They hail from opposite parts of the globe, but they have much in common: Jewish; experts on and passionate defenders of international law; and pummeling bags for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And the future of the law of war lies at the heart of the campaigns against them.
Richard Goldstone, whose international stature was cemented as chief prosecutor in the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, has been excoriated by Israel and its allies ever since his team submitted the report on the Gaza war requested by the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2009. The steady stream of invective (the report is “full of lies,” and he has “used his Jewishness to jeopardize the safety and security of Israel” are just two of the milder attacks) has also targeted his family and taken a toll on the publicly stoic judge.
Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University and UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, has been attacked by Israel for years. But now, in a new twist, he is being hung out to dry by the Palestinian Authority. This, perhaps, the unkindest cut of all.
The PA pummeling is more discreet. It has quietly suggested to Falk himself that he resign. One reported reason is that Falk can’t do his job because Israel will not allow him into the country — though this should, one would have thought, be all the more reason to defend him.
And the PA has asked the Human Rights Council to take Falk’s report off the March 22 agenda and “postpone” it to June, which the Council has done. The PA-appointed representative to the UN in Geneva insists that there are simply more important reports than Falk’s on the agenda — yet at the same time he says the PA has “many” reservations about the Falk report. The real reasons seem to be that the PA did not like the mention of Hamas in Falk’s report and his earlier criticism when the PA tried to “postpone” the Goldstone Report in September under pressure from Israel and the United States. A public outcry among Palestinians reversed that decision.
The attacks on Falk and Goldstone are hard for the two men to bear. And they tear at the very fabric of international law and the mechanisms put in place to uphold it. The Human Rights Council has stepped on a slippery slope by agreeing to postpone Falk’s report. Instead of listening to the PA (and Egypt) the Council should have backed its special rapporteur. If it does the unthinkable and relieves Falk of his duties because the PA does not want him, the system of independent special rapporteurs would be undermined, just as it would if the Council gave in to Israeli or American pressure.
Undermining the Goldstone Report would be an equally harsh blow to the human rights system. Several earlier reports have called for the application of international law to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the International Court of Justice’s seminal opinion on the illegality of Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. But the Goldstone Report has been published at a time when people are ready to listen, which is partly why Israel is fighting it with such ferocity and on so many fronts.
On one of those fronts, Israel is trying to change international law itself, as Israeli human rights advocate Jeff Halper reveals in an important article, “The Second Battle of Gaza.” Halper identifies the Israeli figures leading the campaign “to alter international law in ways that enable them — and by extension other states involved in ‘wars on terror’ — to effectively pursue warfare amongst the people while eliminating both the legitimacy and protections enjoyed by their non-state foes.”
No one is more aware of the dangers to international law than Palestinian human rights advocates. Their organizations have acted as a group to support the implementation of the Goldstone Report and to protect Falk and his role.
Last month, 11 Palestinian human rights groups wrote to the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressing dismay at the PA actions against Falk. His reports have provided “powerful instruments to advocate for Palestinian people’s rights” they said, urging Pillay to ensure that Falk enjoyed the highest level of support from her office. They also called on her to reinforce the independence of the special rapporteurs from UN member states so as to protect the UN’s own credibility.
More recently, 19 Palestinian groups wrote to PA president Mahmoud Abbas criticizing Falk’s treatment and pointing out the repercussions for the Palestinians’ internationally recognized human rights.
If the attacks on the two Richards succeed, the Palestinian cause will suffer and the world will be a poorer and more dangerous place — one in which the might of the strong is legally allowed to prevail against the rights of the weak.
NADIA HIJAB is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.