The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has earned a poor reputation for impartiality when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it now has an unprecedented opportunity to begin to shed that reputation by endorsing the entirety of the Goldstone report on the conflict in Gaza and its recommendations.
Arab members of the HRC – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Bahrain, and Qatar – can play a pivotal role in assuring such an outcome by stressing the need for accountability for all those responsible for committing war crimes, Palestinians as well as Israelis.
This will require a sharp shift from past behaviour, when Arab members of the HRC have refrained from acknowledging responsibility of Palestinian armed groups for attacks on Israeli civilians while passing a number of resolutions condemning Israel’s violations of international law.
This week, the HRC will discuss the report of the UN fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict and its recommendations. The report concluded that Israel and Hamas were responsible for numerous serious violations of the laws of war, some amounting to war crimes, and called on both parties to conduct impartial investigations to determine who was responsible for ordering or carrying out these violations within six months.
The report also calls on the UN to monitor these efforts by Israel and Hamas. If they fail to do so, the report said, UN member states should ensure international prosecutions.
Both Israel and Hamas denounced the report. Hamas argued that the report was in «some respects not balanced or fair towards the oppressed Palestinian people since it equates the victim with the oppressor». Interestingly enough, Israel made a similar argument. President Shimon Peres called the report a «mockery» and questioned the intention to equate between attacks waged by a «terrorist organisation» and the legitimate right of the state of Israel to defend its citizens.
Last January the HRC mandated an investigation only into laws of war violations by Israel. All Arab countries, and most African members of the HRC, voted in favour of the resolution. Justice Richard Goldstone only accepted heading the mission after insisting that the mandate be changed to include violations by all parties in the conflict, sending a clear message that a fact-finding mission would be credible only if it examined violations against Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike.
Now all the member states of the HRC, and not least of all the Arab members, need to show leadership and endorse the Goldstone report and its recommendations in their entirety, and do all they can to ensure that it is submitted to all relevant UN bodies, including the secretary general, the security council, and the general assembly. Any one-sided approach would squander this historic opportunity to support a serious and impartial documentation of violations by both parties, and an opportunity to link this documentation to specific steps to ensure accountability.
Supporting the Goldstone recommendations would also compel hesitant countries to take a serious look at the report and actively address impunity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anything less would only play into the hands of those who seek to undermine international justice efforts as being biased against weaker states. It is imperative that the Arab leaders display the courage and integrity to support a balanced call for accountability, and to denounce publicly any attacks that target or indiscriminately harm civilians, whoever is responsible.
All states need to recognise that civilians – any civilian, regardless of nationality, religious or ethnic background – should never be considered legitimate targets of attack, regardless of the cause. It is time for the Human Rights Council to send a clear message to Israeli and Palestinian leaders – indeed to leaders and supporters of states and movements the world over – that war crimes carried out for «legitimate» reasons are still war crimes.
Abderrahim Sabir, a former UN human rights monitor in Sudan and Iraq.