Editor: Emily Schwartz Greco
Foreign Policy In Focus
In a stunning blow against international law
and human rights, the U.S. House of Representatives
overwhelmingly approved a resolution on Tuesday
attacking the report of the United Nations Human Rights
Council's fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict.
The report was authored by the well-respected
South African jurist Richard Goldstone and
three other noted authorities on
international humanitarian law, who had been
widely praised for taking leadership
in previous investigations of war crimes in Rwanda,
Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere.
Since this report documented apparent war crimes
by a key U.S. ally, however, Congress has taken
the unprecedented action of passing
a resolution condemning it.
Perhaps most ominously, the resolution also
endorses Israel's right to attack Syria and Iran
on the grounds that they are "state sponsors of terrorism."
The principal co-sponsors of the resolution (HR 867),
which passed on a 344-36 vote, included
two powerful Democrats: House Foreign Relations
Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA)
and Middle East subcommittee chairman
Gary Ackerman (D-NY). Democratic majority leader
Steny Hoyer (D-MD) successfully pushed
Democrats to support the resolution
by a more than 6:1 margin, despite the risk
of alienating the party's liberal pro-human rights
base less than a year before critical midterm elections.
The resolution opens with a series of clauses
criticizing the original mandate of the
UN Human Rights Council, which called
for an investigation of possible Israeli war crimes only.
This argument is completely moot, however,
since Goldstone and his colleagues — to
their credit — refused to accept the offer
to serve on the mission unless its mandate
was changed to one that would investigate
possible war crimes by both sides in the conflict.
As a result, the mandate of the mission
was thereby broadened. The House resolution
doesn't mention this, however, and instead
implies that the original mandate
remained the basis of the report. In reality,
even though the report contained
over 70 pages detailing a series of violations
of the laws of war by Hamas, including rocket attacks
into civilian-populated areas of Israel,
torture of Palestinian opponents,
and the continued holding of kidnapped
Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, there's no acknowledgement
in the 1,600-word resolution that the initial mandate
had been superseded or that the report
criticizes the conduct of both sides.
In fact, despite the report's extensive documentation
of Hamas assaults on Israeli towns — which
it determined constituted war crimes
and possible "crimes against
humanity" — the resolution insists that
it "makes no mention of the relentless
rocket and mortar attacks."
The Goldstone mission report — totaling
575 pages — contains detailed accounts
of deadly Israeli attacks against schools, mosques,
private homes, and businesses no where
near legitimate military targets, which
they accurately described as
"a deliberately disproportionate attack designed
to punish humiliate and terrorize
a civilian population." In particular, the report
cites 11 incidents in which Israeli armed forces
engaged in direct attacks against civilians,
including cases where people were shot
"while they were trying to leave their homes
to walk to a safer place, waving white flags."
The House resolution, however, claims
that such charges of deliberate Israeli attacks
against civilian areas were
"sweeping and unsubstantiated."
Both the report's conclusions and most
of the particular incidents cited were
independently documented in detailed
empirical investigations released in recent months
and the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem,
among others. Congressional attacks against
the integrity of the Goldstone report,
therefore, constitute attacks against
the integrity of these reputable
human rights groups as well.Equating Killing Civilians with Self-Defense
In an apparent effort to further discredit
the human rights community,
the resolution goes on
to claim that the report denies Israel's right
to self defense, even though there was
absolutely nothing in the report that questioned
Israel's right to use military force.
It simply insists that neither Israelis
nor Palestinians have the right to attack civilians.
The resolution resolves that
the report "irredeemably biased"
against Israel, an ironic charge given that
Justice Goldstone, the report's principal author
and defender, is Jewish, a longtime supporter
of Israel, chair of Friends of Hebrew University,
president emeritus of the World ORT
Jewish school system, and
the father of an Israeli citizen.
Goldstone was also a leading opponent
of apartheid in his native South Africa
and served as Nelson Mandela's first appointee
to the country's post-apartheid Supreme Court.
He was a principal prosecutor in the
war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and
the former Yugoslavia, took a leading role
in investigations into corruption in
the UN's "Oil for Food" program in Iraq,
and was also part of investigations
into Argentina's complicity in provided
sanctuary for Nazi war criminals.
Having 80% of the U.S. House of Representatives
go on record attacking the integrity of one
of the world's most respected
and principled defenders of human rights
is indicative of just how far
to the right the U.S. Congress has now become,
even under Democratic leadership.
In doing so, Congress has served notice
to the human rights community that they
won't consider any human rights defenders
credible if they dare raise questions
about the conduct of a U.S. ally.
This may actually be the underlying
purpose of the resolution: to jettison
any consideration of
international humanitarian law
from policy debates in Washington.
The cost, however, will likely be to further
isolate the United States from the rest
of the world, just as Obama was beginning
to rebuild the trust of other nations.
Indeed, the resolution calls on
the Obama administration not only
"to oppose unequivocally any endorsement"
of the report, but to even oppose
unequivocally any "further consideration"
of the report in international fora.
Instead of debating its merits, therefore,
Congress has decided to instead pre-judge
its contents and disregard the actual evidence
put forward. (It's doubtful that any
of the supporters of the resolution
even bothered actually reading the report.)
The resolution even goes so far as
to claim that Goldstone's report is part
of an effort "to delegitimize
the democratic State of Israel and deny it
the right to defend its citizens and
its existence can be used to delegitimize
other democracies and deny them the same right."
This is demagoguery at its most extreme.
In insisting that documenting a given
country's war crimes is tantamount
to denying that country's right to exist
and its right to self defense, the resolution
is clearly aimed at silencing defenders
of international humanitarian law.
The fact that the majority of Democrats voted
in favor of this resolution underscores
that both parties now effectively
embrace the neoconservative agenda
to delegitimize any serious discussion
of international humanitarian law,
in relation to conduct by
the United States and its allies.
License for War?
Having failed in their efforts to convince
Washington to launch a war
against Syria and Iran,
neoconservatives and other hawks
in Washington have now successfully
mobilized a large bipartisan majority of
the House of Representatives
to encourage Israel to act as
a U.S. surrogate: Following earlier clauses
that define Israel's massive military assault
on the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip
as a legitimate defense of its citizens
and make the exaggerated assertion
that Iran and Syria are "sponsors" of Hamas,
the final clause in the resolution puts
Congress on record supporting "Israel's right
to defend its citizens from violent militant groups
and their state sponsors" (emphasis added).
This broad bipartisan congressional mandate
for a unilateral Israeli attack on Syria and Iran
is extremely dangerous, and appears designed
to undercut the Obama administration's efforts
to pursue a negotiated path
to settling differences with these countries.
There are other clauses in the resolution
that take quotes out of context and engage
in other misrepresentations to make
the case that Goldstone and his colleagues
are "irredeemably biased."
One clause in the resolution attacks
the credibility of mission member
Christine Chinkin, an internationally respected
British scholar of international law,
feminist jurisprudence, alternative dispute resolution,
and human rights.
The resolution questions her objectivity
by claiming that "before joining the mission,
[she] had already declared Israel guilty
of committing atrocities in Operation Cast Lead
by signing a public letter on January 11, 2009,
published in the Sunday Times, that called
Israel's actions 'war crimes.'"
In reality, the letter didn't accuse Israel
of "atrocities," but simply noted that Israel's attacks
against the civilian infrastructure of
the Gaza Strip were "not commensurate
to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket fire."
The letter also noted that "the blockade
of humanitarian relief, the destruction
of civilian infrastructure, and preventing access
to basic necessities such as food and fuel,
are prima facie war crimes." In short,
it was a preliminary assessment rather
than a case of having "already declared
Israel guilty," as the resolution states.
Furthermore, at the time
of the letter — written a full two weeks
into the fighting — there had already been
a series of preliminary reports from
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,
and the International Committee of the Red Cross
documenting probable war crimes
by Israeli armed forces, so virtually
no one knowledgeable of international
humanitarian law could have come
to any other conclusion. As a result,
Chinkin's signing of the letter could
hardly be considered the kind of
ideologically motivated bias that should
preclude her participation
on an investigative body,
particularly since that same letter
unequivocally condemned Hamas
rocket attacks as well.
The resolution also faults the report
for having "repeatedly downplayed or
cast doubt upon" claims that Hamas used
"human shields" as an attempted deterrence
to Israeli attacks. The reason the report
challenged those assertions, however,
was that there simply wasn't any
solid evidence to support such claims.
Detailed investigations by Amnesty International
and Human Rights Watch regarding
such accusations during and subsequent
to the fighting also came to same conclusion.
As with these previous investigations,
the Goldstone report determined
that there were occasions when
Hamas hadn't taken all necessary precautions
to avoid placing civilians in harm's way,
but they found no evidence whatsoever
that Hamas had consciously used
civilians as shields at any point
during the three-week conflict.
Despite this, the House resolution makes
reference to a supposed "great body
of evidence" that Hamas used human shields.
The resolution fails to provide a single example
to support this claim, however,
other than a statement by
one Hamas official, which
the mission investigated and
was without merit. I contacted
the Washington offices of more
than two dozen co-sponsors
of the resolution, requesting
such evidence, and none of them
were able to provide any. It appears,
then, that the sponsors of
the resolution simply fabricated
this charge in order to protect
Israel from any moral or
legal responsibilities for the more
than 700 civilian deaths.
(Interestingly, the report did find
extensive evidence — as did
Amnesty International — that
the Israelis used Palestinians as
human shields during their offensive.
Israeli soldiers testifying at hearings
held by a private group of
Israeli soldiers and veterans
confirmed a number of
such episodes as well. This fact
was conveniently left out of the resolution.)
In another example of misleading content,
the resolution quotes Goldstone as saying,
in relation to the mission's investigation,
"If this was a court of law,
there would have been nothing proven."
However, no such investigation carried out
on behalf of the UNHRC has ever claimed
to have obtained evidence beyond
a reasonable doubt, the normal criterion
for proof in a court of law. This does not,
however, buttress the resolution's insistence
that the report was therefore
"unworthy of further consideration
or legitimacy." What the fact-finding mission
did find was probable cause
for criminal investigations into
possible war crimes by both
Hamas and the Israeli government.
Another spurious claim of bias
is the resolution's assertion that
"the report usually considered
public statements made by
Israeli officials not to be credible,
while frequently giving uncritical
credence to statements taken from
what it called the `Gaza authorities',
i.e. the Gaza leadership of Hamas."
In reality, the report shows that
the mission did investigate such statements
and evaluated them based upon the evidence.
The resolution also fails to mention
that while Hamas officials were willing
to meet with the mission, Israeli officials
refused, even denying them
entrance into Israel. The mission had to fly
Israeli victims of Hamas attacks to Geneva
at UN expense to interview them.
The mission found these Israelis' testimony
credible, took them quite seriously,
and incorporated them into their findings.
The resolution goes on to claim that
the report's observation that
the Israeli government has
"contributed significantly to
a political climate in which
dissent with the government and
its actions . . . is not tolerated" was erroneous.
In reality, it has been
well-documented — and has been
subjected to extensive debate
within Israel — that the right-wing government
of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu
has interrogated and harassed
political activists as well as
suppressed criticism and sources
of potential criticism of actions by the Israeli military,
particularly non-government organizations
such as the dissident
soldiers' group Breaking the Silence.No Accountability
The House resolution is particularly
vehement in its opposition to
the report's recommendation that,
should Hamas and Israeli authorities
fail to engage in credible investigations
and bring those responsible
for war crimes to justice, the matter
should be referred to the International
Criminal Court for possible prosecution.
The resolution insists this is
unnecessary since Israel "has already
launched numerous investigations."
However, Israeli human rights groups
have repeatedly criticized their
government's refusal to launch
any independent investigations
and have documented how the Israeli government
has refused to investigate testimonies
by soldiers of war crimes.
(At this point, the only indictments
for misconduct by Israeli forces
during the conflict have been against
two soldiers who stole credit cards
from a Palestinian home.)
The primary motivation for the resolution
appears to have been to block
any consideration of its recommendation
that those guilty of war crimes
be held accountable. Since the ICC
has never indicted anyone from
a country which had a fair
and comprehensive internal investigation
of war crimes and prosecuted those
believed responsible, the goal of Congress
appears to be that of protecting
war criminals from prosecution.
As a result, the passage of this resolution
isn't simply about the alleged
clout of AIPAC or just another example
of longstanding congressional support
for Israeli militarism. This resolution constitutes
nothing less than a formal bipartisan
rejection of international humanitarian
law. U.S. support for human rights
and international law has always
been uneven, but never has Congress
gone on record by such
an overwhelming margin to discredit
these universal principles so categorically.
This is George W. Bush's foreign policy
legacy, which — through
this resolution — the Democrats,
no less than their Republican counterparts,
have now eagerly embraced.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy in Focus
senior analyst, is a professor of politics
and chair of Middle Eastern Studies
at the University of San Francisco.
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda