This week the United Nations Human Rights Council will debate the report of the fact-finding mission led by Judge Richard Goldstone on human rights violations in the Gaza conflict. Let us hope that it is a full and fair examination based on the report’s findings and recommendations.
Goldstone and his team concluded that both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian group controlling Gaza, committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity during the period of the conflict which the investigation addressed. The report calls for credible investigations of the alleged rights violations that took place and recommends that the UN Security Council require both sides to report back within six months on the results, including any prosecutions they will carry out in connection with the violations identified. Failure to do so, in the view of Goldstone’s commission, should result in the Security Council referring the matter to the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Unfortunately, rather than debating Goldstone’s detailed findings and the merits of his recommendations on ways to move forward, there are indications that governments may focus instead on the process leading up to the investigation and seek to limit full discussion of the report. As someone involved in that process, I feel it is important to put my views on record, as comments I made previously are now being used as part of the effort to undermine wrongly Judge Goldstone and his important work.
I refused to accept the invitation from the president of the Human Rights Council at the time, Ambassador Martin Uhomoibhi of Nigeria, to lead the investigation following the Human Rights Council’s January 12, 2009 resolution. As a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I felt strongly that the Council’s resolution was one-sided and did not permit a balanced approach to determining the situation on the ground. It referred only to “the grave violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly due to the recent Israeli military attacks,” and called for a mission to investigate “all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by the occupying power, Israel, against the Palestinian people.”
I was also aware that the UN Human Rights Council had made repeated condemnations of Israel over the past two years but had focused little attention on large-scale violations of human rights in other countries. This pattern of action and inaction by the Council has given greater credence to those who believe the UN’s highest human rights body is inherently anti-Israel.
I decided that I could not undertake the mission for these reasons. I am aware that Judge Goldstone, a dedicated and unimpeachable human rights lawyer and advocate, shared similar concerns when he was initially approached. But he was able to work with the Council’s president to secure an agreement that he felt confident would permit the mandate to be interpreted in such a way as to allow his team to address the actions taken by both parties to the conflict.
Experts can debate whether this was in conformity with UN rules and procedures. I have no doubt that those involved were seeking a way forward that would allow for a full investigation and help overcome the political divisiveness that is undermining the Human Rights Council within the UN system.
The question now is whether governments will give Judge Goldstone’s findings the serious attention they deserve, or instead fall back into an overtly political posture. As Goldstone's report makes clear:
Both the Palestinians and the Israelis are legitimately angered at the lives that they are forced to lead: For the Palestinians, the anger about individual events – the civilian casualties, injuries and destruction in Gaza following from military attacks, the blockade, the continued construction of the Wall outside of the 1967 borders – feed into an underlying anger about the continuing Israeli occupation, its daily humiliations and their as-yet-unfulfilled right to self-determination. For the Israelis, the public statements of Palestinian armed groups celebrating rocket and mortar attacks on civilians strengthen a deep-rooted concern that negotiation will yield little and that their nation remains under existential threat from which only it can protect its people. In this way, both the Israelis and the Palestinians share a secret fear – for some, a belief – that each has no intention of accepting the other’s right to a country of their own. This anger and fear are unfortunately ably represented by many politicians. (Para. 1705).
For the sake of human rights and peace in the region, my hope is that the international community will bear witness to these circumstances, consider Judge Goldstone’s report in its entirety and press for accountability for the most serious crimes.