After Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, a three-week military mission into Gaza in January of 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) commissioned Richard Goldstone, Christine Chinkin, Hina Jilani, and Desmond Travers to investigate Israel for war crimes. From the outset, Israel refused to participate in the inquiry due to the prejudicial nature of the mission and its composition and conduct. The commission, which the UNHRC originally mandated to investigate Israel alone, eventually reprimanded Hamas for rocket attacks, but devoted the vast bulk of its efforts to castigating Israel and charging that its “attacks amounted to reprisals and collective punishment and constitute war crimes.”
The pre-history and eventual formation of the UNHRC’s fact-finding mission to Gaza has become a subject of controversy. Within a week of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a body hostile to Israel, requested that the UNHRC send a fact-finding mission to investigate Israel for war crimes. The Council quickly carried out the OIC’s request, due largely to the enormous influence the 57-member OIC wields in the United Nations. Indeed, the OIC comprises close to half the membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which dominates all UN bodies other than the Security Council. In 2009, the OIC/NAM’s power over the Human Rights Council was even more commanding than the influence it had over the previously dissolved Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), which passed more resolutions condemning Israel than it passed against any other nation. When Kofi Annan moved to dissolve the UNCHR in 2006, the OIC/NAM quickly achieved a larger majority in the new body than it had possessed in the old one. From 2006 to 2010, the new Council adopted 39 resolutions censuring countries; all except 6 were directly aimed at Israel.
On January 9, 2009, the UNHRC adopted Resolution S-9/1 “to dispatch an urgent, independent international fact-finding mission [...] to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by the occupying Power, Israel, against the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly the occupied Gaza Strip, due to the current aggression.” The war crimes of Hamas -- its use of human shields and civilian infrastructure and its attacks from among civilians at civilians -- were not part of the inquiry. The one-sided nature of the resolution was further reinforced by the repeated condemnation of Israel’s “occupation of Palestinian lands.” The resolution “demanded” that “the occupying Power, Israel, stop the targeting of civilians and medical facilities and staff and the systematic destruction of the cultural heritage of the Palestinian people, in addition to the destruction of public and private properties, as laid down in the Fourth Geneva Convention.” As critics of the resolution would quickly protest, the resolution had already found Israel guilty of war crimes before an investigation had even taken place. The desire to blackguard Israel was so deep that the report used the phrase “crimes against humanity,” hitherto reserved for events such as the Nazi genocide, to describe Israel’s actions.
In February and March, the UNHRC began to search for a person of international repute to head the commission, but initially had difficulty finding such a figure. The UNHRC turned to Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who had directed the first Durban Conference on racism in 2001. Although well known as a critic of Israel, Robinson declined the position, stating that the “the resolution is not balanced because it focuses on what Israel did, without calling for an investigation on the launch of the rockets by Hamas. This is unfortunately a practice by the Council: adopting resolutions guided not by human rights but by politics.”
Richard Goldstone, the eventual head of the commission, admits that he initially turned down the appointment on exactly the same grounds: “More than hesitate, I initially refused to become involved in any way [with the inquiry], on the basis of what seemed to me to be a biased, uneven-handed resolution of the UN Human Rights Council.” Despite his misgivings, Goldstone eventually accepted, and the UNHRC appointed him on April 2, 2009.
Joining Goldstone on the commission were Professor Christine Chinkin, Professor of International Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science; Ms. Hina Jilani, Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and former Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders; and Colonel (retired from the Irish Armed Forces) Desmond Travers, member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI). While Goldstone has repeatedly claimed that the commission was impartial, all four of these investigators, including Goldstone himself, had previously signed statements calling for Israel to be investigated, and two of the four had gone further in their condemnation of Israel.
On March 16, during the month preceding the first appointment to the commission, Goldstone, Jilani, and Travers had signed an open letter, supported by Amnesty International, to the UN. Months before that -- on January 11, 2009 -- Christine Chinkin had signed a petition in the Sunday Times accusing Israel of “war crimes” and stating that “the manner and scale of its operations in Gaza amount to an act of aggression and is contrary to international law.” In addition, Travers made extreme allegations against Israel. “Gaza has now come into the history books in the same way as Guernica, Dresden, Stalingrad,” he declared in an interview with the Middle East Monitor. “Gaza is a gulag, the only gulag in the Western hemisphere.”
In September 2009, Goldstone submitted to the UN a 575-page Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, and in October the UN officially endorsed the findings of the commission. In their report, Goldstone and his colleagues had lightly reprimanded Hamas in an effort to appear evenhanded, but the vast bulk of the document charged Israel with “war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity.” Critics particularly argued that the commission’s failure to recognize Hamas as a legitimate military target delegitimized the findings of the commission. In 575 pages, the commission did not once mention Hamas’ charter which calls for the obliteration of Israel and the murder of the Jewish people.
Critics of the Goldstone Report contended that the investigation was biased from its inception and violated international standards for inquiries by favoring anti-Israel witnesses and downplaying Hamas’ war crimes and its use of the Palestinian people to shield it from reprisal. On March 22, 2010, David Littman, NGO representative to the United Nations, charged the Goldstone Report with a “complete omission” of any mention of the terrorist ideology of Hamas. “The Hamas Charter,” Littman emphasized, “simply calls for Jews to be killed and Israel to be eliminated,” and there is no mention of this in the report.
After its release, the Goldstone report quickly became a propaganda boon for the anti-Israel Left, Islamist groups, and radical activists for Palestine, many of whom used Goldstone’s legal and international reputation to legitimize their own virulent criticism of Israel. Norman Finkelstein, a notorious anti-Israel academic, particularly emphasized that a “significant international figure, legal figure,” authored a report “consistent with the findings of the other human rights organizations” that Israel “massacred” innocent civilians.
On April 1, 2011, Richard Goldstone unexpectedly published a Washington Post op-ed piece recanting his own Goldstone Report and admitting that the charges it made against Israel were wrong, false, and based on insufficient or flawed information.