Fix accountability

Israels Gaza war crimes

The UN Human Rights Council advanced the cause of international law when it endorsed the ‘Goldstone report’ providing evidence that war crimes were committed during Israel’s war on Gaza. The council’s landmark decision empowers victims of war crimes and challenges the impunity some favoured countries have enjoyed.

The council upheld the 575-page report issued by a mission headed by highly respected South African judge Richard Goldstone who presided over war crimes trials for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In an interview with ‘Forward’, a US Jewish weekly, Goldstone said Israel had a ‘responsibility’ to respond to rocket attacks from Gaza which killed 20 Israelis over eight years. But, he observed, Israel’s response “amounted to reprisals and collective punishment, and constitute war crimes.”

The Goldstone report condemned the Israeli assault on Gaza as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”
The report also condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars into southern Israel by Palestinian irregulars. The war’s death toll was 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians and 1,414 Palestinians — of which 1,174, or 83 per cent, civilians. He called on both sides to investigate charges made in the report and take action if crimes are identified.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who refused to cooperate with Goldstone and denied the mission entry to Israel, rubbished the report, rejected its recommendations and said that no Israeli will be charged. Hamas, which cooperated with the mission when it visited Gaza, welcomed the report and pledged to investigate allegations of war crimes.

If the sides do not carry out credible investigations and initiate prosecutions where warranted within six months, Goldstone said the Security Council should refer it to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. To avoid a US veto in the Security Council, the Arab and non-aligned group plans to send the report to the General Assembly for forwarding to the ICC.

Among the countries voting in favour of the report were India, China, Russia, Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria, representing about half of the world’s people. The US was able to persuade only Italy, Holland, Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine to vote against the resolution. There were 11 abstentions. France and Britain, which have urged Netanyahu to implement Goldstone’s recommendations, were among the five that did not vote.
The ‘Goldstone effect’ is likely to have serious consequences. So far, the report has had immediate impact on the behaviour of both civil society and governments. The report has encouraged human rights groups to work for prosecutions of Israeli public figures, divestment from Israel and boycotts of Israeli exports. Israeli commentators complain that Israel is being ‘delegitimised.’

On the global scene, the consequences are slowly becoming clear. The US tried to sink the report in order to protect its own back as well as that of Israel.

Goldstone makes it clear that any country should face war crimes charges if it prosecutes a war by targeting civilians and deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure. Bush administration officials qualify as war criminals for waging an unprovoked war of aggression on Iraq while Obama administration’s air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan which kill and maim more civilians than Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters could be ruled war crimes.

Pakistan’s current offensive against the Taliban in south Waziristan could also come under investigation. To conform to international law, prosecutors of wars should not kill more civilians than enemy combatants during offensives or single actions. Therefore, the Goldstone precedent could, in theory, change the way certain countries wage war.
Slaughtering civilians is not the only option. During the height of Irish Republican bombings in London, Britain did not flatten the Catholic neighbourhoods of Belfast. India did not slay thousands in Karachi following the horrendous attacks by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai.

The key to dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity is accountability. Writing in ‘The Financial Times’ on Oct 14, Antonio Cassese, former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia, laid down the law to European governments who, he stated, “now have a historic opportunity to demand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the same accountability they seek in other conflicts.”

Without parity of accountability, there is neither rule of law nor respect for the world’s paramount powers. The US and Europe are routinely accused by Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims of having one standard for violators in Sudan, Congo, Rwanda and Bosnia and another for perpetrators of war crimes in West Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
If the Goldstone principles are applied to all conflicts, alleged war criminals travelling abroad could face arrest and trial under local laws providing for ‘universal jurisdiction’ or extradited to The Hague to defend themselves before the ICC. 
 
The very threat of being held accountable could warn governments that the era of impunity has passed. One Israeli commentator admitted as much by saying that the Gaza campaign was Israel’s last all-out onslaught on its enemies.

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