The controversial head of the UN Gaza commission tells DW that the inquiry will go ahead even if it can’t travel to Gaza. The Canadian legal scholar also says that his country’s and Israel’s opposition don’t affect him.
William Schabas was appointed to lead the UN Human Rights Council's Commission of Inquiry to investigate possible violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Gaza on August 11. Schabas is professor of international law at Middlesex University in London. He is also professor of international criminal law and human rights at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He blogs here.
DW: With Israeli air strikes on Gaza intensifying in the last days and Israeli officials hinting at a possible ground operation to follow, do you think you will be able to start your mission anytime soon?
William Schabas: The work of the commission involves more than a mission on the ground. The work will involve analyzing documents, statements, reports and so on. We can do this without actually going into the territory. It's not clear at all whether we are going to be able to have access to the ground anyway because we have to get the authorization from those states that control the borders of Gaza, Israel and Egypt. Even if the military situation calms down so you can have a secure visit we still require that permission. One of the options we have is to hold visits and meet with people in the region, perhaps in Cairo or Amman, Jordan where we would be in a position to do that. So if this is what we have to do it wouldn't be the first time a mission or commission of the United Nations of this nature was not able to have access to the territory it was covering.
The goal of your mission is to determine possible human rights violations, identify those responsible and make recommendations how they could be held accountable in Gaza since the start of the military operation. From your assessment so far, do you have reason to believe that human rights violations have been committed and by whom?
No and I couldn't answer such a question. I have to meet with the other commissioners and we'll decide. We have to issue a report in March (2015) to the Human Rights Council. I can't rule out the fact that we might make some interim reports, some interim findings, but right now nothing has been determined, so it would be inappropriate for me to speculate what the answer might be.
Even after an eventual end of fighting, it seems questionable whether you will be able to carry out your mission. Your own foreign minister, Canada's John Baird, strongly criticized your appointment and said it was shame that the inquiry won't do anything to "promote peace and dignity in Gaza for the Palestinian people." Israel's UN ambassador said: "Forming an investigatory committee headed by Schabas is like inviting ISIS to organize religious tolerance week at the UN." With opposition like that from your own country and Israel, do you really think you can successfully carry out your mission?
Absolutely, that doesn't worry me at all. The fact is that the opposition of those two countries, Canada and Israel, was entirely predictable and it would be a surprise if they hadn't reacted in this way. We know that this opposition was public before the commission was set up, but the resolution was nevertheless adopted by the Human Rights Council and the vast majority of what we might call the international community is behind this project. So I don't think that's an issue and in any case we don't need the approval of the Canadian foreign minister to do this. It's a very important job that has to be done and there is great support within the United Nations for doing it. This is not an obstacle, it is just unfortunate there is opposition, but of course there are forces in the world who are terrified of the idea that there will be international accountability forviolations of international law that have taken place there.
Critics charging you with an anti-Israel stance cite, among other things, your statement that you would like to see Israeli Prime Minister Netanjahu on trial before the International Criminal Court to which you have replied that many Israelis also are very critical of their government. That is certainly true, but isn't it a problem for you in this special role - as it would be in any legal case - if there is even the faintest appearance that you as the investigator may not be unbiased that this could taint the inquiry?
I don't want to taint the inquiry and obviously we want everybody to respect the fact that we will do our very best to ensure that the commission of inquiry is independent and impartial. I made it very clear that my views are left behind me when I start this role. I did make explanations in the past, but I prefer not to talk about them because it sort of sucks me into the trap of trying to discuss the context of the Middle East in the background. It's not possible to find people who don't have opinions on this. To make that a qualification that you rule out anybody who has opinions or who has expressed them is not really going to be very helpful and not going to get us to having an appropriate commission.
I was appointed to this commission not because of my past views. I was appointed because the president of the Human Rights Council recognized my experience in the area of international law, international human rights and international humanitarian law. I think that people should be patient and they will see the results. And I think that we will show to people and they will be convinced that we have done that task as we should.
Does your commission set up as you mentioned by the UN Human Rights Council which itself has a controversial record have any legal teeth or will you produce just another report for the shelf?
There have been some important changes since the last report on Gaza, the Goldstone Report, that put this commission in a somewhat different environment. In particular, the International Criminal Court is now sort of sitting in the wings as this work goes on. This was not quite the situation with the Goldstone Report in 2009. There were questions at the time as to whether Palestine could invoke the International Criminal Court. Those questions don't really exist now. The only issue waiting to be determined is whether Palestine makes the declaration. But it has made many indications, I think the Palestinians said they were 95 or 96 percent ready to do it, they just haven't done that yet. But if that does happen then it means that this investigation in many ways is likely to be a preliminary for preparing a file for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. This is not going to sit on the shelf if that's the case.
Even if it does, everyone of these commission of inquiry reports contributes to building what the world expects which is an independent, objective look at the facts that doesn't necessarily subscribe to the views of any one of the parties, but that tries as objectively as possible to bring a legal analysis to bear on it.