Six months ago, the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) asked Virginia Tilley and me to write a study examining the applicability of the international criminal law concept of apartheid to Israel’s policies and practices toward the Palestinian people. We were glad to accept the assignment, and conceived of our role as engaging in an academic undertaking. ESCWA, one of several UN regional commissions, requested the study as a result of an uncontested motion adopted by its 18 Arab member governments.
Almost within hours of its release on March 15, our report was greeted by what can only be described as hysteria. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, denounced it and demanded that the UN repudiate it. The newly elected secretary general, António Guterres, quickly and publicly called for ESCWA to withdraw the report from its website, and when Rima Khalaf, the head of the commission, resisted, Guterres insisted. Rather than comply, Khalaf resigned. Soon thereafter, the report was withdrawn from the commission’s website, despite its having been published with a disclaimer noting that it represents the views of its authors and not necessarily that of ESCWA or the UN.
What is striking about this response, which resembles in many respects the US government response to the Goldstone Report (the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict of 2008-9), is the degree to which Israel’s supporters, in response to criticism, have sought to discredit the messenger rather than address the message.
Tilley, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and I, as well as ESCWA, would welcome substantive discussion of and critical feedback on our report, and we had hoped that our analysis and conclusions would provide the basis for dialogue and further consideration of the recommendations appended at the end. ESCWA, for its part, took steps to ensure that the report lived up to scholarly standards, submitting the draft text to three prominent international jurists, who anonymously submitted strong positive appraisals along with some suggestions for revision, which we gratefully incorporated before the final text was released. For government officials and others to dismiss our report as a biased polemic is irresponsible, with respect both to the authority of the UN and to international law.
During my tenure as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories (2008-14), I saw how defenders of Israel attempt to discredit critics. My reports in that post often contained sharp criticisms of Israel and other actors, ranging from defiance of international law, unlawful expansion of settlements, excessive use of force, and complicity of international corporations and banks that do business for profit with the settlements. To my surprise, I never received substantive pushback regarding my allegations, but I did have the unpleasant experience of having my words on unrelated issues torn out of context. Among my harshest critics were not only the usual ultra-Zionist NGOs, but also Barack Obama’s diplomats at the UN, including Susan Rice and Samantha Power, as well as then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I mention this personal experience only to note that it falls into a longstanding pattern of rebuttal that prefers to smear rather than engage in reasoned debate about important issues of law and justice.