Bipartisan Attack on International
by Stephen Zunes Foreign Policy
in Focus (FPIF)
In a stunning blow against international
law and human rights, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly
approved a resolution on Tuesday attacking the report of the United
Nations Human Rights Council's fact-finding mission on the Gaza
conflict. The report was authored by the well-respected South
African jurist Richard Goldstone and three other noted authorities
on international humanitarian law, who had been widely praised
for taking leadership in previous investigations of war crimes
in Rwanda, Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Since
this report documented apparent war crimes by a key U.S. ally,
however, Congress has taken the unprecedented action of passing
a resolution condemning it. Perhaps most ominously, the resolution
also endorses Israel's right to attack Syria and Iran on the grounds
that they are "state sponsors of terrorism."
The principal co-sponsors of the resolution
(HR 867), which passed on a 344-36 vote, included two powerful
Democrats: House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Howard Berman
(D-CA) and Middle East subcommittee chairman Gary Ackerman (D-NY).
Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) successfully pushed
Democrats to support the resolution by a more than 6:1 margin,
despite the risk of alienating the party's liberal pro-human rights
base less than a year before critical midterm elections.
The resolution opens with a series of
clauses criticizing the original mandate of the UN Human Rights
Council, which called for an investigation of possible Israeli
war crimes only. This argument is completely moot, however, since
Goldstone and his colleagues - to their credit - refused to accept
the offer to serve on the mission unless its mandate was changed
to one that would investigate possible war crimes by both sides
in the conflict.
As a result, the mandate of the mission
was thereby broadened. The House resolution doesn't mention this,
however, and instead implies that the original mandate remained
the basis of the report. In reality, even though the report contained
over 70 pages detailing a series of violations of the laws of
war by Hamas, including rocket attacks into civilian-populated
areas of Israel, torture of Palestinian opponents, and the continued
holding of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, there's no
acknowledgement in the 1,600-word resolution that the initial
mandate had been superseded or that the report criticizes the
conduct of both sides. In fact, despite the report's extensive
documentation of Hamas assaults on Israeli towns - which it determined
constituted war crimes and possible "crimes against humanity"
- the resolution insists that it "makes no mention of the
relentless rocket and mortar attacks."
The Goldstone mission report - totaling
575 pages - contains detailed accounts of deadly Israeli attacks
against schools, mosques, private homes, and businesses nowhere
near legitimate military targets, which they accurately described
as "a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish
humiliate and terrorize a civilian population." In particular,
the report cites 11 incidents in which Israeli armed forces engaged
in direct attacks against civilians, including cases where people
were shot "while they were trying to leave their homes to
walk to a safer place, waving white flags." The House resolution,
however, claims that such charges of deliberate Israeli attacks
against civilian areas were "sweeping and unsubstantiated."
Both the report's conclusions and most
of the particular incidents cited were independently documented
in detailed empirical investigations released in recent months
by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli
human rights group B'Tselem, among others. Congressional attacks
against the integrity of the Goldstone report, therefore, constitute
attacks against the integrity of these reputable human rights
groups as well.
Equating Killing Civilians with Self-Defense
In an apparent effort to further discredit
the human rights community, the resolution goes on to claim that
the report denies Israel's right to self defense, even though
there was absolutely nothing in the report that questioned Israel's
right to use military force. It simply insists that neither Israelis
nor Palestinians have the right to attack civilians.
The resolution resolves that the report
"irredeemably biased" against Israel, an ironic charge
given that Justice Goldstone, the report's principal author
and defender, is Jewish, a longtime supporter of Israel, chair
of Friends of Hebrew University, president emeritus of the World
ORT Jewish school system, and the father of an Israeli citizen.
Goldstone was also a leading opponent of apartheid in his native
South Africa and served as Nelson Mandela's first appointee to
the country's post-apartheid Supreme Court. He was a principal
prosecutor in the war crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former
Yugoslavia, took a leading role in investigations into corruption
in the UN's "Oil for Food" program in Iraq, and was
also part of investigations into Argentina's complicity in provided
sanctuary for Nazi war criminals.
Having 80% of the U.S. House of Representatives
go on record attacking the integrity of one of the world's most
respected and principled defenders of human rights is indicative
of just how far to the right the U.S. Congress has now become,
even under Democratic leadership. In doing so, Congress has served
notice to the human rights community that they won't consider
any human rights defenders credible if they dare raise questions
about the conduct of a U.S. ally. This may actually be the underlying
purpose of the resolution: to jettison any consideration of international
humanitarian law from policy debates in Washington. The cost,
however, will likely be to further isolate the United States from
the rest of the world, just as Obama was beginning to rebuild
the trust of other nations.
Indeed, the resolution calls on the Obama
administration not only "to oppose unequivocally any endorsement"
of the report, but to even oppose unequivocally any "further
consideration" of the report in international fora. Instead
of debating its merits, therefore, Congress has decided to instead
pre-judge its contents and disregard the actual evidence put forward.
(It's doubtful that any of the supporters of the resolution even
bothered actually reading the report.) The resolution even goes
so far as to claim that Goldstone's report is part of an effort
"to delegitimize the democratic State of Israel and deny
it the right to defend its citizens and its existence can be used
to delegitimize other democracies and deny them the same right."
This is demagoguery at its most extreme. In insisting that documenting
a given country's war crimes is tantamount to denying that country's
right to exist and its right to self defense, the resolution is
clearly aimed at silencing defenders of international humanitarian
law. The fact that the majority of Democrats voted in favor of
this resolution underscores that both parties now effectively
embrace the neoconservative agenda to delegitimize any serious
discussion of international humanitarian law, in relation to conduct
by the United States and its allies.
License for War?
Having failed in their efforts to convince
Washington to launch a war against Syria and Iran, neoconservatives
and other hawks in Washington have now successfully mobilized
a large bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives to
encourage Israel to act as a U.S. surrogate: Following earlier
clauses that define Israel's massive military assault on the civilian
infrastructure of the Gaza Strip as a legitimate defense of its
citizens and make the exaggerated assertion that Iran and Syria
are "sponsors" of Hamas, the final clause in the resolution
puts Congress on record supporting "Israel's right to defend
its citizens from violent militant groups and their state sponsors"
(emphasis added). This broad bipartisan congressional mandate
for a unilateral Israeli attack on Syria and Iran is extremely
dangerous, and appears designed to undercut the Obama administration's
efforts to pursue a negotiated path to settling differences with
There are other clauses in the resolution
that take quotes out of context and engage in other misrepresentations
to make the case that Goldstone and his colleagues are "irredeemably
One clause in the resolution attacks the
credibility of mission member Christine Chinkin, an internationally
respected British scholar of international law, feminist jurisprudence,
alternative dispute resolution, and human rights. The resolution
questions her objectivity by claiming that "before joining
the mission, [she] had already declared Israel guilty of committing
atrocities in Operation Cast Lead by signing a public letter on
January 11, 2009, published in the Sunday Times, that called Israel's
actions 'war crimes.'" In reality, the letter didn't accuse
Israel of "atrocities," but simply noted that Israel's
attacks against the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip
were "not commensurate to the deaths caused by Hamas rocket
fire." The letter also noted that "the blockade of humanitarian
relief, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and preventing
access to basic necessities such as food and fuel, are prima facie
war crimes." In short, it was a preliminary assessment rather
than a case of having "already declared Israel guilty,"
as the resolution states.
Furthermore, at the time of the letter
- written a full two weeks into the fighting - there had already
been a series of preliminary reports from Amnesty International,
Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee of the Red
Cross documenting probable war crimes by Israeli armed forces,
so virtually no one knowledgeable of international humanitarian
law could have come to any other conclusion. As a result, Chinkin's
signing of the letter could hardly be considered the kind of ideologically
motivated bias that should preclude her participation on an investigative
body, particularly since that same letter unequivocally condemned
Hamas rocket attacks as well.
The resolution also faults the report
for having "repeatedly downplayed or cast doubt upon"
claims that Hamas used "human shields" as an attempted
deterrence to Israeli attacks. The reason the report challenged
those assertions, however, was that there simply wasn't any solid
evidence to support such claims. Detailed investigations by Amnesty
International and Human Rights Watch regarding such accusations
during and subsequent to the fighting also came to same conclusion.
As with these previous investigations, the Goldstone report
determined that there were occasions when Hamas hadn't taken all
necessary precautions to avoid placing civilians in harm's way,
but they found no evidence whatsoever that Hamas had consciously
used civilians as shields at any point during the three-week conflict.
Despite this, the House resolution makes
reference to a supposed "great body of evidence" that
Hamas used human shields. The resolution fails to provide a single
example to support this claim, however, other than a statement
by one Hamas official, which the mission investigated and eventually
concluded was without merit. I contacted the Washington offices
of more than two dozen co-sponsors of the resolution, requesting
such evidence, and none of them were able to provide any. It appears,
then, that the sponsors of the resolution simply fabricated this
charge in order to protect Israel from any moral or legal responsibilities
for the more than 700 civilian deaths. (Interestingly, the report
did find extensive evidence - as did Amnesty International - that
the Israelis used Palestinians as human shields during their offensive.
Israeli soldiers testifying at hearings held by a private group
of Israeli soldiers and veterans confirmed a number of such episodes
as well. This fact was conveniently left out of the resolution.)
In another example of misleading content,
the resolution quotes Goldstone as saying, in relation to the
mission's investigation, "If this was a court of law, there
would have been nothing proven." However, no such investigation
carried out on behalf of the UNHRC has ever claimed to have obtained
evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, the normal criterion for proof
in a court of law. This does not, however, buttress the resolution's
insistence that the report was therefore "unworthy of further
consideration or legitimacy." What the fact-finding mission
did find was probable cause for criminal investigations into possible
war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government. Another spurious
claim of bias is the resolution's assertion that "the report
usually considered public statements made by Israeli officials
not to be credible, while frequently giving uncritical credence
to statements taken from what it called the `Gaza authorities',
i.e. the Gaza leadership of Hamas." In reality, the report
shows that the mission did investigate such statements and evaluated
them based upon the evidence. The resolution also fails to mention
that while Hamas officials were willing to meet with the mission,
Israeli officials refused, even denying them entrance into Israel.
The mission had to fly Israeli victims of Hamas attacks to Geneva
at UN expense to interview them. The mission found these Israelis'
testimony credible, took them quite seriously, and incorporated
them into their findings.
The resolution goes on to claim that the
report's observation that the Israeli government has "contributed
significantly to a political climate in which dissent with the
government and its actions . . . is not tolerated" was erroneous.
In reality, it has been well-documented - and has been subjected
to extensive debate within Israel - that the right-wing government
of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has interrogated and harassed
political activists as well as suppressed criticism and sources
of potential criticism of actions by the Israeli military, particularly
non-government organizations such as the dissident soldiers' group
Breaking the Silence.
The House resolution is particularly vehement
in its opposition to the report's recommendation that, should
Hamas and Israeli authorities fail to engage in credible investigations
and bring those responsible for war crimes to justice, the matter
should be referred to the International Criminal Court for possible
prosecution. The resolution insists this is unnecessary since
Israel "has already launched numerous investigations."
However, Israeli human rights groups have repeatedly criticized
their government's refusal to launch any independent investigations
and have documented how the Israeli government has refused to
investigate testimonies by soldiers of war crimes. (At this point,
the only indictments for misconduct by Israeli forces during the
conflict have been against two soldiers who stole credit cards
from a Palestinian home.)
The primary motivation for the resolution
appears to have been to block any consideration of its recommendation
that those guilty of war crimes be held accountable. Since the
ICC has never indicted anyone from a country which had a fair
and comprehensive internal investigation of war crimes and prosecuted
those believed responsible, the goal of Congress appears to be
that of protecting war criminals from prosecution.
As a result, the passage of this resolution
isn't simply about the alleged clout of AIPAC or just another
example of longstanding congressional support for Israeli militarism.
This resolution constitutes nothing less than a formal bipartisan
rejection of international humanitarian law. U.S. support for
human rights and international law has always been uneven, but
never has Congress gone on record by such an overwhelming margin
to discredit these universal principles so categorically. This
is George W. Bush's foreign policy legacy, which - through this
resolution - the Democrats, no less than their Republican counterparts,
have now eagerly embraced.
Stephen Zunes is Middle East editor for
Foreign Policy In Focus. He is a professor of Politics at the
University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S.
Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage