(Washington, DC) – The Obama administration should fully endorse the report of the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict led by Justice Richard Goldstone and demand justice for the victims of serious laws-of-war violations in the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today.
Dismissal of all or parts of the Goldstone report would contradict President Barack Obama’s stated commitment to human rights in the Middle East and reveal an ill-timed double-standard in Washington’s approach to international justice, Human Rights Watch said. It would also undermine efforts to revive the peace process.
“Failure to demand justice for attacks on civilians in Gaza and southern Israel will reveal hypocrisy in US policy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Obama administration cannot demand accountability for serious violations in places like Sudan and Congo but let allies like Israel go free. That approach will bolster abusive governments that challenge international justice efforts.”
The UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict mandated by the UN Human Rights Council determined that both Israel and Hamas had committed serious violations of the laws of war during the 22-day conflict last December and January, some amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Neither side, the report said, has conducted adequate, impartial investigations of alleged laws-of-war violations by its forces.
The Goldstone report recommends that the Israeli government and Hamas authorities be given six months to show that they will conduct independent and impartial domestic investigations. It says the UN Security Council should establish a group of independent experts to monitor and report on whether the two sides have undertaken effective and genuine investigations.
Thus far, US officials have dismissed the Goldstone report. Ambassador Susan Rice, US permanent representative to the UN, said her government had “serious concerns about many recommendations in the report.” She and other US officials have cited what they called the report’s “unbalanced and one-sided mandate.” They said the United States wants discussion of the report to stay within the confines of the Human Rights Council, and not be taken up by other UN bodies such as the Security Council.
The original mandate of the mission was indeed one-sided, Human Rights Watch said, because it addressed alleged violations by only Israel. But at the insistence of Goldstone, an eminent international jurist and former chief prosecutor at the UN war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the mandate was revised to allow investigation of all sides. The report, in turn, addressed abuses by Israel, Hamas, and other Palestinian armed groups in detail, as well as abuses by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“Goldstone’s report, scathing in its criticism of both sides, is the best evidence that his mandate in practice was neither biased nor unfair,” Whitson said. “US insistence that the report stay at the Human Rights Council and not reach the Security Council is a clear attempt to avoid justice mechanisms with teeth.”
The US claim that Israel can be relied upon to investigate itself ignores the well-documented pattern of impunity in the country for past violations of international humanitarian law, Human Rights Watch said.
“Israel has repeatedly shown that it lacks the political will to investigate itself impartially,” Whitson said. “And Hamas’s record on internal investigations is even worse.”
The Goldstone report, if taken up by the Security Council, provides an opportunity to break this pattern of impunity, Human Rights Watch said. The US will squander that opportunity if it confines discussion of the report to the Human Rights Council because the council’s disproportionate focus on Israel makes it easier for Israel and others to ignore. Indeed, Israel cited the council’s unbalanced record to justify its refusal to cooperate with the Goldstone investigation.
“If the aim is to convince Israel at long last to conduct genuine, impartial investigations of its conduct in Gaza, confining the issue to the Human Rights Council is a terrible step,” said Whitson. “Only the Security Council has the authority and power to convince Israel to take seriously the need for real investigations.”
Rice also downplayed the need for justice by suggesting that it might interfere with the peace process. The US government wanted to “look not to the past but to the future [because] the best way to end suffering and abuses is for there to be a long-term solution and peace,” she said. In fact, continuing attacks on civilians by both sides are the biggest impediment to establishing the trust needed to advance the peace process, Human Rights Watch said.
“The US has it backwards,” said Whitson. “Ending impunity for attacks on civilians is needed for positive movement in the peace process.”
Human Rights Watch urged the United States to support a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that endorses the fact-finding mission’s report in its totality, including the recommendation that it be submitted to relevant UN bodies for follow-up. The Human Rights Council will debate the Gaza report in Geneva on September 29.
Unlike in the past, the governments that traditionally reject criticism of Hamas now seem willing to allow a blanket endorsement of the Goldstone report at the Human Rights Council, but only if backers of Israel take the same approach.
“If the United States and other allies of Israel start picking and choosing among the Goldstone recommendations, that will undermine this historic opportunity to put the Human Rights Council on a more principled course,” said Whitson.