UN Appoints 'Unbiased' Human Rights Panel to Investigate Israel-Gaza Conflict

JERUSALEM -- On Monday, the UN announced its appointees to a special 3-person Human Rights Council (HRC) panel that will look into allegations of human rights abuses and violations of international law in the Israel-Gaza war. 

Leading the panel will be William Schabas, Canadian international law expert and a well-known critic of Israel. Schabas has publicly called for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be prosecuted for war crimes. UN Watch, an NGO watchdog based in Geneva, published a list of Schabas' anti-Israel statements. 

"Actually, my favorite would be Netanyahu in the dock of the international criminal court," Schabas said at a conference in New York last year. Schabas also equated Israeli President Shimon Peres' actions with genocide in Darfur. "Why are we going after the president of Sudan for Darfur and not the president of Israel for Gaza?" he wrote in an academic journal.

Furthermore, Schabas deflected criticism of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a blog post in 2009, calling him a harmless "provocative politician" and instead blaming Israel for manipulating "the truth about the nature of the work of the United Nations by gross exaggeration of the role and intervention of certain fanatics."

Hillel Neuer, an international lawyer and executive director of UN Watch, called for Schabas to immediately recuse himself from the panel.

"You can't spend several years calling for the prosecution of someone, and then suddenly act as his judge," Neuer said in a statement. "It's absurd - and a violation of the minimal rules of due process applicable to UN fact-finding missions."

Schabas, for his part, maintained that he is not anti-Israel and defended himself in an interview in Toronto on Monday, according to Canada's CBC News.

"The suggestion that I'm anti-Israel is absurd," Schabas said. "Like everybody inside and outside Israel, I disagree with people... I have opinions like everybody else about the situation in Israel. They may not be the same as Hillel Neuer's or Benjamin Netanyahu's, that's all."

The UN also appointed Amal Alamuddin, a British lawyer perhaps best known for her recent engagement to actor George Clooney, to serve on the panel. Alamuddin turned down the offer, saying she is busy with eight other cases, but made sure to clarify which side of the conflict she stands on in a statement issued Monday night.

"I am horrified by the situation in the occupied Gaza Strip, particularly the civilian casualties that have been caused, and strongly believe that there should be an independent investigation and accountability for crimes that have been committed," she wrote.

UN Watch's Neuer also questioned the move to enlist Alamuddin's services on the panel, saying the decision was likely an effort to draw Hollywood firepower to the proceedings.

"She has some experience, but at 36, she will be the youngest ever to serve on any UN inquiry, raising suspicions that the UN is trying to inject some Hollywood publicity into the process," he wrote.

The UN has yet to replace Alamuddin on the panel. 

Rounding out the special committee will be Doudou Diene, a Senegalese human rights expert and former UN special envoy on racism and racial discrimination. In 2007, Diene authored a special report on Islamophobia, a report that the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) called "seriously flawed."

"First, the Special Rapporteur [Diene] fails to distinguish between, on the one hand, Islamophobia, which he defines as 'baseless hostility and fear vis-a-vis Islam,' and on the other, legitimate concerns regarding the rise of Islamic extremism," the IHEU wrote. 

"Secondly, he fails to recognise the important differences that exist between the Islamic and modern European worldviews; differences that need to be addressed if increasing tension is to be avoided," the IHEU found. "Thirdly, the Special Rapporteur fails to distinguish between opposition to Islamic extremism and hostility towards Muslims. Opposition to Islamic extremism is both necessary and legitimate. Hostility towards Muslims is neither. To imply they are the same thing is to obscure an important step in understanding the problem."

Israel's Prime Minister's Office was quick to condemn the UN appointments, calling the panel nothing more than a "kangaroo court." Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor also slammed the appointments, saying Israel would not get a fair evaluation under the committee. "If more evidence was needed to show this, the appointment of the commission's chairman, whose opinions and positions against Israel are known to all, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israel cannot expect justice from such a body, and that the report has already been written and remains only to be signed," Palmor said.

The U.S. State Department joined Israel in condemning the UN appointments, calling them "one-sided" and "biased."

"We've always said that if there are specific incidents that need investigation, that we think they should be," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement to reporters. "We said that with UNRWA schools and we've said that in other cases as well... there's a way to investigate things that's not one-sided and biased, and there's a way that we don't support."


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