab world in an interdisciplinary manner, which helped me refine my approach and better understand where I could contribute,” he wrote. With the current activism on college campuses, Shakir may perhaps see some ground for hope. “The reason why we see the crackdowns happening on college campuses is because the supporters of apartheid (that) support the Israeli government know they’ve lost the argument,” Shakir told the audience at Rutgers. “The last tool in the toolkit is to try and shut down the debate. But the more of us that stick out (our) necks, the harder it is to cut it off.”

Vicki Valosik is the Editorial Director at CCAS.

This article was published in the Fall 2023-Spring 2024 issue of the CCAS Newsmagazine.