Ask Richard Goldstone what possessed him, a Jew and self-described supporter of Israel, to accept the job of chief United Nations investigator of alleged war crimes committed in Gaza last winter, and the legendary South African judge invokes his past.
His decision in 1980 to accept the racist South African government’s offer of a judicial appointment was “the most difficult of my career,” he has said. The government back then occasionally appointed liberals as judges in order to, as he described it, “make good its boast of having an independent judiciary.” The danger of lending legitimacy to an immoral system by serving it was very real.
But ultimately, the hope of liberals that the legal system could be expanded from within to effect social change was vindicated for him when one of his rulings effectively ended South Africa’s policy of racially-segregated neighborhoods.
On September 15, Goldstone submitted his team’s report on human rights violations in the Gaza conflict to the U.N. Human Rights Council. It is a 574-page review — based on 188 individual interviews; 10,000 pages of documents; 1,200 photos, including satellite imagery, and 30 videos — that blisters with specificity.
The report states that both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian group controlling Gaza, committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. It cites the many rockets launched by Hamas against Israeli civilians in the months preceding and during the conflict as war crimes; likewise, an instance of Israeli soldiers shelling a home in which they had forced Palestinian civilians to assemble and seven incidents in which it says Israeli soldiers shot civilians “while they were trying to leave their homes to walk to a safer place, waving white flags, in some of the cases, following an injunction from the Israeli forces to do so.”
The report also found that despite its claims to have thoroughly investigated human rights allegations made against its military’s conduct, “the Government of Israel had not carried out any credible investigations into alleged violations.” Nor, it found, had Hamas.
Goldstone’s mission recommended that the Security Council require both parties to conduct such investigations and report back within six months on the results, and on any prosecutions they will carry out on the violations identified in its report. If either party fails to do so, Goldstone urged the Security Council to refer the matter to the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Condemnation of the report came quickly from Israel and its supporters. They especially lambasted Goldstone’s effort to scrutinize both parties equally as, in the words of the Anti-Defamation League, “a dangerous and totally unwarranted equivalence between the Israel Defense Forces and the terrorists of Hamas.”
But the less predictable response will come from the U.N. Human Rights Council. Its repeated condemnations of Israel — 15 times in less than two years, while condemning no other country — have led to accusations that the body is inherently anti-Israel. The question that has yet to be answered is whether the council will now take up Goldstone’s report in its entirety, or, as per its original resolution ordering the investigation, only address the alleged crimes committed by Israel.
The answer to that question will also determine whether Goldstone achieves his stated objective of expanding the U.N.’s purview of human rights, as he did South Africa’s, or whether, as his critics predict, he will be shown up as a naive idealist, one who enabled an implacably Israel-obsessed body to use the findings of a distinguished pro-Israel Jewish jurist to justify its actions.
Interviewed just four days before the report’s release, Goldstone was determinedly upbeat about the report’s prospects and unapologetic about his decision to take up the job.
“I was driven particularly because I thought the outcome might, in a small way, assist the peace process,” he told the Forward. “I really thought I was one person who could achieve an even-handed mission.”
Goldstone is widely credited with having helped bring down the curtain on apartheid through a government-commissioned investigation he led that exposed the existence of covert state-sponsored terror units deployed by South Africa against its own black citizenry.
“He was brave. He could’ve been killed,” said Benjamin Pogrund, a former South African journalist and the founder of Yakar Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem.
Nelson Mandela, the country’s first post-apartheid president, later appointed Goldstone to the country’s highest court. More recently, Goldstone has served as the chief U.N. prosecutor of human rights and war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Goldstone is proud of his Jewish identity and links it firmly to his human rights concerns. A president emeritus of World ORT, an international Jewish vocational training organization that maintains some of its biggest projects in Israel, he also serves on the Hebrew University of Jersulem’s board of governors.
Characterizing the struggle for human rights as “a secular religion of our time,” Goldstone once described the existence of the State of Israel as its Jewish embodiment. “This struggle for human rights has been in the most profound existential sense very much the struggle for ourselves — for our own Jewish destiny. For the creation of the State of Israel,” he said.
“I’ve been involved with Israel since I can remember,” Goldstone told the Forward. “My mother was very active in the women’s Zionist movement.” His daughter, Nicole, lived in Israel.
On human rights, Goldstone told the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists in 1995, “We must not only insist that we be judged by those standards by our neighbors and by the international community. We should indeed object vehemently when any seeks to judge us by any other standards,” he said.
But Goldstone denied that his religious identity was relevant to his appointment. “I’ve no doubt the fact I’m a Jew wasn’t the reason I was approached. Navi Pillay, a fellow South African judge and United Nations high commissioner for human rights, directly approached me because of my involvement in international criminal justice,” he said.
In its original January 12 resolution, the human rights council called for an investigation of Israel’s alleged human rights violations — and only Israel’s. Citing “the grave violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly due to the recent Israeli military attacks,” the council’s resolution charged its president to appoint a mission to investigate “all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by the occupying power, Israel, against the Palestinian people.”
Given this one-sided condemnation, many were mystified when Goldstone accepted the offer to head up the probe. According to press reports, former U.N. high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson described the council as “guided not by human rights, but by politics” when she herself declined the job, specifically citing the resolution’s exclusive focus on Israel.
“Richard was uncertain, but people encouraged him to accept, saying because he’s a Jew with a legal background, he’d give a fair assessment,” an old family friend said. “He’s never been a shul-goer, but his Jewishness has never been a question.”
But according to Goldstone, when the council president, Martin Uhomoibhi of Nigeria, appointed him, he accepted only on the condition that Uhomoibhi expand the mandate to look at the actions of both sides of the conflict. Uhomoibhi agreed to this, he said.
Indeed, when Uhomoibhi released his official invitation for individuals with information about alleged violations to submit evidence, he noted that “pursuant” to the council’s resolution, he had established the Goldstone task force “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 from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after.”
It was this change in the charge — and the inclusion in its timeframe of the months preceding Israel’s military campaign when Hamas was launching rockets into Israel — that allowed Goldstone to frame his mission as one to examine abuses “on both sides” of the conflict.
Not everyone agrees this really changes anything. Irwin Cotler, an international law expert and former Canadian Justice Minister who is sympathetic to Israel’s legal position, said, “As a Supreme Court judge, he knows that the mandate still stands unless it is either altered or in some way repealed and replaced by a new resolution of the council,” Cotler said.
“I believe Goldstone himself wishes to engage in a fair-minded mission. But this mission has been tainted from the beginning,” he said. “I don’t know why he has accepted such a flawed mandate, unless he believes he can alter the whole process single-handedly and redeem it.”
Israel, citing the one-sided council resolution, refused to cooperate with Goldstone’s probe; the council ultimately paid the expenses for Israeli witnesses to travel to Geneva to give testimony. Upon its release, Israel condemned the report for, among other things ignoring “the deliberate strategy of Hamas of operating within and behind the civilian population and turning densely populated areas into an arena of battle.” It dismissed the recommendations against Hamas as “token.”
The Israeli response did not address any of the report’s factual findings.
“The big question is what the U.N. does with the report,” said Selma Browde, an anti-apartheid and Middle East Peace activist. Her husband, Jules Browde, an eminent human rights lawyer and former counsel for Mandela who has long known Goldstone, said, “It would be tragic if the council misused it in a less than even-handed way.” They spoke shortly before the report’s release.
Goldstone, his work now done, sounded resigned. “What they do with the report is out of our hands,” he said. “I am not prepared to speculate on the consequences of an unevenhanded response.”
Contact Claudia Braude at email@example.com
This story "Goldstone’s Gambit: The Man Behind U.N. Report" was written by Claudia Braude.