Joe Stork [Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch]: "President Obama and his team have another opportunity to do the right thing regarding the report [PDF file] of the UN Fact-Finding Commission on the Gaza Conflict when the UN Security Council meets on October 14 for an open debate on the Middle East. The Commission's report and recommendations will be a major item on the agenda.
The Commission, headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, concluded that both Israel and Hamas were responsible for serious violations of the laws of war, in some cases amounting to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. The report urged both parties to conduct impartial and thorough investigations into allegations of wrongdoing over the coming six months, and to initiate prosecutions or disciplinary measures as appropriate. Noting that neither side has to date displayed the political will or the ability to carry out such investigations, the Commission asked the Security Council to monitor their compliance and, if they failed to take these steps, refer the report to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
Obama's team dismissed the report as "unbalanced" and "unacceptable," and, in a breathtakingly cynical step, said it would ensure that the report would never leave the realm of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva the very body that Washington, with justification, has criticized as biased on matters relating to Israel. When it looked like the 12th HRC session would pass a Palestinian-sponsored resolution endorsing the report "in its entirety" - i.e., including the condemnation of the actions of Palestinian armed groups and requesting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to bring the report to the Security Council - Washington did some high-level arm-twisting with the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership in Ramallah, and the PA instructed its Geneva delegation to withdraw the resolution. When this caused a political firestorm in the West Bank and in Palestinian communities elsewhere, the PA then did another volte-face and, through Libya, currently a member of the Security Council, proposed that the Security Council discuss the report.
The Obama administration's posture to date has been disastrous for several reasons. First, it promotes the notion that justice and accountability measures impede progress in the "peace process." This is contrary to experience elsewhere, and contrary to the US approach in other conflict and post-conflict situations. Second, it appears to endorse the dreadful position of the current Israeli government, that when "democracies" combat "terrorism" international humanitarian law and human rights law are irrelevant and international scrutiny unacceptable. Here, too, US denigration of the Goldstone report contradicts the administration's message to the rest of the world with its renunciation of torture and efforts to close Guantanamo.
When the Security Council meets this week, the United States, and those European allies who did nothing to counter the US approach at the HRC, should (1) express their concern about laws-of-war violations and impunity by all parties to the conflict, as documented by the Goldstone report; (2) go firmly on record that justice and accountability are essential to end the cycle of abuse and reprisal that, as much as anything else, fuels the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; (3) emphatically state that whatever the justification for the use of lethal force, whether to combat terrorism or to resist military occupation, warring parties must respect the core principles of international humanitarian law that prohibit attacks that target or cause indiscriminate or disproportionate harm to civilians or civilian objects; and (4) create an independent committee of experts to monitor how Israel and the Hamas authorities conduct investigations over the next six months into alleged wrongdoing by their respective forces."