Prospect of war crimes trials in Middle East alarms US diplomats


ANALYSIS:Could a search for justice in the Middle East scupper the search for peace? The US faces a dilemma with the Goldstone fact-finding body’s report on Israel’s attack on Gaza, writes CHRIS STEPHEN

POLITICS IS playing as important a part as available evidence this week, as the UN Human Rights Council decides whether to recommend war crimes trials for atrocities in Gaza.

Such investigations are recommended in a long-awaited report by international jurist Richard Goldstone presented yesterday to the council, in which he highlighted numerous violations in Israel’s military campaign, which cost 1,400 lives.

The 47-member council, dominated by African, Asian and Islamic states, has already condemned Israel in a statement last January and is likely to take a hard line this week.

Those nations seem almost certain to send the report to the security council, the UN’s most powerful body, with a recommendation that war crimes trials be considered.

This prospect has alarmed US diplomats, who fear that threatening Israeli and Palestinian leaders with war crimes charges will choke off any chance of a new peace process.

Certainly, the report pulls no punches. It lists numerous violations by Israel during its January offensive, including the targeting, with white phosphorus shells, of Gaza’s Al Quds and Al Wafa hospitals, and a UN compound sheltering 600 refugees.

It lists complaints that Israeli troops used Palestinian civilians, often blindfolded, as “human shields” while searching suspect buildings.

And it says Israeli forces also struck at non-military targets such as water plants and Gaza’s only flour mill, along with a sewage treatment plant, which led to 200,000 cubic metres of raw sewage flooding nearby farmland.

Most bizarre was the destruction of a giant chicken farm which supplied Gaza with 10 per cent of its eggs.

“Armoured bulldozers systematically flattened the chicken coups, killing all 31,000 chickens inside,” it reports. “The destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy by the Israeli armed forces,” says the report.

Justice Goldstone writes that the evidence, collected over several visits to Gaza, indicates that civilian targets were deliberately hit, a violation of the rules of war.

“There were almost no mistakes made according to the government of Israel,” the report says, describing the attacks as “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population”.

The report also condemns attacks from Palestinian territory in the form of unguided missiles that fell on Israeli settlements shortly before Israel launched its campaign. It says that besides the three Israeli civilians and one soldier killed in these attacks, trauma was spread among the entire population as rockets fell among them.

Similar reports led the security council to create its first war crimes court, for former Yugoslavia, in 1993, with Justice Goldstone appointed as its prosecutor. More courts followed for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Sudan.

Goldstone has called for the security council to give Israel and the Palestinian Authority the chance to hold their own investigations, and if not, to order the International Criminal Court in The Hague to do the job itself.

But the White House is horrified about the prospect of such trials. Washington has worked hard to craft a new peace process for the region, hoping that Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo earlier this year will win support from Islamic nations.

Now US officials fear that a war crimes process targeting the very leaders supposed to craft a peace process will mean the end of that process.

This is the Achilles’ heel of war crimes courts – the argument that in some cases the search for justice can actually hinder the search for peace.

It is an argument that Justice Goldstone rejects. He told the council that justice is the cement on which peace is built: “The ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence.”

It seems likely that the council will agree. Its resolution in January condemning Israel’s Gaza offensive shows the mood of the majority, which includes China and Russia. At the time, western nations including Canada and Germany refused to go along with the motion, arguing that it criticised only the Israelis.

But Justice Goldstone hopes to nullify such criticism after stretching his original mandate to investigate not just Israeli actions but those of the Palestinians in launching rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

All of this makes it more likely that the human rights council will send the report to the security council with a recommendation that war crimes investigations be considered.

If that happens, the security council will find itself in an awkward position. If it agrees to a war crimes process, it may see prospects of a Middle East settlement evaporate.

If it says no, it will have to explain why, having created war crimes courts for the Balkans, Africa and Asia, it will not do the same for the Middle East.