Judge Goldstone’s Wisdom
The Goldstone report on the Israel war in Gaza that was released by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) late last month generated a brief flash of publicity because it criticised Israel and Hamas for conduct in the war that could be classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The deeper and wider implications of the report, however, have not been sufficiently discussed or acted upon, which is a shame.
The Goldstone Report, officially called “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict”, is important for several reasons.
It represents an unprecedented, impartial and detailed analysis of the conduct of both sides in the Gaza conflict, using massive amounts of information from all available sources (over 300 reports and submissions, many public testimonies, field visits, interviews, satellite images, forensic analysis, etc.).
It holds Israel and Hamas accountable to the same standards of law and morality, making it clear that both sides must be assessed and held responsible for their actions. It suggests doing so by a series of actions by both sides to credibly investigate their conduct in the conflict; if no such probes take place, it calls for the international community to act through the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court.
It undertakes this action in the context of holding the parties accountable to a universal standard of behaviour (during and beyond wartime) that is defined by a series of international codes of conduct, including international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and others.
The investigating committee is particularly credible because it is headed by Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge, former prosecutor for the war crimes trials for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and one of the most respected international jurists anywhere in the world. That such an eminent individual would lead an investigation that holds Arabs and Israelis accountable to the same universal legal standards is a critical precedent in heretofore failed attempts to end this conflict based on the rule of law.
Therefore, his own words in presenting the report to the Human Rights Council are worth recalling and pondering, especially his statements that his commission accepted their mission, “with the conviction that pursuing justice is essential and that no state or armed group should be above the law. Failing to pursue justice for serious violations during any conflict will have a deeply corrosive effect on international justice”.
He emphasised what I believe is the single most important aspect of this commission and report when he said: “A word about accountability. It has been my experience in many regions of the world, including my own country, South Africa, that peace and reconciliation depend, to a great extent, upon public acknowledgment of what victims suffer. That applies no less in the Middle East. It is a prerequisite to the beginning of the healing and meaningful peace process… People of the region should not be demonised. Rather their common humanity should be emphasised. It is for this reason that the mission came to the conclusion that it is accountability above all that is called for in the aftermath of the regrettable violence that has caused so much misery for so many.”
He concluded by calling for action to end the impunity that has existed for so long in the region.
“The lack of accountability for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point; the ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence. Time and again, experience has taught us that overlooking justice only leads to increased conflict and violence…. The international community must confront the realities highlighted in this report and by doing so find a meaningful basis for the pursuit of peace and security for all the people of the region.”
Israel, the United States, and others who voted against the report’s adoption by the UNHRC last week missed the opportunity to bring the rule of law and impartial juridical accountability to bear upon the apparently criminal actions of both Arabs and Israelis - precisely the sort of action we need to shift from senseless and endless war to conflict resolution based on the rights of all concerned.
Never before have both Arabs and Israelis been subjected to such a combination of forces as are represented in the Goldstone report process: an investigation by a team with impeccable personal and professional credentials, officially mandated by the UN, looking into the actions of both sides according to a single standard of law and morality, and calling for ongoing accountability so that the impunity of violence against civilians might be curtailed and one day ended.
Those who claim they seek peace but veto this sort of balanced, law-based accountability for criminal actions cannot be taken seriously.