UCSB visiting professor and United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk recently became enmeshed in a flurry of controversy after publishing a blog post entitled “A Commentary on the Marathon Murders,” in which he asks readers to use the period following the Boston Marathon bombings as a forum for national self-critique, particularly regarding U.S. foreign policy. 

The article — which was also printed the same day as “Collective self-reflection in the wake of a national tragedy” on the international news site Al Jazeera — has been criticized by several political figures and groups for supposedly blaming the United States for the Marathon bombings. The article has also been featured in a number of nationally recognized publications, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and special rapporteur for Palestine for the UN Human Rights Council.
On April 22, UN Watch — the first group to publicly condemn Falk’s post — sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice requesting Falk’s removal from his position in the United Nations. UN Watch is a Geneva-based non-governmental organization that is currently sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.
The letter states Falk’s recent piece unfairly “justifies” the recent terrorist attacks in Boston, and places blame on the United States and Israel for an international climate leading to the attack.
“We write to express our outrage over yesterday’s statement by Richard Falk — a top official of the United Nations Human Rights Council — in which he justifies the Boston terrorist attacks as due ‘retribution’ for American sins, warns of ‘worse blowbacks’ unless America changes its foreign policy, blames ‘Tel Aviv’ and exploits a moment of tragedy and mourning to advance a disturbing political agenda,” the letter states.
However, Falk said his use of the terms “blowbacks” and “global domination project” refers to American foreign policy as a whole, and he said the article did not provide justification for the terrorist attack in Boston.
“I did not mean the action and reaction implied by ‘blowbacks’ in any kind of literal way, and certainly did not intend any causal connection with the Boston Marathon events,” Falk said in an email. “I meant that the American military interventions in the global South were causing deep resentments that give rise to various forms of resistance, including transnational terrorist attacks.”
Falk said his reference to a “global domination project” is actually referring to the U.S.’s general “projection of American military power to the far corners of the planet,” with this including “700+ overseas military bases, drone warfare on a global counterterrorist battlefield, navies in every ocean, the militarization of space.”
On April 23, Former Secretary of State Susan Rice expressed her disapproval of Falk’s post over her Twitter page, stating, “Outraged by Richard Falk’s highly offensive Boston comments. Someone who spews such vitriol has no place at the UN. Past time for him to go.”
Soon after, 25 members of Congress signed a petition authored by Congressional Representative Mike Kelly (R–PA), insisting President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remove Falk from his UN position. On April 25, a spokesman for Ki-moon issued a statement saying the Secretary-General “rejected” Falk’s claims of which he had been briefed.
UCSB Model UN Undersecretary General of External Affairs Monte-Angel Richardson, fourth-year biopsychology major, said while Falk’s position at the UN allows him to express personal opinion, other members are able to voice their disagreement.
“The purpose of the United Nations itself is to come to diplomatic solutions on sometimes controversial topics, so it is common for member-states and individuals to disagree,” Richardson said. “In this case, I believe that the statement was formally ‘rejected’ so as to ensure that its content was not seen as representative as the United Nations as a whole.”
However, Richardson said Falk’s position within the international organization does not limit his ability to express such public opinions.
“Since a Special Rapporteur traditionally works on behalf of the Human Rights Council to undertake special procedures, I do not believe that there are any [limiting] conditions to which a Special Rapporteur can express his or her opinion in the public sphere,” Richardson said.
Falk retired from his position as a Princeton professor of international law in 2001 after over 30 years at the university and since 2002, he has been associated with the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at UCSB. At the center on campus, Falk currently directs a research project on the effects of global climate change on democracy, and teaches a course in the department’s graduate program.
Orfalea Center Director Mark Juergensmeyer said he and many other faculty members support the notion of “academic freedom” and, as such, respect Falk’s “right to speak freely” on issues of international law and human rights. Juergensmeyer said the recent controversy surrounding Falk’s statements is likely due to Falk’s history of charged political opinion regarding the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
“For some years, he has served as the UN Human Rights’ Council’s Special Rapporteur for Palestine, where he has come under some fire for his statements about the limited political rights of Palestinians under Israeli control,” Juergensmeyer said. “I suspect that much of the recent outcry about Falk relates to his positions on Israel and Palestine, rather than anything he may have said about the Boston bombings.”
On April 25, Falk issued a clarification blog post about the original April 19 post. In the latter post, he called the Boston Marathon massacre a “despicable crime” and said he never intended to link its occurrence to U.S. or Israeli foreign policy actions.
Additionally, Falk said he wrote the April 19 blog post with the intention of shedding light on general U.S. security issues, potentially allowing readers to evaluate overall American treatment of these issues.
“I was making a rather simple argument that was occasioned by the Boston attacks, but not intended to blame the U.S. Government for what happened in any specific way,” Falk said. “I wanted readers only to consider that in a turbulent world, it was important for America to examine whether we were approaching our security and that of the world in an appropriate way — a general assessment.”
Falk said he would provide a similar argument for political debate surrounding American gun laws and related this domestic issue to ongoing international concerns in the Middle East.
“I would make the same kind of argument with respect to gun violence in this country — it is time for reassessing the relationship between the right to bear arms with establishing a more peaceful society, and not take the old framework for granted, reacting to each horrible event as if it can be isolated from the broader cultural reality,” Falk said. “These attacks are horrible crimes, and their perpetrators should be punished by the application of our criminal justice system. But, it also is a moment when we in this country should pause and reconsider our relationship to the non-West and especially the Islamic world.”