Gaza: Pursuit of the Laws of War
If the UN fails to further investigate crimes committed during the conflict it will ensure stalemate, and more suffering for civilians
The Israeli government and its supporters have lashed out at the report of the UN board of inquiry into Israeli attacks on UN installations during Israel's latest offensive in Gaza. The report, they say, is biased, tendentious and inaccurate. According to Robbie Sabel, writing in Comment is Free, the "unbalanced report" does "little to bring understanding or justice to the conflict in Gaza".
The full report has not been published, but there's little in the summary that UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon sent to the security council on Tuesday to support such claims. On the contrary, it provides careful but compelling evidence that Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) violated the laws of war during their military operations around UN installations in Gaza.
According to the summary, the board of inquiry concluded that "IDF actions involved varying degrees of negligence and recklessness with regard to United Nations premises and the safety of United Nations staff and other civilians within those premises, with consequent deaths, injuries and extensive physical damage and loss of property". The board also holds "Hamas or another Palestinian actor" responsible for one attack on a UN installation - a World Food Progamme warehouse hit by a Qassam rocket.
The terms of reference of the UN inquiry were extremely narrow. Its job was to look at attacks on eight UN installations and one UN convoy during the period of Israel's military offensive. As far as one can tell from the summary, the board has been meticulous in sticking to these terms of reference.
However, the conclusions of the inquiry, as represented in the summary (which, it should be noted, was not written by those who wrote the full report), raise broader questions about the use of force by the IDF during the conflict. It appears the authors of the UN report felt these questions should not be ducked. The summary notes that the board of inquiry was "deeply conscious" that the attacks on UN installations investigated in its report "are among many incidents during Operation Cast Lead involving civilian victims".
The board therefore recommended that "these incidents should be investigated as part of an impartial inquiry, mandated and adequately resourced, to investigate violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza and southern Israel by the IDF and by Hamas and other Palestinian militants".
But in his letter to the security council presenting his summary, secretary general Ban Ki-moon says bluntly: "I do not plan any further inquiry." Whether under pressure from external sources - as reported in the Israeli media - or not, the secretary general has thus rejected his own board of inquiry's most important recommendation even before the security council has had time to discuss it.
Indeed Ban could not even bring himself to put his weight behind an inquiry that has already been mandated by the UN human rights council to investigate broader laws of war violations in the Gaza fighting. Although the human rights council has often been criticised for an anti-Israel bias, this inquiry is headed by Richard Goldstone, who gained international respect for his critical role in dismantling apartheid in his native South Africa and served with distinction as the chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Goldstone has said that he will look at violations committed by both sides in the conflict.
So what happens now? The media and human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch have already documented serious violations of the laws of war by both sides in the conflict in Gaza, several of which have now been corroborated by this latest UN report. There is a strong prima facie case for a broad international and impartial inquiry, as recommended by the UN board.
Justice Goldstone's inquiry (which has been accepted by Hamas but rejected by Israel) should be fully backed by the secretary general, the security council and all those states who profess to care about the vital importance of upholding the rule of law in international affairs.
There is a wide perception, backed up by strong evidence, that serious laws of war violations were committed in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Failure by the UN to investigate and make recommendations for the prosecution of individuals responsible for war crimes will perpetuate the climate of impunity that characterises this conflict, like so many others, and ensure that in the next round of fighting once again it will be civilians who suffer most. That will only further polarise and radicalise both sides and dim even further the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited