Powerful nations keep the Goldstone report in limbo

Despite criticism, the study of war crimes during Israel's invasion of Gaza has support and could affect how war is waged in the future.

Judge Richard Goldstone, from South Africa, Head of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, speaks during a press conference about the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission on Gaza conflict at the United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, July 7, 2009. The hearings in Geneva follow a first set of hearings in the Gaza Strip late last month that were dominated by  testimony of Palestinians caught under Israeli shelling during the 22-day offensive. (AP Photo/Keystone/Martial Trezzini)
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NEW YORK // When unveiling his study of war crimes committed during Israel's invasion of Gaza in September, the judge Richard Goldstone said his long-awaited report signalled an end to impunity for those behind the atrocities. Now, on the first anniversary of Israel's 22-day offensive, the likelihood of justice catching up with the orchestrators of Operation Cast Lead or the Hamas rocket attacks that precipitated it appears as distant as ever.

Mr Goldstone's study won support from human rights advocates and the governments of Arabic and many other developing countries, but it has been largely rejected by the powerful nations that hold the reins to mechanisms of international justice. The South African's condemnation of Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns came as no surprise, but accusing Israel of meting out a barbarous form of collective punishment that left almost 1,400 Palestinians dead has proven highly controversial.

Critics in the United States and Israel describe the report as "deeply flawed", "one-sided" and "irredeemably biased", with the US perspective neatly articulated when a Democrat senator, Ted Kaufman of Delaware, said it would be "dead on arrival" were it to reach the UN Security Council. Most experts agree that Mr Goldstone's original proposal - that the Security Council refer the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the absence of no credible investigations by Hamas and Israel - is unlikely to be realised.

The US Congress voted overwhelmingly to reject the document (344-36) last month, indicating that the United States would use its veto should the report make it to the Security Council, the only international organ empowered to refer cases to the international war crimes tribunal. Other key members of the 15-member body have their own reservations. "None of us harbours any illusions the Security Council is a vehicle for this," said Fred Abrahams, a researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

"The great powers want free rein to engage in military operations and reject the possibility that their soldiers, commanders or political leaders could be held accountable for their actions." But to supporters of Mr Goldstone's findings across the Arab and developing world, the report is "neither alive and well, nor dead in the water", according to Mr Abrahams. It has passed through the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and, last month, the UN General Assembly voted 114-18 to adopt a resolution endorsing the report's recommendation that both Israel and Hamas should be brought before the ICC unless they launch credible war crimes probes by February.

After that time, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, will be obliged to send the report to the Security Council for debate and a vote. Although few diplomats expect serious council action, Hillel Neuer, the director of the pro-Israel advocacy body UN Watch, predicts an "infrastructure of Israel-bashers" will keep the document bouncing around the world body for many months to come. While acknowledging those responsible for atrocities in the Gaza Strip will probably go unpunished, Mr Abrahams described the report as a game-changer that presents a mechanism of justice to scare even the most hard-headed military chief in the future.

"I think the splash that this report created will exist forever and it is no longer business as usual," he said. "The generals who sit in the war rooms in Israel and Gaza and hopefully other places will have this report in the back of their minds when they are planning their next military offensive." jreinl@thenational.ae