Richard Goldstone is one of today's most renowned names in human rights jurisprudence and international law concerning war crime. Already well known in human rights circles by the time he served as chief prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the mid-1990s, Goldstone's esteem only increased as he carried out his role as a UN prosecutor.
But prior to his work for the international court, Goldstone cut his judicial teeth on the bench of South Africa's Supreme Court under the apartheid regime. During this period between 1980 and 1989 -- some of apartheid South Africa's most violent years -- Goldstone ruled on cases which pitted human rights against South African statutory law, legal precedence, and judicial convention.
In the most poignant case, Goldstone ruled against the 1986 appeal of a 13-year-old boy who had been sentenced to jail for disrupting school as a protest against apartheid and increasingly draconian "emergency laws" used to preserve order and squelch opposition to the government. Goldstone, according to The New York Times, provided no comment to his decision to uphold the sentence of the lower court.
In a similar case that year, Judge Goldstone ruled against two appellants who had been convicted for possession of a cassette tape that had a recording of an interview with Oliver Tambo. Tambo, along with Nelson Mandela, was a founding member of the ANC Youth League and later served Secretary General of the ANC itself.
The case, brought before the Transvaal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court, on which Goldstone sat, centered on whether the two young men had attempted to disseminate the tape on behalf of the ANC, thereby violating the Internal Security Act No. 74 of 1982 -- a piece of legislation that some human rights scholars have called a crucial weapon in the regime's "arsenal of terrorism legislation."
Goldstone commented in that case that Mr. Tambo's opening words on the recording indicated "beyond a reasonable doubt that the cassette in question was published or disseminated under the direction or guidance or on behalf of the African National Congress," -- a fact that, in Golstone's opinion, was sufficient basis to uphold the convictions of the two young men.
According to the Supreme Court ruling on the case, other key subversive phrases made by the ANC leader on the recording included an encouragement to the people of South Africa to resist the apartheid regime, and Mr. Tambo's call to "let us change our own country into the kind of society we want it to be."
Goldstone's comment that the two young men had acted as agents of the ANC was later cited by the higher appellate court as reason to once again uphold the convictions.
The case of the 13-year-old boy Goldstone ruled against came in the context of a wave of national protests and school disruptions by South Africa's black youth against apartheid and the brutal emergency laws. Authorities responded with mass detention of children who participated in the protests, or were suspected of doing so. By the fall of 1985, at least 800 students had been detained. By December of 1986, South African security officials admitted to having detained more than 1,800 teenagers, while reports surfaced that policemen routinely whipped children at their school desks if they were suspected of supporting the anti-apartheid protests.
Goldstone was slammed by South African human rights organizations for his 1986 ruling against the boy. In a later interview with The New York Times' Bill Keller (who called Goldstone a "cross between King Solomon and Ghostbusters"), the South African judge said about his ruling against the boy that the emergency laws left him "no way out."
But criticism of Goldstone has not been limited to decisions made during his tenure on the bench of apartheid South Africa's Supreme Court. South African journalist and historian R.W. Johnson wrote in an October, 2009 piece that Goldstone had made serious ethical breaches in his capacity as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY).
During preparation for the trial against former Yugoslavian military commanders, according to Johnson, Goldstone was informed by higher-ups that if he did not secure an indictment by November, 1994, he would not receive budgetary funding for the following year. Goldstone quickly moved to indict the only person there was evidence against, even though Goldstone admitted that the defendant "wasn't an inappropriate first person to indict."
Johnson, in his piece, "Who Is Richard Goldstone," noted that the indictment "was so inappropriate that the judges in The Hague passed a motion severely censuring Goldstone."
Goldstone has become the center of controversy in recent months regarding his report to the UN Human Rights Council following a fact-finding mission he led into Israel's 2008 Operation Cast lead, later known as the Gaza War. The report, which has been praised by some but heavily criticized by others, is being considered by the UN Security Council.