Judge Richard Goldstone, the head of a United Nations commission that this week charged Israel with committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip during its offensive there last winter, believes bringing war criminals to justice stems from the lessons of the Holocaust, according to a lecture he delivered in Israel in 2000.
Goldstone spoke about the subject at Jerusalem’s Yakar: Center for Tradition and Creativity, at a lecture attended by former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak. The Israeli jurist introduced Goldstone as “a dear friend” with “very deep ties to Israel.” Goldstone, in turn, said Barak was his hero and inspiration.
In the lecture, concerning international efforts to bring war criminals to justice, Goldstone said the Holocaust has shaped legal protocol on war, adding that it was “the worst war crime in the world.”
He also said the perception of war crimes against humanity should resonate differently to Jewish ears, in light of how the Holocaust shaped conventions relevant to the subject.
Goldstone added that as a jurist, he viewed the Holocaust as a unique occurrence because of how it affected judicial protocol on war, as well as international and humanitarian judicial approaches.
The laws that had been in place before the Holocaust were not equipped to deal with crimes of the Holocaust’s scale and therefore sought to define a new crime, which they labeled a crime against humanity, he said.
These crimes were so great, he explained, they went beyond their direct victims or the countries in which they were perpetrated, to harm humanity as a whole. This definition, he said, meant that perpetrators were to be prosecuted anywhere, by any country.
This rational, he went on to say, constituted the basis for the concept of universal jurisdiction, which is being applied by some countries where Israel Defense Forces officers are charged for alleged violations during their command in the West Bank and Gaza.
The formative event of the universal jurisdiction concept, Goldstone told listeners, was the trial that Israel gave the high-ranking Nazi officer Adolf Eichman in 1961.
The international tribunals that judged Serbian war criminals for their actions in Bosnia, and the establishment of tribunals to review the actions of perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide — in which South Africa-born Goldstone served as chief prosecutor — also relied on lessons drawn from the Holocaust, he said at the lecture.
He noted that no similar courts were set up to look into the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in the ’70s or Saddam Hussein’s acts against Iraqi Kurds.
The first time such tribunals were set up were for Bosnia, Goldtone said, because this was the first time after the Holocaust that such occurrences happened in “Europe’s backyard.” The war in Bosnia led to the formation of tribunals on crimes against humanity, he said, because European men with “blue eyes and light skin” again carried out actions similar to those observed in the Holocaust.
Israel, he added, was one of the first countries to support the formation of permanent court of law for crimes against humanity — a proposal that came up following the successful performance of the special tribunals on Bosnia.
However, that changed, he said, after Egypt insisted at the Rome conference that the mandate of this permanent court include occupied territories. This prompted Israel to join the six other countries that voted against the formation of the International Court of Justice, including the United States, China and Libya.