Goldstone decries 'culture of impunity' in ME

Goldstone decries impun

End the "culture of impunity in the region," South African jurist Richard Goldstone told the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, as he urged the international community to hold Israelis and Palestinians accountable for human rights violations each group has committed against the other. In his 18-minute speech in Geneva, Goldstone defended his report, published two weeks ago by the four-person UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict he had chaired. "Now is the time for action," he said, at the start of a six-hour anti-Israel debate in the council, as countries from around the world bashed the Jewish state for its alleged actions against Palestinians in Gaza, particularly during Operation Cast Lead in January. Many countries said they supported the report's conclusions, which called on Israel to be brought before the International Criminal Court if it did not conduct internal investigations and begin prosecutions within six months. The Goldstone Report said the authorities in Gaza must do the same, or risk coming before the ICC as well. But the countries and many of the NGOs who spoke Tuesday before the council spoke only of Israel's actions in Gaza. The Egyptian representative spoke of Israel as an "aggressor" and an "occupying power" that had committed war crimes. Goldstone took a more even-handed tone when he said that "no state or armed group should be above the law" and that "perpetrators of serious violations must be held to account." "The lack of accountability for war crimes and possible crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point; the ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence. "Time and again, experience has taught us that overlooking justice only leads to increased conflict and violence," he said. Among the findings of the report, the investigative team found that Gaza terrorists' firing of Kassam rockets into Israel constituted war crimes. It also stated that the blockade Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip since Hamas's violent takeover some four years ago amounted to "collective punishment and... a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation." While Goldstone conceded that "Israel has a duty to protect its citizens," he said that this fact "in no way justifies a policy of collective punishment of a people under effective occupation, destroying their means to live a dignified life and the trauma caused by the kind of military intervention the Israeli government called Operation Cast Lead." "This contributes to a situation where young people grow up in a culture of hatred and violence, with little hope for change in the future. Finally, the teaching of hate and dehumanization by each side against the other contributes to the destabilization of the whole region," he added. To compile the report, Goldstone said, the mission traveled to Gaza and Amman. It interviewed 188 people, and reviewed 10,000 pages of documentation and 1,200 photographs, including satellite imagery and video-tapes. Israel, which refused to cooperate with the Goldstone mission, has criticized the report as one-sided and inaccurate. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that "culture of impunity" is a slogan used by Israel-bashers worldwide. It was ironic, he said, that Goldstone "looks at all the Middle East and finds fault only in the sole democratic country that has always engaged in self-criticism, while ignoring those who have always quelled and suppressed any hint of introspection." Goldstone "pursues justice not where it is missing, but rather where it is to be found in abundance," Palmor said. The South African judge "continues to ignore the hypocrisy" of his report, and "lives in his own bubble - as if he did independent work and we live in a world of pure ideals," he continued. Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Aharon Leshno-Ya'ar, described the Goldstone Report as "shameful" in his speech to the council. It cherry-picked incidents that occurred during the Gaza conflict for political effect, ignored Israel's right to self-defense, and provided "support and vindication for terrorist tactics," he said. The PLO ambassador in Geneva, Ibrahim Khraishi, welcomed the report and said it was an "objective" account of what had happened in Gaza. A resolution by Arab and Muslim countries proposes endorsing the report and recommending that it be referred to the UN Security Council, to require both sides to show they are carrying out credible investigations into alleged abuses during the conflict. "Israel is committed to fully examining every allegation of wrongdoing, not because of this report, but despite it," Leshno-Ya'ar told the council. Goldstone, however, called Israel's efforts so far "pusillanimous." He also described investigations by Hamas as a "complete failure." Some European nations on the 47-member rights council cautiously welcomed the report, but diplomats have made clear they don't support all of its findings and are critical of how the document was compiled. In a supportive gesture to Israel, the Netherlands said the report was unbalanced. Russia said that Israel should have worked with Goldstone, but added that it did not think the report needed to go beyond the council. The US, which took part as a member for the first time in the council's three-year existence, also criticized the report. "We disagree sharply with many of the report's assessments and its recommendations and believe it to be deeply flawed," US Assistant Secretary of State Michael H. Posner said. Washington also rejected the suggestion that the allegations be taken up by the Security Council. "If this standard were applied in every conflict situation around the world where there are alleged violations, then the role of the Human Rights Council would be dramatically different," he said. The council is expected to vote this week on whether to accept the report's recommendations. Herb Keinon, Elana Kirsh and AP contributed to this report.