Last Tuesday, after months of exhaustive research, including conducting 188 interviews and reviewing 300 reports, 10,000 pages of documents, 30 videos, and 1,200 photographs, the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict released the findings of its investigation in a thoroughly documented 575 page report. This independent mission was given a mandate by the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of war crimes and serious violations of international human rights law committed by both Israel and Palestinian armed groups before, during, and after the military operations in Gaza between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009 that claimed the lives of more than 700 Palestinian civilians and three Israeli civilians.
The mission was led by Justice Richard Goldstone, formerly a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the chief prosecutor of the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and a governor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In accepting this duty, Justice Goldstone reiterated that his mission would undertake "an independent, evenhanded and unbiased investigation."
The report concluded that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups perpetrated war crimes and other serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The report also found that some of the actions carried out by Israel and Palestinian armed group may have risen to the level of crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the investigation, but members of the mission had access to Gaza and heard testimony from both Palestinians and Israelis, including the Israeli Mayor of Ashkelon.
The report's findings demand action by the international community, including the United States. The importance of U.S. action is elevated because the U.S. currently holds the Presidency of the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. body charged with enforcing the report's conclusions in the absence of credible internal investigations by both Israel and the de facto Hamas government in Gaza. This report provides the Obama administration a new opportunity to match its rhetoric with reality vis-à-vis a renewed U.S. commitment to international justice and to reforming U.S. foreign policy in a manner that respects, protects, nd enforces human rights around the world. Unfortunately, initial statements from the Obama administration signal an intention to maintain the Bush administration's efforts to obstruct justice for human rights violations committed by U.S. allies. Unable to challenge the factual findings in the report, U.S. officials have instead questioned the legitimacy of the mission's mandate and its recommendations. And the administration has added Israel to a growing list of those shielded from accountability through its "look forward, not backward" rhetoric, used thus far to successfully shield Bush administration officials from accountability for committing torture and other federal and international crimes.
Both of these approaches were apparent on Wednesday when U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice stated: "We have very serious concerns about many of the recommendations in the report. ... [O]ur view is that we need to be focused on the future. This is a time to work to cement progress towards the resumptions of negotiations and their early and successful conclusion...." Instead of working to uphold the rule of law, the administration argues that the need to revive the "peace process" trumps the need for accountability. The Obama administration must remember that its duty to uphold the rule of law is not subject to political expediency, it is an absolute obligation. The Obama administration must also remember that peace and justice are two sides of the same coin, as Desmond Tutu noted in a March 2009 New York Times op-ed in support of the Bashir indictment by the> International Criminal Court: "there can be no real peace and security until justice is enjoyed by the inhabitants of the land."
Violations of international law did not end with the cessation of Israel's military campaign last January. Israel continues to wage its crippling blockade of Gaza in violation of the laws of war. By granting Israel a perpetual exemption from upholding international human rights standards, the U.S. plays into the hands of massive human rights violators around the world, including Sudan, who argue that any attempt to hold them accountable amounts to selective enforcement of the law. If we are to have a truly universal human rights system, these double standards must stop. All must be held accountable for their actions, regardless of their status as friend or foe. Both U.S. standing in the world as well as global efforts to protect and enforce human rights will be greatly undermined if documented war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian armed groups continue to be ignored. Justice Goldstone's fact finding mission and report provide an opportunity for the U.S. to support accountability over impunity, and reassert its leadership in the global human rights movement by standing with the victims of war crimes. The report's facts are thoroughly researched and documented, its authors carry impeccable credentials, and its conclusions are impartial. The U.S. should embrace the mission and its report as a model for how to investigate and document violations of international law, not work to subvert it.
* Jamil Dakwar is a human rights lawyer and former senior attorney for the Israeli human rights group Adalah. The writer is submitting this piece in his personal capacity and not as an ACLU staff member.