Goldstone Report on Gaza War Crimes Presented to the Human Rights Council
Yesterday, international jurist Richard Goldstone presented a report to the Human Rights Council on breaches of international humanitarian law in the Gaza conflict which had found strong evidence of violations during Israel’s military assault that lasted from December 2008 to January 2009, and claimed more than 1400 lives. The report concluded that Israel and Hamas were responsible for numerous serious violations of the laws of war, some amounting to war crimes, and called on both parties to conduct impartial investigations to determine who was responsible for ordering or carrying out these violations within six months. The 47-member Council council has already condemned Israel in a statement last January and is expected to take a hard line this week. It is further expected that the report will be forwarded to the UN Security Council with a recommendation that war crimes trials be considered.
The report, which the Mission released at the UN headquarters on September 15 finds strong evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Israeli forces. The main recommendation of the Mission is for the Security Council to require Israel, in the spirit of complementarity, to report within six months on prosecutions it carries. If the relevant authorities fail in this task, the Council should refer the matter to the prosecutor of the ICC. Interestingly, Haaretz this morning reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to present a proposal Thursday to open an investigative commission to probe the findings of the Goldstone Commission report on Gaza. This is of course a minimum expectation, but the previous inquiry into the Sabra and Shatila massacre suggests it might not be done entirely in bad faith.
Justice Goldstone (a judge of Jewish descent if that indeed is in any way relevant) writes that the evidence, collected over several visits to Gaza, indicates that civilian targets were deliberately hit, a violation of the rules of war. The report describes the attacks as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population”. The Goldstone findings are wholly consistent with those of Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many other human rights organizations. The report also condemns attacks from Palestinian territory in the form of unguided missiles that fell on Israeli settlements shortly before Israel launched its campaign. It says that besides the three Israeli civilians and one soldier killed in these attacks, trauma was spread among the entire population as rockets fell among them.
Humanitarian lawyers and academics will be better prepared than yours truly to comment on the substance of the 452-page report. However, opposition to the report, its conclusions and its likely future direction are predictable. Top officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have stated that the report is full of lies and distortions which demand an examination of how Goldstone arrived at his conclusions. The US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Michael Posner, has described it as “deeply flawed.” Depresingly, even the Obama administration’s envoy to the UN, Susan Rice, has also called the “mandate” of the UN Fact Finding Mission on Gaza as “unacceptable. ….We have long expressed our very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable,” she told reporters at the UN after its release.
The Irish Times, among others, reports that US officials fear that a war crimes process targeting the very leaders supposed to craft a peace process will mean the end of that process. As they note, this is the Achilles’ heel of war crimes courts – the argument that in some cases the search for justice can actually hinder the search for peace. Justice Goldstone, with years of experience most notably in the ICTY, rejects this position. He told the council that justice is the cement on which peace is built: “The ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence.” In truth, this position is simplistic and demonstrably false in view of the numerous historical examples of states transitioning to peace without trials of any sort. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any potential trials would derail the peace process in the unlikely event of their being realised. Land and security are what have made the peace process intractable. In view of problems of this magnitude, the slight possibility of prosecutions for crimes Israel will never extradite for and the US will never support is in fact a side issue.
Postscript: On Tuesday, a UK court deferred until further notice an appeal by local pro-Palestinian groups to issue an arrest warrant against Barak for his conduct as Defense Minister during Cast Lead.