Last week, not for the first time, the world witnessed state-sanctioned violence against protesters in Iran and China. Yet the United Nations was instead focused on Israel, due to unprecedented hearings held by a UN inquiry into the Gaza conflict of six months ago. This was precisely the goal of the body that organized the inquiry, the discredited UN Human Rights Council.
The inquiry’s lead investigator is former international prosecutor Justice Richard Goldstone. From the beginning, the terms of his mandate have been unclear. The original council resolution in January began by finding Israel guilty of “massive violations,” and then created a “fact-finding mission” to support its pre-determined conclusion. At the Human Rights Council, where tyrannies are the majority, such upside-down justice is the norm.
Goldstone, however, claims that he accepted the task — which had been rejected by former UN rights chief Mary Robinson — only after the council president expanded the examination to include both sides. In contrast to the original mandate, Goldstone speaks only of “alleged” violations. In other words, he is trying to conduct a genuine inquiry despite having been appointed to a farcical one. It’s a tricky feat.
When the inquiry last week invited not only Palestinians to speak, but Israeli victims as well, Goldstone introduced something new to the UN. He deserves particular credit for inviting Noam Shalit, father of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held incommunicado by Hamas since 2006, and denied access to the Red Cross.
Yet whatever balance Goldstone may bring, the inherent problem with his mission is that it plays into the collective strategy of the council’s repressive regimes, which is to cover up abuses in places such as Iran, China, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt and Zimbabwe — all ignored this year — and instead shine a permanent spotlight on Israel.
Consider the council’s sense of “proportionality”: More than three-quarters of all its condemnatory resolutions have been against one country — Israel — as well as five out of its nine emergency sessions on country situations. As a permanent feature of every regular session, it has one agenda item for violations around the world, and another specifically on Israel. Except for a handful of censures of North Korea and Burma, the world body has virtually ignored the UN’s 191 other member states.
But didn’t the council in May hold a session on Sri Lanka? Yes, but one that actually praised the government, instead of holding it accountable. Comparing the UN session on Sri Lanka with the January session against Israel, the one that created Goldstone’s mission, is illustrative of the double standards that plague the 47-nation council.
At first glance, the conflicts this year in Israel and Sri Lanka appear similar. In the backdrop of territorial disputes, both countries fought terrorist groups that target civilians and use them as human shields, and in both cases, innocent civilians became casualties.
But if one examines their actual conduct, the two cases are different.
First, according to the Times of London, the death toll of civilians in Sri Lanka is more than 20,000. By contrast, even according to Palestinian figures, the toll in Gaza was approximately 1,000 — meaning that Sri Lanka killed over 20 times more civilians.
Second, Israel undertook extensive measures to prevent harming civilians while fighting in a densely-populated region, using leaflets and personal telephone calls to warn civilians to seek shelter. According to British Colonel Richard Kemp, no military in history had ever taken greater precautions. Sri Lanka, by contrast, never claimed to do any of this. And while Israel made humanitarian pauses every day, Sri Lanka failed to do so, and shelled civilians trapped in its self-proclaimed “no-fire zones.”
Third, while Sri Lanka cracked down on journalists and doctors who dared to publicize the government’s actions against civilians, Israel tolerated vehement criticism every day in newspapers, the Knesset and from pro-Palestinian NGOs.
In sum, the war-time actions by Sri Lanka were far worse than Israel’s. Yet at the council, it was Israel that got slammed and Sri Lanka praised.
Though a minority of well-intended democracies forced the council to debate Sri Lanka, the repressive majority determined the outcome. With no shame, they adopted a resolution written by Sri Lanka itself, lauding “the continued commitment of Sri Lanka to the promotion and protection of all human rights.” Despite calls for an inquiry into violations by High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Sri Lanka was completely left off the hook.
he lesson from the Sri Lanka session should not go ignored by Justice Goldstone: The road to harmful council resolutions is paved with good intentions.
Even if his mission presents a somewhat balanced report — and that does not mean equating a terrorist group that deliberately targets civilians with a democracy that seeks to defend itself while avoiding such casualties — it is unclear what the council would do with it. Nothing will prevent the majority of Islamic states and their allies from endorsing the inevitable sections on Israeli criminality while ignoring the rest.
One thing is certain: Justice Goldstone’s mission has already served the council’s rulers by keeping the spotlight where they want it, and by lending the wayward institution, and particularly its handling of Israel, a credibility it most assuredly does not deserve.
Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch, and Marissa Cramer is a Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fellow at UN Watch. www.unwatch.org
Copyright 2009, National Post (Canada).