Israel, the UN and the Perennial Double-Standard

iccTikkun has published an important interview conducted by Rabbis Michael Lerner and Brian Walt with Justice Richard Goldstone that should be read by anyone concerned with the (now ill-fated) Goldstone report.  Among other things, it contains a fascinating analysis of the perennial double-standard issue:

Rabbi Michael Lerner: OK.  Let me give you one of the frequent criticisms of the Goldstone report that I’ve heard and that I’d like to put to you.  Not that it’s inaccurate but that it’s a reflection of a prejudice because of selective prosecution. The UN gives this attention to the sins of little countries or powerless countries, relatively powerless countries, while never daring to do a comparable report on big guys like the human rights violations of the United States in Iraq, of Russia in Chechnya, China in Tibet. The argument goes that when one picks on historically oppressed groups like Jews for their sins while ignoring the far greater sins of the more powerful, the UN participates in a kind of double standard that in other contexts would be seen transparently as racist or illegitimate.  So that even though you, Judge Goldstone,  were perfectly fine in what you did, the actual investigation itself by virtue of selecting this target by a body that doesn’t target the more powerful is a reflection of prejudice.

Justice Richard Goldstone: Generally I agree with the criticism.  I think the powerful are protected because of their power.  But it’s not prejudice it’s politics. It’s a political world.  There’s no question of not investigating countries because of who they are for religious reasons or cultural reasons, it’s because of their power.  They use their power to protect themselves.  It doesn’t mean that investigations [in countries] where politically they can be held are in any way necessarily flawed or shouldn’t take place.  The same argument was raised by Serbia in particular.  They said, “Why was the international criminal tribunal set up for us? It wasn’t set up for Pol Pot, it wasn’t set up for Saddam Hussein, it was set up for Milosevic.” And my response at the time when it was put to me by the Serb minister of justice, as I remember very well, was if this is the first of the lot, then I agree with you, it’s an act of discrimination, but if it’s the first of others to come then you can’t complain, you have no right to complain because you’re the first.  And if crimes are being committed then at least, to go after those that one can go after politically is better than doing nothing.

ML: For example, there haven’t been any comparable investigations of human rights violations by Syria, by Saudi Arabia, by Egypt — admittedly these are against their own populations.

RG: I think that what distinguishes this from that is that these war crimes are committed in a situation of international armed conflict.  It’s not going to be a civil war situation.

ML: And you don’t think there is something inconsistent or one-sided and prejudicial in investigating this type of crime but not internal crime?

RG: I think it’s a double-standard more than prejudice.

ML: So you would agree that there’s a double-standard.

RG: Absolutely.

ML: And that it should be changed, but that doesn’t invalidate what you do.

RG: This is why.  The best way of changing it is for every nation to join the International Criminal Court.

It’s an extremely compelling argument. Is it a double-standard to only investigate the human rights abuses that are politically possible to investigate? Probably. But it doesn’t mean that investigations such as this are not important and it certainly doesn’t mean they are ipso-facto anti-Semitic.

We in the Jewish community are right to shine a light on this kind of hypocrisy, but I sense this accusation only goes so far. Are we willing to admit that after a certain point, the double-standard argument essentially serves as a way of avoiding certain painful truths about Israel’s conduct?

As Justice Goldstone correctly points out, the best way to ensure that the UN and the ICC fulfill their mandates is for all nations – particularly the most powerful – to agree to be held accountable for their actions.

5 thoughts on “Israel, the UN and the Perennial Double-Standard

  1. Edited from the speech given by Israel’s ambassador to the UN before the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday (Jerusalem Post):

    Five years ago, in a remarkable gesture of peace, Israel removed every one of its soldiers and over 8,000 civilians from the Gaza Strip. And the states of the Human Rights Council (HRC), applauded this unprecedented measure. They told us in no uncertain terms that in the nightmare scenario that terror would take root, they would back us in our inherent right to self-defense.

    Five years later, the greenhouses we left behind had been ransacked by Hamas, over 8,000 rockets and mortars had been fired on schools and kindergartens in Sderot and other Israeli towns, and an unceasing supply of weaponry was smuggled through tunnels into Gaza from terror-sponsoring states like Iran.

    Israel’s urgent appeals to the international community were to no avail, and our attempts to extend a fragile cease-fire were met with new, increased barrages of missiles from Hamas. All the while the range of the attacks was increasing. Now Ashkelon and Beersheba were within reach. One million Israelis had to live within seconds of a bomb shelter.

    The decision to launch a military operation is never easy. It is even more challenging when we have to face an enemy that intentionally deploys its forces in densely populated areas and launches rockets from crowded school yards and mosques. These are new and horrendous challenges, and we sought to deal with them responsibly and humanely. Yet when we dropped millions of leaflets and made thousands of phone calls to warn civilians in advance of operations, we were witness to the callous and deliberate Hamas tactic of sending women and children onto the rooftops of terrorist headquarters and weapons factories. In such cases, missions were aborted, letting the terrorists escape. Israel protected Palestinian civilians that Hamas had put at risk.

    IN GRAPPLING with these dilemmas we sought the guidance of other states. We may not have all the right answers but we struggle to ask the right questions. And in discussions between officials charged with securing the lives of their civilians we hear genuine admiration for our restraint. For example, when Colonel Richard Kemp was asked about Israel’s conduct in Gaza, he replied: “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF in Gaza.”

    In complex urban warfare, though, civilian casualties are tragically inevitable. There also may have been incidents in which soldiers did not always maintain the standards that we expected of them. The true test of a genuine democracy is how it deals with such cases. Following the Gaza Operation, Israel has opened over 100 separate investigations into operational questions, like damage to UN centers and medical facilities, as well as specific allegations of misconduct. Of these investigations, 23 have already resulted in criminal proceedings. And this process continues.

    Israel struggles to deal with these tough questions, raised by terrorists acting within civilian centers.

    But these questions seem to not occupy the authors of the shameful report which was presented to the HRC.

    Like many other states, we could not support a resolution which only addressed one side of the conflict, and which established four separate mechanisms to condemn Israel and not even one to examine Hamas.

    Like many of the distinguished individuals who rejected invitations to head the fact-finding mission with its one-sided mandate, we objected to a mission which, in the words of Mary Robinson, was “guided by politics, not human rights.”

    While Israel has cooperated with dozens of inquiries and investigations from international organizations into the events in Gaza, it refused to cooperate with this Mission. And the report presented Tuesday justifies that decision.

    This is a report in which the right of self-defense is not mentioned, in which the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through hundreds of tunnels deserves not a word.

    A report based on pre-screened Palestinian witnesses, not one of whom was asked about Hamas terrorist activity or the abuse of civilians, hospitals and mosques for terrorist attacks.

    A report which gives credibility to every allegation or hearsay against Israel, and none to even direct admissions of guilt by Hamas leaders

    AS JUSTICE Goldstone revealed in an open correspondence: “We did not deal with the problems of conducting military operations in civilian areas. We avoided having to do so in the incidents we decided to investigate.”

    The authors of this “Fact-finding Mission” had little concern with finding facts. The report was instigated as part of a political campaign, and it represents a political assault directed against Israel and against every state forced to confront terrorist threats. Its recommendations are fully in line with its one-sided agenda.

    Unlike the Hamas terrorists who rejoice with every civilian death, Israel regards every civilian casualty as a tragedy and is committed to fully examining every allegation of wrongdoing, not because of this report, but despite it.

    For let there be no doubt – this report will do nothing to ease the lives of those in Sderot and Gaza City, Kiryat Shmona and Jenin. In providing support and vindication for terrorist tactics, it is a betrayal of Israelis and moderate Palestinians alike.

    Regrettably the report, claiming to represent international law but in fact perverting it to serve a political agenda, can only weaken its standing in future conflicts. It broadcasts a troubling – and legally unfounded – message to states everywhere confronting terrorist threats, that international law has no effective response to offer them, and so serves to undermine willingness to comply with its provisions. At the same time, it signals an even more troubling message to terrorist groups that the cynical tactics of seeking to exploit civilian suffering for political ends actually pays dividends.
    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we want to find a way to live in peace with our neighbors. This is the ultimate question that Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the General Assembly last week: “The same UN that cheered Israel as it left Gaza and promised to back our right of self-defense now accuses us … of war crimes? And for what? For acting responsibly in self-defense? […] Israel justly defended itself against terror. This biased and unjust report is a clear-cut test for all governments. Will you stand with Israel or will you stand with the terrorists? Because if Israel is again asked to take more risks for peace, we must know today that you will stand with us tomorrow. Only if we have the confidence that we can defend ourselves can we take further risks for peace.”

  2. The Golstone report has stirred up much criticism in the Jewish community. I would like to suggest that those interested in a variety of nuanced views regarding the report read the following articles: David Landau’s criticism in Haaretz on September 20, 2009, the complete interview in Tikkun cited by by the rabbi’s blog between Michael Lerner, Goldstone, and Brian Walt ( which gives more insight into Goldstone’s thinking than the blurbs on the blog), and finally, Boris, what is the exact date and title of the report you cite in the Jerusalem Post by the Israeli Ambassador to the UN? You say it was Tuesday, but since today is Monday, I’m wondering how to find the article. I would very much like to read it.

  3. It’s pretty ironic for Goldstone to invoke the ICC, given that the ICC has, for example in the security barrier case, chosen to hear cases involving Israel for which it has no jurisdiction. So it’s not exactly like the ICC also isn’t rife with anti-Israel corruption and double-standards.

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