The indelible stain on the UN committee once chaired by William Schabas

The man hailed by defenders as a world-class jurist didn’t think that having been paid to provide a legal briefing for the PLO might constitute a conflict of interest.

By
February 4, 2015 04:23
3 minute read.
Geneva

A session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva underway. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who prepared the UN report that slammed Israel for alleged war crimes during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, distanced himself from that report two years later in a Washington Post op-ed.

“If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document,” Goldstone wrote in 2011 of the damning document that claimed there was evidence of possible Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity.

William Schabas
, who stepped down Monday as chairman of a UN Human Rights Council commission investigating last summer’s war tanced himself from his report – scheduled to be submitted on March 23 – even before it was written.

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But while Goldstone wrote that the conclusions regarding the “intentionality” of Israeli actions that led to the death of civilians and about war crimes would have been different had the committee had all the necessary evidence, Schabas’s premature departure has nothing to do with his feeling that the process he was shepherding was in anyway skewed.

Rather, Schabas quit because Schabas was caught.

He was caught having penned a legal opinion for the Palestine Liberation Organization in 2012, and getting paid $1,300 for his trouble. It’s one thing to have Israeli leaders yell, based on Schabas’s nasty comments against its leaders in the past, that he is badly biased against the Jewish state, just like the committee that appointed him.

But it is another thing to have compelling evidence of that bias in the form of a contractual agreement between Schabas and the PLO.

In his letter of resignation, Schabas bewails that “this work in defense of human rights appears to have made me a huge target for malicious attacks,” which would only intensify in weeks to come.”

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He also wrote that, when he was appointed the chairman of the commission, he made an undertaking to “act with independence and impartiality. I have fully respected that undertaking.”

Yeah, right.

The man hailed by defenders as a world-class jurist didn’t think that having been paid to provide a legal briefing for the PLO might constitute a conflict of interest preventing him from involvement in this commission.

The defense he provided in his resignation letter seems almost adolescent: “I was not requested to provide any details on any of my past statements and other activities concerning Palestine and Israel.”

That he did not turn down the job even though he worked for one of the parties, and that the other party did not reveal that fact either, says much about the whole process.

No one in the Prime Minister’s Office or Foreign Ministry popped champagne bottles Tuesday morning when they heard the news of Schabas’s resignation. This is not because they were not glad to see him go, but rather because they know full well that the process will go on.

This is not a case of winning a battle, but not the war. This is a case of winning a very small skirmish.

The UNHRC, which knew of Schabas’s bias before it appointed him – and, perhaps, actually appointed him because of those biases – is surely not going to shelve the whole investigation, an investigation that has spent weeks collecting evidence, primarily from the Palestinians, since Israel is refusing to cooperate with the body.

The document that is being prepared will come out, and when it does, the fingerprints of Schabas – he with the thinly veiled enmity toward Israel’s leaders and the jurist who once provided legal services to the PLO – is sure to be all over it.

Israel’s achievement in this whole affair, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday referred to it as such, is not that it brought to light damning information about Schabas that compelled him to step down.

Rather, the achievement is that, now that he has stepped down because of incontrovertible evidence of bias, it will be easier for Israel to dismiss the report as completely one-sided and useless when it does come out.

This incident also provides real-time evidence to those tired of hearing Jerusalem argue that it does not get a fair shake in international organizations, that – indeed – it does not get a fair shake in international organizations.

The Goldstone Report was damning because Goldstone – before he took on the Gaza brief – was a respected legal figure with credibility. Schabas has lost his credibility, and as a result so has the commission that he chaired, even before the paper it is working on even sees the light of day.

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