Canadian professor of international law, William Schabas, has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since he was appointed to chair a commission of inquiry under the UN Human Rights Council “to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird called the commission a sham and said Schabas, a Canadian, is biased against Israel. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the country should not cooperate with the “hypocritical” UN body and UN Watch argued Schabas should recuse himself after publicly calling for the prosecution of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Schabas spoke to The CJN from his home in London, England.
Prof. Schabas, can you tell me why you took this job on the commission of inquiry?
I was asked to do it by the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). I’m a big supporter of the United Nations and I feel the duty to do such a thing when one is asked unless there’s a very strong reason not to.
The UNHRC includes among its members many human rights abusers, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, Congo. Why should anyone take seriously its findings on human rights cases?
Well, the issues I’m interested in are not findings of the Human Rights Council (HRC). The HRC has decided to set up a commission, so that’s what concerns me.
I don’t really need to get into defending the UN’s policy and the Human Rights Council.
The resolution that created the inquiry “condemns in the strongest terms the widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from Israel’s military operations…which may amount to war crimes.” Doesn’t the resolution that created your committee prejudge Israel’s guilt?
I’ve been asked to chair a commission, an independent commission, and we have a mandate from the resolution. The rest of the resolution doesn’t concern me. I’m not acting on the basis of the rest of the resolution. I’m just acting on the basis of the mandate, which I think is paragraph 13 of the resolution.
How is that different than what I just read to you?
The mandate does not condemn anybody. The mandate just asks the commission to inquire into violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, committed on the territory of the Palestinian occupied territory, and Gaza in particular, in relation to the Israeli military operation, which began in the middle of June 2014. So it doesn’t target anyone or identify anybody. It just defines the territory and says look at the violations that took place there, in relation to that situation.
But wouldn’t you agree that somebody looking at this would say this is obviously not an unbiased approach? Look at the resolution in its totality. It’s definitely aimed at Israel and presupposes its guilt.
Well, as I said, I’m not acting on the basis of the resolution, I’m only acting on the basis of the mandate in paragraph 13 of the resolution. People may see it that way. I know there are people who are not really well disposed to the United Nations or the HRC. So they’re going to view it negatively.
But I think if one looks at it in a proper and objective way, you will see that the mandate in [paragraph] 13 is a broad one and one that’s not directed at anybody in particular.
Do you believe Hamas fires its rockets and missiles with the aim of maximizing civilian casualties, and should that not be part of what you look at when you hold the Commission of Inquiry?
As I’ve said, it’s absolutely incompatible with the independence and impartiality of someone who’s been asked to look at this to answer those questions or make statements. I will, I’m sure, and my colleagues in the commission will venture an opinion on that subject, and we’ll do it in the report, but not until we’ve done our job.
You’re asking a question about what we’re required to do, what we’re entitled to do under the mandate, which is in paragraph 13 of the resolution. And I’ve said, paragraph 13 is not directed at any particular combatant party and I think if one reads it in a reasonable way, one could easily conclude that it deals with all the combatant parties. And if that’s your conclusion, then your answer is yes, you would look at that.
You’ll have to wait for the report to see that.
During the recent conflict, rockets were found in UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) schools on at least three occasions that I know of, and they were turned over to Hamas. Doesn’t that indicate that any organization supported by the UN to look into this is not impartial and cannot come out with an impartial verdict?
I don’t really understand your question. You’re telling me something, which is something quite possibly that the commission would investigate, but why would that affect the impartiality of the commission?
I don’t really understand the question here.
Well, they were taking sides. How can the body that runs UNRWA come to an impartial verdict here?
The Commission of Inquiry set up by the HRC is not UNRWA. UNRWA is different. There’s no connection between the commission of inquiry set up by the HRC and UNRWA. I don’t see the relationship, unless you think that everything to do with the United Nations is somehow fatally tarnished. I don’t believe you’d be saying that. Do you believe that the UN Security Council is also terribly biased in the situation?
When will you start your inquiry and when do you think you’ll issue the report?
The resolution asks us to submit the report in March of 2015 and we’re still waiting for the final composition of the commission to be established and once we do, we’ll begin in earnest and we’ll present a report in March of 2015.
I really do want those who read this interview to understand that I’m not, as has been charged against me in some of the Israeli media, ducking the questions. But there have been serious questions, as you know, raised about my impartiality. It’s one thing to have made statements before the commission was created, but once the commission is created, I don’t answer those questions. And to expect me to answer them is to put me into a trap where I would be demonstrating a lack of impartiality. So I can’t do that.
Let’s talk about the perceived bias on your part. I’ve read several commentators who call you an avowed foe of Israel based on your previous comments. Are you a foe of Israel or is that wrong?
Explain to me what a foe of Israel means. Does a foe of Israel mean you have made statements critical of the current government of Israel? Do you have to be supporter of the current government of Israel to be a friend of Israel, or can you take another view about what the government of Israel should do.
Explain to me what it means to be a foe of Israel, because I have nothing against Israel. I’ve visited it frequently. I love the people there, I love the country. I don’t have any opposition to Israel.
You’ve called for the prosecution of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres. You’ve said they should be brought before the International Criminal Court. Mr. Netanyahu is still the prime minister. Doesn’t that suggest you are biased against Israel and that you should recuse yourself from the inquiry?
No. I’ve done this many times before and I don’t really need to elaborate upon it. People can read my answers elsewhere on the Internet if they want to read them.
Do you expect Israel to co-operate with the inquiry?
I don’t know. I think it’s in Israel’s interests to co-operate. Let me remind your readers that Israel didn’t co-operate in the past, for instance in inquiries done by the Goldstone commission and, as you know, Judge [Richard] Goldstone said a year or two later that after learning things he’d obtained from the government of Israel, he said, “If I’d known what I know now, my report would have been different.”
It seems to me Judge Goldstone was ultimately saying that if Israel had come to the commission and given them evidence and material that they withheld…then the report would have been different.
So that suggests that it was a mistake by Israel in 2009 not to co-operate with the Goldstone Commission, and I would say it would be a mistake this time. It’s in Israel’s interests to explain itself and get its version out and to cooperate with the commission.