(Washington, DC) - President Barack Obama should endorse the comprehensive UN investigation, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, into violations of international law during the recent Gaza conflict, and should urge Israel, when he meets today with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to cooperate with the investigation, Human Rights Watch said.
The Obama administration has so far not made any public comment on the Goldstone investigation, but US officials continue to insist privately that it will be biased against Israel. Human Rights Watch criticized the mission's original mandate, which focused only on Israeli violations, as well as the disproportionate focus on Israeli rights violations in the past by the UN Human Rights Council, which ordered the inquiry. However, the amended mandate and Justice Goldstone's record as a jurist provide strong assurances of the inquiry's objectivity.
"Justice Goldstone's reputation for fairness and integrity is unmatched, and his investigation provides the best opportunity to address alleged violations by both Hamas and Israel," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "What's at stake is not just finding out the truth about what happened in Gaza, but the future of international efforts to hold those who violate international law accountable.
"Justice Goldstone's mandate from the Human Rights Council is "to investigate all violations of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period 27 December 2008 to 18January 2009, whether before, during or after." Goldstone agreed to lead the Human Rights Council investigation only after the mandate was broadened to look into violations by all parties to the Gaza conflict and not only by Israel.
Israel has not officially indicated whether it will cooperate with Justice Goldstone's investigation, but officials quoted in the media have indicated it will not. On May 14, 2009, Ahmed Yousef, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas-controlled government in Gaza, wrote to Goldstone promising "full and transparent cooperation.”
"If Israel refuses to cooperate with the Goldstone investigation, and Washington supports that refusal, it suggests that what they really fear are criticisms that may emerge from a truly impartial look into the way this war was fought," Roth said.
Some US officials have contended that an international inquiry is not needed because Israel is carrying out its own investigations into alleged laws of war violations. On April 22, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) issued conclusions from its investigations, saying that it found no evidence of unlawful behavior by its forces. The investigation failed to look at incidents of apparent unlawful use of white phosphorus that Human Rights Watch had communicated to Israeli officials many weeks before. Human Rights Watch's past research into investigations by the Israeli military and prosecutions regarding the wrongful deaths of Palestinian civilians found that Israeli investigative practices and procedures were not thorough, impartial or timely.
"Israel may well have the capability to carry out an impartial investigation, but it has proven again and again that it does not have the political will to do so," Roth said. "That's what makes it crucial for Obama to throw his weight behind the Goldstone effort.
"A UN board of inquiry, in its report to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month, said its own investigation into attacks on UN installations in Gaza should be supplemented by a more comprehensive international investigation.
Goldstone is the former chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and a member of the board of the Hebrew University as well as of Human Rights Watch. He was formerly a member of the International Panel of the Commission of Enquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina (CEANA), which identified Nazi war criminals who had emigrated to Argentina and researched the transfer of victim assets(Nazi gold) to Argentina. Goldstone was also a member of the Volcker Committee, which was formed to investigate violations under the UN oil-for-food program, and headed the Goldstone Commission, which looked into political violence in South Africa.
Regarding Israeli violations during the conflict, Human Rights Watch's primary concerns are: the ongoing closure of Gaza, amounting to collective punishment; the use of high-explosive heavy artillery as well as of air-burst white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas; the shooting of unarmed civilians holding white flags; the targeting of civilian structures; inadequate warnings to civilians of impending attack; and the indiscriminate destruction of civilian property.
Regarding Hamas, Human Rights Watch's key concerns are: the firing of rockets deliberately and indiscriminately into civilian areas of Israel; the shooting of rockets and the conduct of military operations from within populated areas in Gaza; and the beatings and killings of Palestinian political opponents and critics in Gaza.
Human Rights Watch researchers were able to enter Gaza on several occasions via the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing. From that research, Human Rights Watch so far has issued reports on Israel's unlawful use of white phosphorus munitions and Hamas's killings and torture of Palestinian political opponents and critics during and after the Israeli offensive .Israel continues to refuse Human Rights Watch access to Gaza via the crossings it controls.