UN Human Rights Council Reaffirms the Safeguards for Civilians in Times of War
“Accountability for breaches of international humanitarian law and for human rights violations, as well as respect for human rights, are not obstacles to peace, but rather the preconditions on which trust and, ultimately, a durable peace can be built.”
– Navanethem Pillay, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2009.
On July 3, 2015, the concluding day of its summer session, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council welcomed the report of the “Gaza Conflict Commission of Inquiry” which indicated that the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups may have committed war crimes during the Israeli “Operation Protective Edge” campaign. 47 member States of the Human Rights Council voted in favor of the resolution, 5 States abstained: Kenya, Ethiopia, Macedonia, India and Paraguay; the USA was the only Member State to vote against the resolution.
The Gaza Conflict Commission of Inquiry was led by the New York Judge Mary McGowan Davis with Doudou Diène of Senegal, the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism (2002-2008), as the other ranking member. The Commission was to study the legal implications of an earlier UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. The Commission was not established to evaluate the results of the Fact-Finding Mission which had largely confirmed the death tolls provided by the Gaza Hamas administration, some 2,250 Palestinians killed of which 1,462 civilians. Rather the Commission had the task of setting out the world law applications of the facts collected earlier.
Thus the focus of the Commission was the “Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War” of August 12, 1949. The Geneva Conventions, for which the International Committee of the Red Cross is responsible, grew out of deliberations started in 1947 in the shadow of the abuses of the Second World War. By 1949, the negotiations among governments led to the 1949 Red Cross Conventions. The emphasis was on the principles of protection and not on the punishment of wrong doers. The International Committee of the Red Cross is not an international court. It bases its protection efforts on the belief that all sides in a conflict have an interest to follow the laws of war as its soldiers or civilians could meet the same fate. If there is to be any action on trials and punishment, such trials should be done in national courts.
From 1974 to 1977, as a result of the war in Vietnam, there were subsequent laws of war negotiated to cover “civil wars” − wars within a State where the parties involved may not be States. (1)
Today, however, there is the International Criminal Court which can investigate as well as having the mandate to hold court trials and pass judgment. Investigations and trials can also be carried out at the national level. The Israeli argument has always been that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) can and does carry out investigations and that there is a functioning national court system. The Hamas-led administration of Gaza makes the same argument.
Unfortunately, both Israel and Hamas have dismal records of investigating their own forces. I am unaware of any case where a Hamas fighter was punished for deliberately shooting a rocket into a civilian area of Israel − on the contrary, some Hamas leaders repeatedly praise such acts. While Israel has carried out investigations into alleged violations by its forces, the emphasis has been on the unauthorized actions of individual soldiers, not on policy makers. Yet the Gaza Conflict Commission stressed that “military tactics are reflective of a broader policy approved at least tacitly by decision-makers at the highest levels of the Israeli government.”
A demonstrator raises the Palestinian flag during a July 2014 rally in Paris against the Israeli attack on Gaza. (C) AWC/Bernard J. Henry
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) active in UN human rights bodies, including the Association of World Citizens, have long stressed the importance of fact-finding carried out by the UN, intergovernmental bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and NGOs themselves. (2)
There are now two follow-up steps set out by the Human Rights Council resolution:
1) A request is made that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (and thus the Secretariat) prepare a report on implementation measures;
2) A recommendation that the UN General Assembly take up the matter “until it is satisfied that appropriate action is taken to implement its recommendations.”
The Israeli government has replied angrily to the resolution, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN in Geneva calling it an “anti-Israeli manifesto” and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying “the UN Human Rights Council cares little about the facts and less still about human rights.”
Rather, I would say that the resolution is an important procedural advancement in the respect of world law in times of conflict. In the past, there have been UN-authorized fact-finding missions with the reports going directly to discussion in the UN Commission on Human Rights (as it was then) and then to the UN General Assembly. With the Gaza Conflict Commission of Inquiry we have a useful intermediary step. First there is a fact-finding effort as close in time to the events as possible to interview victims, to see the physical damage and to interview the military and other combatants. Such fact-finding is done, as it were “in the heat of the action”.
In late July 2014 Gazan doctors saved the life of little Shaima, an unborn child, by extracting her from the womb of her mother who was killed in an Israeli airstrike. Two days later, the Israeli Air Force destroyed the sole existing power plant in Gaza, thus stopping Shaima’s life support system and eventually killing the baby too.
Then there is a calm, legal review of the fact-finding reports. In the past when I have been present at debates on fact-finding reports in the Commission on Human Rights, the debates were anything except calm and legal. They were political exchanges which reflected the evaluations of the original conflict. In this case of the Gaza Commission, we have an orderly presentation of facts, avenues to strengthen protection, and suggestions on the role of the International Criminal Court. There is no guarantee that the discussions in the next UN General Assembly will be calm and focused on legal procedures, but at least there will have been this useful intermediary step.
As things now stand, world law is not created by the decisions of a world parliament. World law is basically the “common law of mankind”’ based on small advances. Usually the first step is to set out the basic values in widely agreed-upon texts such as the Red Cross Geneva Conventions. This is followed by a recognition that there are repeated violations of these values in the practice of war, the torture of individuals, massive aggression against minorities. After repeated violations, there is the very slow realization that such violations are not acceptable and if nothing is done, the values themselves will be permanently undermined.
We are now at this last stage as concerns Gaza. The repeated bombings of the Gaza Strip do not bring peace, security or socioeconomic development. In fact, each bombing campaign creates a more difficult situation. It is not a function of world law to say what socioeconomic-political measures should be taken, though as NGO representatives we can and have made suggestions. The function of world law is to set out clearly the value basis of the law, to set out fair procedures to deal with possible violations and ultimately to see if there can be sanctions or punishment for wrong doers.
I believe that we still have many miles to go on the path for the respect of world law, but I believe that the direction is now set.
Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.
1) See Hilaire McCoubrey and Nigel White, International Law and Armed Conflict (1992)
2) See B. G. Ramcharan (ed), International Law and Fact-Finding in the Field of Human Rights (1983)
For NGO Fact-finding, see Hans Tholen and B. Verstappen, Fact-Finding Practice of Non-Governmental Organizations(1986).