The strange justice of William Schabas and the UNHRC

Aug 26, 2014 | Gabrielle Debinski

The strange justice of William Schabas and the UNHRC

Many people, both within Israel and around the world, were unsurprised when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) announced that it was launching a formal investigation into “possible war crimes” committed by Israel during Operation Protective Edge, which was launched on July 8 in response to incessant rocket fire from Hamas in the Gaza Strip into Israeli cities.

It did so in a resolution passed on July 23 which never mentions Hamas but declares Israel guilty, stating that the Council “condemns in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations” in the occupied territories. In the words of American columnist Claudia Rosett:

“The Gaza-inquiry resolution this crew authorized brings to mind a scene in Alice in Wonderland in which the Queen of Hearts – shouting ‘Off with her head!’ – tries to rig a trial to her own satisfaction: ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards.’ It is packed with condemnations of Israel’s activities, and it describes Israel as the “occupying power” responsible for the welfare of all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. There is no recognition that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and that the real authority there, turning its weapons on Israel, is Hamas – which in 2007 seized power in a bloody coup against other Palestinians.”

The UNHRC, which has a well-documented history of bias against Israel, then announced on August 11 that jurist William Schabas, would be heading the inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza, east Jerusalem and the West Bank over the last two months. In this capacity, Schabas will serve as both “judge and jury” over Israel.

It was later announced that joining Schabas on the panel would be Senegalese lawyer, Doudou Diene, who has experience investigating human rights violations in the Ivory Coast, as well as former New York Supreme Court judge, Mary McGowan Davis, who served on a previous follow-up committee on implementing the infamous Goldstone Report investigating Israel’s actions in Gaza during operation Cast Lead in 2008-09.

Schabas, a 63-year-old Canadian academic lawyer, is well known for his antagonism towards Israel and track record of accusing the Jewish State of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity on numerous occasions. Accordingly, his appointment as head of the ‘Gaza commission’ has attracted significant criticism in Israel and internationally.

An abundance of quotes as well as oral and written statements made by Schabas are being circulated by Geneva-based NGO, UN Watch, which clearly highlight that the Canadian lawyer has already formed his views on Israel and the broader conflict, having made numerous condemnations of Israel’s conduct during previous confrontations with Hamas.

Schabas appears to have an obsession with seeing Israel, and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular, tried before the International Criminal Court. A clip being circulated online shows Schabas telling the Russell Tribunal on Palestine – a private body of left-wing activists which cooked up a pseudo-trial to condemn Israel – in 2013: “my favorite would be Netanyahu in the dock of the International Criminal Court.” Schabas’ statement is then met by a stream of laughter from the surrounding panelists.

In another video circulated by UN Watch, which was also written in a law journal article, Schabas described Netanyahu as “the single individual most likely to threaten the survival of Israel.” For a comprehensive list of Schabas’ prior statements “demonstrating bias” against Israel see UN Watchs’ link here.

Schabas’ interview on Israel’s Channel 2 TV station on August 12 revealed not only the depths of his anti-Israel bias, but also a perilous lack of key knowledge and context in someone charged with making “expert findings.”

When asked about his previous statements calling for Netanyahu to be tried by the ICC, Schabas replied that he was merely echoing findings made in the infamous 2009 Goldstone Report, which found that supposed “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes” had been committed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. It was in light of these findings, he said, that Netanyahu should be held accountable.

Schabas went on to lament:

“But as you know the International Criminal Court never did address those matters…that was the context of my comment.”

But, it seems that Schabas got the “context” of his “comment” terribly wrong and did not feel the need for actual facts to back up his demand for indicting Israeli leaders. Netanyahu was not Prime Minister during Operation Cast Lead – he was in opposition at the time. It was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the centrist Kadima party who was Prime Minister of Israel during the Gaza War of 2008-09. And the Goldstone Report never mentions Netanyahu.

Moreover, it is interesting to contrast Schabas’ eagerness to indict and convict Israeli leaders – even on totally spurious grounds – with his careful air of reticence and determination to supposedly preserve the “presumption of innocence” for Arab leaders.

Thus, when he was asked by the news reporter from Channel 2 why he doesn’t recommend Hamas’ political chief Khaled Mashal be investigated by the ICC, and whether he even considers Hamas to be a terrorist organisation, Schabas responded sheepishly:

“It would be inappropriate for me to answer a question like that.” Passing such a judgment, he said, would compromise his ability to carry out his investigation in as “neutral and objective manner as possible.”

He has in the past tried to minimise or whitewash Hamas crimes, saying of their targetting of Israeli civilians during the 2008-09 war: “maybe Hamas didn’t behave properly.” He also effectively whitewashed Hamas’ goals, saying of Gazans, “All they want is a state, and they get punished for insisting upon this and for supporting a political party … representing that aspiration.”

Schabas has also made statements attempting to defend Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from accusations of war crimes, including use of chemical weapons on his own people, criticising UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for his statements on Assad’s well-documented barbarism against the Syrian people.

On a weblog he co-edits Schabas wrote:

“The Secretary-General of the United Nations stated that President Assad of Syria ‘has committed many crimes against humanity.’ See it for yourself on You-tube [sic]. This is a very unusual and perhaps unprecedented occurrence. It raises questions about the presumption of innocence.”

Moreover, Schabas argued at length in 2013 that Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians was not a war crime and accused Western countries who sought to do something about Assad’s use of WMD of both hypocrisy and aggression, writing:

“The rather facile manner by which political leaders in powerful states that possess and continue to develop nuclear weapons describe the use of chemical weapons as a war crime does indeed smack of hypocrisy.”

Schabas has also defended Iran’s right to develop nuclear weapons and its call to annihilate Israel.

He further declared the US killing of Osama bin Laden “murder” and “barbarism.”

Hillel Neuer, from UN Watch, called on the Canadian law professor to dismiss himself from the post given his past history of attacking the Israeli Prime Minister.

“Under international law, William Schabas is obliged to recuse himself because his repeated calls to indict Israeli leaders obviously gives rise to actual bias or the appearance thereof,” Neuer said.

“You can’t spend several years calling for the prosecution of someone, and then suddenly act as his judge. It’s absurd and a violation of the minimal rules of due process applicable to UN fact-finding missions.”

According to Canada’s CBC News, Schabas responded to such allegations by stating:

“I have opinions like everybody else about the situation in Israel…They may not be the same as Hillel Neurer’s [sic] or Benjamin Netanyahu’s, that’s all.”

Many within Israel’s political spectrum have called on Israel not to cooperate with the investigation, which is expected to echo the prejudices and inaccuracies of the Goldstone Report, another UNHRC ‘fact finding’ mission which has since been widely discredited, including by its author Justice Richard Goldstone. Justice Goldstone belatedly recanted his findings stating: “if I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document.” You can find analysis of this in a previous AIJAC statement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Schabas has also been a fervent supporter of the discredited document stating: “we should encourage developments such as the Goldstone Report.”

In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, said he expected Israel would not cooperate with what he labelled the “Schabas committee.” The Israeli envoy critiqued the panel’s lack of legitimacy:

“Forming an investigatory committee headed by Schabas is like inviting ISIS to organise religious tolerance week at the UN… There is no doubt, Israel cannot cooperate with a committee headed by this international law professor.”

The Foreign Minister of Schabas’ own home country seems to agree. Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, took to twitter to dismiss Schabas’ appointment and express his dismay with the UNHRC.

His first tweet read: “UN Human Rights Council continues to be a sham for advancing human rights; today’s ann’t for members of its Gaza inquiry reveals its agenda.”

Only a minute later he tweeted again:
“It’s an utter shame, and will do nothing to promote peace and dignity in Gaza for the Palestinian people.”

The UNHRC’s long track record of focusing overwhelmingly on Israel while actual mass atrocities are being committed around the world, especially in the Middle East, is well known. However, it seems that by appointing a man who has refused to label Hamas a terrorist organisation, has effectively defended it and condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden as “murder,” yet has repeatedly and publicly declared Israel guilty, the already discredited UNHRC seems to have crossed a new line.

It is not simply Israelis and Palestinians who will suffer as a result – so will the cause of advancing genuine human rights. For when the UN’s main body for pushing human rights descends into self-parody, the only ones who benefit are the world’s tyrants and totalitarian regimes.

Gabrielle Debinski





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