Days after the top UN official promised to bring the Goldstone Report to the Security Council "as soon as possible," a Council debate on Wednesday escalated into a battle of words with Israel's critics lambasting its actions in Gaza.
The high-level meeting was originally convened to debate a resolution concerning the protection of civilians in armed conflict. At the outset, the Council unanimously passed a resolution that would further clarify the role of UN peacekeeping missions.
But in the third speech before the Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused Israel of violating UN standards for protecting civilians, particularly during its military offensive last winter.
"The corrosive effect of impunity on both human rights and peace is evident in the case of the occupied Palestinian territory, as documented in the report of the United Nations fact-finding mission headed by distinguished international jurist Richard Goldstone," she said in prepared remarks delivered by a deputy high commissioner, Kyung-wha Kang.
"Collective punishment, as evidenced by the crippling Israeli blockade and the devastating military offensive, is a violation of international human rights and humanitarian law, as are the forcible evictions of Arabs, the demolition of homes, and the expropriation of occupied east Jerusalem lands for Israeli settlements," she said.
Calling for "meaningful" steps to address the alleged violations, she urged the Council to "embrace the recommendations in the report so as to secure accountability for all perpetrators, and to fully integrate human rights guarantees into peacemaking efforts."
Israeli ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev was prepared to strike back, arguing that the debate must not ignore the reality of terrorism, in particular scenarios where terrorists draw civilians into conflicts or use them as shields. She was scheduled to address the Council late Wednesday, after press time.
Officials at the Israeli mission stressed that Shalev would not address the Goldstone Report by name, since it was not the stated focus of the meeting. Still, Shalev intended to describe Israel's specific steps to warn Palestinian civilians of impending attacks during Operation Cast Lead, including placing more than 165,000 phone calls and dropping nearly 2.5 million leaflets warning civilians to avoid particular areas used by Hamas. She also planned to remind the Council of recent events, such as last week's rocket fire into Israel from Gaza and the recent interception of hundreds of tons of weapons on the vessel Francop.
But Israel faced hostility from diplomats from Turkey and Libya, who continued the condemnation of Israel and its actions in Gaza. Gaza has become a "huge prison," the Libyan official said, and during Operation Cast Lead, thousands of Palestinians were killed and injured by Israeli forces that used "all means of mass destruction."
No one was spared in the attack, he continued: "The attacks did not distinguish between civilians and the military. They wantonly targeted civilians," he added. "We hope that the ultimate support by some members of the Council to Israel will not obstruct the Council's attempts to fulfill its responsibility."
Speaking after the Libyan's 20-minute speech, which focused largely on Israel, US diplomats issued subtle criticism of raising the Goldstone Report in the meeting. "We regret, however, that as we have just heard, some have sought to use this opportunity to promote other objections," said Rosemary DiCarlo, the US Alternate Representative for Special Political Affairs, at the end of her remarks.
Indeed, the purpose of the meeting was to approve a resolution that would clarify the role of peacekeeping missions and improve the protection of civilians during conflict. "The protection of civilians is central to the mandate of the United Nations and its peacekeeping missions," said Austrian Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting, the acting head of the Security Council this month who shepherded the resolution to the Council floor.
But developments concerning the UN's handling of an Iranian shipment of weapons to Hizbullah, as well as the Goldstone Report, overshadowed that focus.
Indeed, the high-level debate came a day after the United States said Iran violated a UN arms embargo by smuggling weapons from Syria in a cargo ship. In a closed-door debate Tuesday that focused on Lebanon, US deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff and British deputy ambassador Philip Parham raised the issue of Israel's seizure of the cargo vessel Francop off Cyprus last week.
The US said the shipment was a clear violation of a 2007 arms embargo, and called on Syria and Iran to end "material support" for Hizbullah forces in violation of a cease-fire resolution passed in 2006. Syria's top UN diplomat, Bashar Ja'afari, went on the offensive, saying Israel's interception amounted to "an act of piracy on the high seas" and should be held accountable by the Security Council, The Associated Press reported.
Wednesday's focus on Israel and Operation Cast Lead also foreshadowed the debates to come regarding the Goldstone Report.
On Friday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would send the Goldstone Report, which calls for Israelis and Palestinians to probe the war, to the Security Council "as soon as possible." The 15-member Council was sent copies of the report from Ban, making it an official Security Council document.
Last week in the General Assembly, 114 countries voted to endorse the 575-page report, over opposing votes by Israel, the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and several Eastern European nations.
In all, 18 voted against it, and 44 abstained, including most of the EU countries that had sought unsuccessfully to soften the resolution's language prior to the vote.