The UN Human Rights Council plans to complete its Gaza probe even though legal expert William Schabas, who headed the investigation, resigned Monday after Israel revealed he had worked briefly as a paid consultant for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called in vain on the council to shelve the report, saying that the UNHRC – which set up the commission and appointed Schabas – was an anti-Israel forum that had shown over the years that there was no connection between it and human rights.
Former New York Supreme Court judge Mary McGowan Davis will replace Schabas. She, Schabas and Senegalese legal expert Doudou Diene were all appointed to the commission last summer.
The report is to be presented to the UNHRC on March 23, during its 28th session in Geneva, the UN body said on Tuesday.
Reacting to Schabas’s resignation, Netanyahu said Israel had acted in accordance with international law during last summer’s conflict when it defended itself against rocket attacks from Gaza, while Hamas had used civilians as human shields to fire on Israeli civilians.
“Hamas, other terrorist organizations, and the terrorist regimes around us are the ones who need to be investigated, and not Israel,” he said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman issued a statement saying that Schabas’s resignation would not change the conclusions of the report, which were biased against Israel from the very beginning by virtue of the fact that the anti-Israel UNHRC had initiated it.
However, he said, the resignation casts light on the built-in biases of the people who made up the investigative panel.
McGowan Davis also served on a three-person 2010 panel that monitored Israeli and Palestinian compliance with the UNHRC’s Goldstone Report, which probed human rights violations during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF’s January 2009 incursion into Gaza.
Liberman said the Schabas resignation was an achievement for Israeli diplomacy and proved that “even the greatest hypocrites in international forums could not ignore the fact that appointing Schabas to investigate Israel was like appointing Cain to investigate Abel.”
However, Nabil Sha’ath, a senior Fatah official and former Palestinian Authority foreign minister, expressed regret over the resignation of Schabas, whom he described as an “honest and balanced man.” Sha’ath blamed Israel for the resignation and said the move shouldn’t affect efforts to file “war crime” charges against Israel.
On Friday, Israel called for Schabas’s dismissal in a letter to the UNHRC, in which it charged that he had a past contractual relationship with the Palestinians.
This is “a blatant conflict of interest,” wrote Israel’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Eviatar Manor, to UNHRC president Joachim Ruecker of Germany.
Schabas’s continued tenure on the commission is simply “untenable,” wrote Manor. If this “shocking evidence” were presented to any legal organ, it would “be cause for immediate dismissal,” Manor added.
The UNHRC’s bureau, in response, had planned to request a legal opinion from the UN’s New York headquarters on Monday. However, it never submitted the request, because Schabas resigned to prevent any probe of his actions from halting the March publication of the UNHRC’s Gaza investigation.
In an Israel Radio interview, Schabas said the UNHRC had informed him Monday that it would proceed with an examination of Israel’s complaint about his work for the PLO, which would take “a matter of weeks.”
“While [the investigation] would go on, I could not see how I could reasonably continue to work while that question was being examined,” he said.
“It compromised the ongoing work of the commission of inquiry, at a time when it had to prepare its report and submit it.”
Schabas said he had stepped down because he was becoming “an obstacle and distraction” to the work of the commission.
“I had to get out of the way and [let it] get on with its work so it can prepare its report,” he said.
In a Channel 2 interview, he took parting shots at Netanyahu and Liberman.
“He can spin it any way he wants,” he said of the prime minister’s response, adding that Netanyahu and Liberman were “masters of extravagant and ridiculous statements, and I guess they will keep doing that.”
According to UN Watch, a UN watchdog organization, Schabas asked in 2009 why the International Criminal Court was “going after the president of Sudan for Darfur and not the president of Israel [Shimon Peres] for Gaza.”
In a letter Schabas wrote to Ruecker on Monday, he said the commission of inquiry was almost ready to draft its report.
“I believe that it is difficult for the work to continue while a procedure is under way to consider whether the chair of the commission should be removed,” Schabas wrote. Typically the work would be halted until the matter was resolved.
“Yet the commission cannot delay its work, as it must produce its report in a matter of weeks. Under the circumstances, and with great regret, I believe the important work of the commission is best served if I resign with immediate effect,” he wrote.
“This work in defense of human rights appears to have made me a huge target for malicious attacks, which, if Israel’s complaint is to be taken at face value, will only intensify in weeks to come,” he added.
The Jerusalem Post reported in mid-January that Israel had launched a campaign to thwart the commission of inquiry that Schabas headed, and that part of that campaign would be to discredit Schabas. The Canadian legal expert said in 2012 that Netanyahu would be his “favorite person” to bring to the International Criminal Court.
In his resignation letter, Schabas began by specifically citing the Post article, noting that two weeks later, Israel had lodged a formal complaint to the president of the UNHRC calling for his removal.
Schabas said in his letter that in October 2012, he had written a seven-page brief for the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department, for which he had received $1,300. His brief, he said, focused on the consequences that the UN General Assembly’s 2012 decision to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of a non-member state would have for the Palestinians’ legal standing before the International Criminal Court. It also explored how the territorial jurisdiction of the court might be applied, Schabas added.
Israel’s complaint was not about the content of the brief, he said, but that he might be beholden to the PLO and tailor his opinions for financial reasons.
His work on the UNHRC probe was voluntary and did not involve monetary compensation, he stated.
“I have done no other consultation and provided no other opinions for the State of Palestine, the PLO, or any other related body,” Schabas said.
His legal brief for the PLO, he went on, was just a tiny part of the voluminous consultancy work he had done for governments, individuals and organizations.
When the UNHRC appointed him in August to head its probe, “I was not requested to provide any detail on any of my past statements and activities concerning Palestine and Israel,” he wrote. “Of course, my views on Israel and Palestine, as well as on many other issues, were well known and very public.”
He added that he did not believe those views prevented him from being impartial and from independently probing the Gaza war.
Israel, however, had complained that his past statements and work made him a biased arbiter and underscored its belief that the panel was the equivalent of a “kangaroo court.”Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.