Inquiring into international human rights abuses: To what end?

United Nations seal. Photo: Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Geneva/Flickr

2018 marks 70 years since the establishment of the state of Israel and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in what is known as the "nakba," or, disaster. This was also the year that the United States decided to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking demonstrations in the occupied territories. On May 14, 2018, Israeli forces opened fire on Palestinians, killing some 59 individuals and injuring over 2,700 others, including a Canadian medic who was treating protesters. The bloodshed has been described as the most violent in the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict since the war on Gaza in 2014. Two days later, Prime Minister Trudeau called for an independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground -- including any incitement, violence, and the excessive use of force in Gaza.

Past inquiries

The proposed inquiry would not be the first conducted into Israel's human rights abuses. In 2009, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) established a fact-finding mission to "investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed at any time in the context of the military operations that were conducted in Gaza during the period from 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, whether before, during or after." Led by the South African jurist and former prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT), Richard Goldstone, that inquiry resulted in a 500-plus page report outlining various human rights abuses by Israel. The report concluded that Israel's actions were part of a "continuum of policies based on, or resulting in, violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel" and made recommendations that both Israel and Hamas conduct independent investigations into human rights abuses.

A more recent inquiry into human rights abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories concluded that Israel had breached its obligation to  act in the best interest of the Palestinian peoples, as an occupying force, that it had imposed a "suffocating economic and travel blockade" on Gaza, and that its actions had created a "shattered economic space which has resulted in a highly dependent and strangled economy, mounting impoverishment, daily impositions and indignities, and receding hope for a reversal of fortune in the foreseeable future." That report, prepared by UN Special Rapporteur Michael Lynk, recommended that Israel bring an end to its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory as expediently as possible under international supervision.

The scope of international inquiries

International investigations into human rights abuses are frequently carried out by the UNHCR. Comprised of 47 countries, the UNHRC has the power to mandate commissions of inquiry to respond to violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights. The inquiries include interviews with individuals in the region, including victims of abuse and civil society actors, a review of relevant evidence including photographs, videos and medical information, and discussions with NGOs and governmental agencies. Most recently, the UNHRC has commissioned reports on human rights abuses in Yemen and Syria.

Canada (along with the U.S.) opposed a resolution for the UNHRC to lead the inquiry into violence in Gaza, describing the proposed resolution as "one‑sided." In light of this pronouncement, it is unclear who would conduct the investigation proposed by Trudeau, pursuant to what authority, and how, if at all, Israel would be compelled to comply. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced any potential independent investigation, declaring that the Israeli Defence Forces would conduct a fact‑finding mission into the shooting of the Canadian doctor on May 14.

Receding hope?

The recent spate of violence against Palestinians is unacceptable and ought to be condemned by Israelis and by the international community. However, viewed in light of Israel's 50-year-old occupation and its ongoing human rights abuses toward Palestinians, it cannot be regarded as a stand‑alone incident: it is part of a pattern of abuse and impunity which suggests, sadly, that Mr. Lynk's conclusion about receding hope for a reversal of fortune may be accurate.  

While as yet no UNHRC investigation has resulted in prosecution at the international court, the fact-finding mandate of independent inquiries is indispensable; it ensures that evidence and witness accounts are recorded, and that the truth is preserved. It bears mentioning that following publication of the Goldstone Report, Richard Goldstone retracted certain statements following intense criticism by Israelis (including Netanyahu, who reportedly stated that the report should be "thrown into the dustbin of history"), and by the international Jewish community. 

In this climate, the importance of fact-finding missions cannot be overstated. While America's recent decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem suggests that the U.S. is unlikely to take any action against Israel for its poor human rights record, other countries -‑ including the U.K. -‑ have also called for an inquiry into the latest episode of violence. If, as one author has opined, international pressure is the key to ending Israeli apartheid, then a fulsome reporting on facts is the first step. For that reason, Trudeau's call for an independent investigation is well‑received, so long as the results of the inquiry result in action, rather than continued apathy.

Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice.

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Photo: Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Geneva/Flickr

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