The appointments of universally respected human rights experts to lead two separate, independent United Nations investigations into Israeli attacks on Gaza in December and January may have put Israel on a new collision course with the UN just as the United States is moving to resume cooperation with the organization on human rights issues.
In February, Ian Martin, a former head of Amnesty International and most recently the UN’s special envoy in Nepal as it was transitioning with difficulty to an elected Maoist-led government, was chosen by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take charge of an inquiry into “incidents involving death and damage at UN premises in Gaza.” The UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides food, education and medical care to Palestinians in Gaza, reported in January that more than fifty UN buildings were damaged during the Israeli air and ground offensive.
Last week, Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who was chief prosecutor for war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, was selected by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate allegations that Israel violated international laws in its assault on Gaza. The Human Rights Council is a body of nations not controlled by either the UN secretary general or the UN’s high commissioner for human rights. The secretary general, the first high-ranking international official to visit Gaza after the attacks, has not tried to block what is essentially a war crimes investigation.
Israel’s relations with the United Nations have been fraught for more than four decades, as the former Soviet bloc and some major nonaligned nations, including India, promoted the Palestinian cause at Israel’s expense. In 1975 the General Assembly voted to define Zionism as racism; it was not until 1991 that US pressure under President George H.W. Bush managed to reverse the resolution. But Israel was still not able to join any regional group (important for securing places in UN bodies) until Secretary General Kofi Annan later helped persuade the Europeans to let Israelbecome part of their caucus, which also includes the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In recent years, a lobby generated by the Organization of the Islamic Conference has revived the practice of trying to insert attacks on Israel into a variety of documents, most of all on human rights.
The inquiries come at an interesting and perhaps tumultuous moment for Israeli-American relations and the hopes of peace with the Palestinians. A new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears intent on taking a tougher stance. Last week, on his first day in office, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that there was “no validity” to the Annapolis agreement negotiated under the administration of George W. Bush, which sought quick progress toward a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.