Israel launched a three-week air and ground assault on Gaza in December 2008 aimed at stopping Palestinian militants from firing missiles at civilian targets across the border. During and after the invasion, the ruling Hamas government in Gaza charged that Israeli forces had committed war crimes by wantonly attacking Palestinian civilians.
Now, a respected South African jurist has found both sides responsible for endangering civilians during the conflict. In a report commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Judge Richard Goldstone recommends that Israel and Gaza conduct their own investigations of human rights abuses by their side during the fighting. If no investigations are forthcoming within six months, Goldstone wants the U.N. Security Council to turn the dispute over to the International Criminal Court.
Goldstone's report has drawn critical reactions from both sides. Israel has condemned Goldstone, who is Jewish, for furthering what they perceive to be the council's constant berating of the Jewish state. Many Israelis complain that complying with the investigation would be fruitless because the council is already biased against them.
While Hamas has lauded Goldstone for denouncing Israeli military tactics and agreed to investigate some portions of the report, the rival Palestinian Authority originally decided to defer action, citing an inadequate number of people needed to support an investigation. However, after facing criticism for their decision, the authority requested that the U.N. conduct a special session on the conflict.
Several prominent human rights organizations, specifically Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have defended the report for calling attention to rights abuses. The U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, has offered her endorsement, as well.
The report has focused worldwide attention on the Human Rights Council, a 47-nation body created in 2006 to replace a larger U.N. human rights forum widely denounced as ineffective. Critics said the earlier U.N. Commission on Human Rights was unsuccessful at prosecuting nations that violated human rights and showed poor judgment in allowing countries with questionable human rights records, including China and Russia, to be members. Under President George W. Bush, the United States criticized the commission and refused to join the council.
President Obama changed the policy, however, and the United States joined the council in May 2009. Critics say the council is still fundamentally flawed and inordinately critical of Israel. But human rights groups are applauding the shift. They say that U.S. involvement and an altered structure will help bring human rights abusers to justice.
The council has enacted a new, periodic review of all 192 U.N. member states in order to monitor human rights conditions in every state. Council members are chosen by the U.N. General Assembly instead of by the Economic and Social Council, which was previously in charge of elections. Additionally, a complaints procedure allows individuals and organizations to bring potential violations to the attention of the council.
Proponents of the council say the changes signal a vast improvement over the commission, but many claim that a disproportionate amount of time continues to be spent on Israel's alleged human rights violations while others, such as Sudan, face little investigation. The council has appointed an independent expert to monitor Sudan and asked the country to remedy human rights violations but has taken no disciplinary action against the government.
During its three-year existence, the council has passed a resolution on freedom of expression that prohibits limiting expression in order to protect religion. It has examined the continuing conflict in Gaza and passed resolutions aimed at remedying rights violations in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), particularly those involving women and children.
Many cite the ability of the United States to broker the freedom of expression resolution with Egypt as a sign that the council is enacting positive change. However, critics still claim that the council shows favoritism towards some countries, with bloc voting by region significantly furthering that bias. Specifically, the Arab countries and many of the African countries vote together on resolutions, making it difficult to pass those that allow the examination of rights violations in places like the DRC.
The Goldstone report has again brought these criticisms to the surface. In the special session requested by the Palestinian Authority, the council endorsed the report, a move that allows the investigation to be taken before the U.N. Security Council. This is the seventh of 12 sessions in the past year involving Israel — another indication many say, of the rights council's bias against Israel. The United States voted against the report and has veto power over the Security Council's agenda, making it unlikely the investigation will travel that far. China and Russia voted for the report but have since indicated their opposition to involving the Security Council.
Last month, speaking in Geneva, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner and State Department legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh expressed hope that U.S. involvement in the council would help to create a non-political U.N. body able to support victims and prosecute rights violators. But the United States and Israel have expressed concern that the Goldstone report and proceedings within the rights council demonstrate a political bias against Israel and do not focus enough on human rights violations by the Palestinians.
In a 24-page assessment, Freedom House gives the council mixed ratings, with a passing grade only on the use of so-called special rapporteurs and failing grades on adoption of resolutions on urgent human rights crises. The organization specifically criticizes the council for a “disproportionate” number of resolutions critical of Israel. More broadly, the report concludes that democratic countries on the council have failed to counter the “considerable resources” devoted by a “small but active group” of non-democratic countries to limiting the council's effectiveness in protecting human rights.
— Emily DeRuy