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David Harris

David Harris

Posted: September 18, 2009 12:50 PM

The Goldstone Report: Three Strikes and You're Out!

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It began earlier this year, after Israel's military operation in Hamas-ruled Gaza to stop rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli towns and villages.

Predictably, the inaptly named UN Human Rights Council went to work. This is the Geneva-based body that replaced the dysfunctional UN Human Rights Commission in 2006.

Other than replacing "Commission" with "Council" in the name, however, there's been no change. In fact, the current incarnation does even less to protect human rights.

Or, put differently, it creates even more ways for oppressors to protect themselves while creating convenient whipping boys. And whipping boy number one, not surprisingly, has been Israel, which has few enough friends to begin with among the Council's 47 members -- and even fewer when it requires showing a shred of moral backbone in the politically-expedient halls of multilateral diplomacy.

Thus, Israel has had the dubious distinction of being deemed so radioactive as to be in need of a separate agenda item in Council deliberations. All other 191 UN member states, saints and sinners alike, are grouped together elsewhere. That doesn't allow much room to consider serial human rights abusers from Cuba to Iran to Zimbabwe.

Speaking of which, what has the Council done about massacres in Darfur? Well, after months of grappling with circle-the-wagons resistance from fellow Arab countries, the Council managed to adopt a resolution voicing concern about events there. But wait, that's not the end of the story. In a new definition of chutzpah, the resolution thanked the Sudanese government, the sponsor-in-chief of the killings and displacement, for its cooperation.

After Sri Lankan troops recently unleashed their lethal power against Tamil separatists on the strife-torn island, indiscriminately killing an estimated 20,000 people, many of them civilians, what did the Council do? It adopted a resolution drafted by Sri Lanka itself welcoming the outcome!

So it goes. The real victims of these travesties? Those who suffer human rights abuses, who desperately need a global forum to act on their behalf. And the UN itself, which can't find a way to separate its duties to monitor and protect human rights from the grim realities of politicization and double standards.

So, when the Council decided to "consider" Israel's entry into Gaza, the result was a foregone conclusion. Context? No way. Balance? Forget about it. The verdict? Already in. The Council's previous focus and actions on Israel ensured all three.

Strike one.

But, as hope springs eternal, maybe, just maybe, this time it would be different. It wasn't.

The Council adopted a measure to investigate what happened. But just to remove any lingering suspense about what the inquiry might reveal, the charge was to pursue Israeli "violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law." In other words, the outcome was pre-cooked.

That Israel had absorbed thousands of attacks from Gaza in recent years didn't warrant consideration. Nor that Israel had shown admirable restraint until December 2008, something few other countries would have done in similar circumstances. Nor that Israel pulled out totally from Gaza in 2005, giving local residents their first chance in history to govern themselves. Nor that Hamas took over Gaza after a violent clash with the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Nor that Hamas, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, is openly bent on Israel's destruction.

Strike two.

In fact, Mary Robinson, who, as a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, wasn't exactly known for her warm disposition toward Israel, turned down an offer to lead the Council's investigation.

"Unfortunately, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution seeking a fact-finding mission to only look at what Israel has done, and I don't think that's a human rights approach," Robinson said in March.

But the Council was not to be deterred. A panel of four, led by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, was created. Goldstone insisted that he had received verbal assurance that he could investigate all sides in the conflict, but the authorizing resolution wasn't amended to reflect any such pledge.

And among his three fellow panelists was Christine Chinkin of London. Any semblance of impartiality went out the window in January, before the panel was even created. Ms. Chinkin signed a letter published in The Sunday Times (UK) that accused Israel of "collective punishment of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants," "aggression," and "prima facie war crimes." Yet those judgments weren't considered enough to disqualify her.

Strike three.

None of this is to suggest that Israel should be immune from scrutiny or is incapable of error. Neither is the case.

It is to suggest that Israel, as a democratic country which places a premium on the rule of law and an independent judiciary, has the capacity to examine allegations of misconduct -- as it has in the past, and as it must.

It's also to suggest that if the international community claims a role for itself in such matters, then it needs to be consistently applied around the world and impartially structured, leaving the conclusions to the end, not the beginning.

And finally, this story ought to be a cautionary tale for the United States, indeed all democratic states engaged in warfare today, especially in asymmetrical situations against non-state actors.

Whether it's Hamas or the Taliban, these groups don't give a hoot about international human rights or humanitarian law, yet they're not averse to seeing the rules of the game applied to the other side.

They use innocent civilians as shields. Terrorists callously embed themselves in population centers, including schools, hospitals and mosques, inviting attack, so as to trigger cries of revulsion from the likes of the UN Human Rights Council. And right on cue, there's the Council.

Biased UN body. Biased mandate. Biased panel. Three strikes and you're out. Once again, the UN Human Rights Council whiffs on a chance to do good.