Israel can thumb its nose at UN inquiries and openly blame Palestinians for seeking justice through the international courts. Nato can rebuff the UN over Libya. The US can ignore its own torture investigation. The powerful are not accountable.
Palestine approaches the United Nations Security Council asking to set a deadline to end the Israeli occupation. It is rebuffed by the United States.
Palestine approaches the International Criminal Court (ICC), seeking membership in this world body. The United States threatens to cut its funding to the Palestinian Authority while Israel threatens to accelerate its settlement policy.
Just as Palestine attempts to use the very legal means that it is accused of abjuring, it is blamed for being “unhelpful".
The US State Department’s hyperventilated reaction included the suggestion that entry into the ICC “badly damages the atmosphere with the very people with whom [the Palestinians] ultimately need to make peace.” Just as Palestine attempts to use the very legal means that it is accused of abjuring, it is blamed for being “unhelpful".
The infancy of the United Nations was spent in Palestine – in the late 1940s, its major agencies grew up around the expulsion of the Palestinians, the creation of the refugee crisis and the refusal of the new state of Israel to budge on the question of Palestinian rights. Now, the United Nations is once more the terrain on which the question of Palestine rests, if barely.
When the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) decided to investigate the 2009 Israeli assault on Gaza, Tel Aviv refused to allow the panel – led by Justice Richard Goldstone – into the lands its continues to occupy. There was no public denunciation by Israel’s allies for this snub. In fact, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that she had organized a “blocking coalition” to prevent action on Goldstone’s report. She met with the ICC’s Sang-Hyun Song to inform him that the US would see his actions on the report “as a test for the ICC”.
Rice also saw UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and told him that he needed to write a “strong cover letter [for the report] that made it clear that no further action was needed.” Two years later, Rice told the US Congress about her actions regarding the report: “What we want to see is for it to disappear.”
The HRC’s new panel to investigate the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza faces the same challenge as Goldstone. Israel has already refused to cooperate with it.
NATO's clean conscience Israel is not alone in its refusal to submit to UN investigation. NATO conducted a war in Libya in 2011 based on UNSC Resolution 1973. In March 2012, the HRC’s Commission of Inquiry released a report on evidence of civilian casualties as a result of the NATO bombing in Libya (this was also alleged, with clear documentation, by a Human Rights Watch report – Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya, May 2012). There is a whiff of war crimes at the margins of these reports. They do not make any rash claims, but it is hard to ignore the implications of the evidence.
NATO refused to cooperate with the UN Commission. To the UN, NATO’s legal advisor Peter Olson explained that “NATO incidents” – as he called them – are not war crimes. “We would accordingly request,” he wrote on February 15, 2012, “that, in the event that the commission elects to include a discussion of NATO actions in Libya, its report clearly state that NATO did not deliberately target civilians and did not commit war crimes.”
When Human Rights Watch approached NATO, Richard Froh (Deputy Secretary General of Operations, NATO) replied, “We encourage you to consider these comments [to the UN] when drafting your own report.”
There has been no investigation of either the conduct of NATO’s war in Libya or the implications of Resolution 1973, which some might suggest, has destroyed Libya.
The US Senate report on CIA torture comes with a clear-headed introduction from Senator Diane Feinstein. She writes, “It is my personal conclusion [that] CIA detainees were tortured.” The use of the word “torture” is very significant. The US is a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture (1984). It requires no outside investigation to establish the facts of torture. Its own government has done so. Given this, it seems strange that there is little public demand for accountability for the CIA torture.
'Plenty of other cities' Senior UN officials are wary of public comment. It is hard to blame them. The stranglehold by the US on the UN is perilous. Chile has taken over the presidency of the UN Security Council this month. By the rules of procedure, says Olivia Cook, the press officer of the Chilean mission, a formal request to discuss the question of the torture report has to come from elsewhere – such as, perhaps, the Venezuelan Ambassador, who also sits on the Security Council at this time. Would they bring this up for public discussion, and could they refer this file to the ICC? It is not impossible, but it is unlikely.
In early December, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “It’s difficult to imagine – and I’m happy to be proven wrong – but it’s difficult to imagine any other country in the world going to the lengths that this country has to have a public reckoning or a public detained accounting of our shortcomings.” The arrogance of this statement deserves consideration. But more than that is the falsity. On the torture report, there has been little appetite for “a public detailed accounting”, let alone accountability for the crimes.
In Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir he recounts a telling moment about how the US deals with questions of accountability. A War Crimes Law (1993) in Belgium had been used to file cases against US and Israeli officials. In 2003, Rumsfeld took aside Belgian Defense Minister Andre Flahaut, and flayed him on this point. He said that if Belgium did not repeal the law, NATO headquarters in Brussels could move elsewhere – “There were plenty of other cities between Washington and Ankara.” The Belgians wanted US funds to help build a new NATO headquarters. “Within two months of that conversation,” Rumsfeld recalls, “the Belgian government repealed the law.” What Rumsfeld called “lawfare” had been thwarted.
The double standards in the world order remained intact.