‘The UN Human Rights Council is anti-Israel, but Goldstone secured a balanced mandate, and Israel should have cooperated with him….’

Published: 31 January 2010
Briefing Number 250

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Summary:  Many people agree that the UN Human Rights Council (the ‘UNHRC’) is hostile to Israel, and regularly singles out Israel for condemnation.  But Judge Richard Goldstone claims that this is irrelevant to the fairness of his Fact Finding Mission into Gaza.  He says that he refused to take on the mission on the terms of the UNHRC’s original mandate for the investigation, which he agrees was biased.  He claims that instead he secured a balanced mandate from the UNHRC which required him to investigate the actions of all parties, not just Israel.  For this reason, Israel was wrong not to cooperate with his mission.         

This Beyond Images Briefing demonstrates that Richard Goldstone’s claim is not borne out by the facts.  We rely in particular on the conclusions of two senior US Congressmen reached in November 2009.  They rejected his claim to have had a ‘balanced’ mandate, and explained their reasons in an important and closely reasoned letter to fellow Congressmen.   Goldstone’s claim to have had a balanced mandate simply does not stand up to objective scrutiny. And it cannot be used in order to criticise Israel for refusing to cooperate with him.

The UN HRC and Israel

On 15 September 2009, Judge Richard Goldstone released the 575 page report of his Fact Finding Mission on Gaza.  The report had been mandated by the UN Human Rights Council following Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009.  

The Report concluded that Israel had deliberately targeted the Palestinian civilian population during the operation, which is a war crime.  It recommended action by the UN Security Council, and opened up the possibility of future prosecution of Israelis by the International Criminal Court.  The Report also stated that the firing of rockets by “Palestinian rocket squads” into Israel was also a war crime. 

On 16 October 2009 the Report was formally adopted by a plenary vote of the UNHRC.  And on 5 November 2009 the Report was approved by the UN General Assembly by a vote of 114 to 18, with 44 abstentions.

Israel’s claim that the Goldstone mission was inherently biased against Israel

Israel declined to cooperate with the Goldstone Fact Finding Mission, for two reasons.  Firstly it argued that the UN Human Rights Council is inherently biased against Israel, and therefore Israel could not expect to be fairly treated.

Secondly, it argued that Richard Goldstone was given a one-sided and biased mandate for the investigation by the UNHRC.  That mandate revealed a partisan agenda.  Israel’s guilt was being decided before the mission even started its work. 

The attitude of the UNHRC towards Israel

Almost everyone would agree that the UN Human Rights Council is indeed hostile to Israel, and regularly singles Israel out for condemnation.  Since its creation in 2006, the large majority of the resolutions passed by the UNHRC have been condemnations of Israel.  (This is a UN body which is supposedly responsible for monitoring human rights compliance of countries worldwide, from China to Sri Lanka, and Iran to Zimbabwe.  In the words of the Economist (19 September 2009) the UNHRC is “notorious for having congratulated Sri Lanka’s Government on brutal conduct that led to appalling loss of life among Tamil civilians…. How can such a body be taken seriously when it mandates an investigation into the loss of life of Palestinian civilians…..?”

Richard Goldstone’s claim – “I secured a balanced mandate”

But Richard Goldstone claims that this is irrelevant.  He agrees that the original mandate was one-sided. But he says he refused to take on the inquiry on the terms of that mandate.  He says that instead he negotiated a fresh mandate with the chairman of the UNHRC, which would ensure a fair and balanced investigation.  Therefore Israel was wrong not to cooperate with him.

Is Richard Goldstone correct in this claim? 
The original mandate of the UNHRC was indeed one-sided against Israel

The original UNHRC resolution was dated 12 January 2009. It set up the Fact Finding Mission and mandate it to inquire into:

“all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by Israel against the Palestinian people, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, due to the current aggression….”

(wording taken from UNHRC resolution A/HRC/S-9/L.1)  

This Resolution is plainly one-sided.  It focuses only on the conduct of one party.  It describes the Gaza Strip as still occupied, despite Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.  It ignores Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel and the ideology of Hamas which, according to Israel, provoked the war.  And it describes Operation Cast Lead as a war of aggression, whereas Israel claims it acted in lawful self-defence.

Many countries objected to this mandate

Many countries on the 47-nation UNHRC refused to support this mandate, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the UK.

The statements of Mary Robinson declining to lead the Mission

Mary Robinson, who is a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and former President of Ireland, was approached by the UN to lead the Mission.  She declined to do so.  She has since explained this decision:

“I felt strongly that the UNHRC’s resolution did not permit a balanced approach to determining the situation on the ground….”

(from article on The Elders website, 30 September 2009 – www.theelders.org – ‘the Elders’ is a group of internationally renowned statesmen convened by Nelson Mandela to contribute their experience to the cause of world peace)

Some months earlier, Robinson had stated publicly that:

“This Resolution is guided not by human rights but by politics….”  

(from a report in Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps, 4 February 2009)     

Over the years Robinson has strongly criticised many Israeli policies.   But the terms of the UNHRC’s investigation were too one-sided for her.  Other prominent figures, including the former Finnish Prime Minister, also declined.     

Richard Goldstone’s claim – “I secured a balanced mandate…..”

Richard Goldstone was approached.  He accepts that the original mandate was indeed “biased”, and he would have refused the mission on that basis. But he claims that in discussions with the chairman of the UNHRC he succeeded in getting a balanced mandate which in his words (as reported in the Jewish Chronicle, 23 October 2009) required the mission:

“to investigate all violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law that might have been committed before, during or after the war….”

This broadened wording encompasses the actions of Hamas, as well as Israel.  

Senior US Congressmen publicly rejects his claim for a balanced mandate

In early November 2009 the US Congress considered the Goldstone Report. In that context they carefully examined Richard Goldstone’s specific claim about the balanced mandate.  (Indeed, he emailed them making the above points). 

They examined the facts, and rejected his claim.  This rejection is explained in a letter dated 2 November 2009 which was written by Senators Howard Berman and Gary Ackerman to hundreds of fellow Congressmen.  They are both senior, democrat Congressmen. Berman is the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ackerman is the Chairman of the Senate Committee for the Middle East and South Asia. 

This is their description of what happened (quoted verbatim from the letter, with Beyond Images emphasis):-

“the broadened mandate which Justice Goldstone sought was discussed, but not voted on, at a UNHRC plenary session. 

It was then announced via a press release in its altered formulation, more restrictive than the formulation envisioned by Justice Goldstone.  

The UNHRC did not create a new mandate.  The only relevant mandate remained the one which included operational paragraph 14 of the UNHRC Resolution, and which was accepted by the UNHRC on 12 January 2009…..”

The senators accept that Goldstone made “earnest efforts to alter the mandate”, but he “did not fully succeed”.

The actions of the UNHRC also ignored the so-called ‘balanced mandate’

Senators Berman and Ackerman also point out that the UNHRC’s subsequent conduct ignores the existence of any ‘balanced mandate’.

When the UNHRC voted to adopt the Goldstone Report on 16 October 2009, the only mandate referred to in that resolution was the original, one-sided mandate of 12 January 2009.   No mention is made by the UNHRC of the changed mandate which Goldstone supposedly secured.
Indeed, although the Goldstone Report does contain certain criticisms of Hamas (see Beyond Images Briefing 251), the resolution passed by the UNHRC ignores those criticisms altogether.  Even Richard Goldstone expressed shock over this. This was Goldstone’s reaction on first seeing the proposed resolution:

“This draft resolution saddens me, as it includes only allegations against Israel. There is not a single phrase condemning Hamas as we have done in the report.  I hope that the Council can modify the text….”

(first quoted in Swiss daily Le Temps, 15 October 2009, and widely reported)

Conclusion – the Goldstone mission as “irredeemably biased”

The US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described the Mission as “unbalanced and one-sided” (Washington Post, 22 September 2009).  And the US House of Representatives passed a resolution on 3 November 2009 by a majority of 344 to 36 dismissing the Goldstone Report as “irredeemably biased” (111th session, House Resolution 867). 

Richard Goldstone’s claim that he operated under a balanced mandate simply does not stand up to objective scrutiny.  And it cannot be used in order to criticise Israel for declining to cooperate with his mission.

Some related Beyond Images resources

  • Briefing 251 – ‘Goldstone was balanced – he criticised both sides….’

See generally the section on Hamas under All Beyond Images Briefings