In my last article, I considered how UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon might handle the inquiry into Israeli attacks on UN facilities in the occupied Gaza Strip last winter. I hoped for the best but feared the worst given press reports that Ban had been told by the United States not to publish the report in full lest that harm the “peace process.”
Unfortunately, the worst fears were fully justified as Ban published and sent to the Security Council only a 27-page summary of the 184-page document submitted to him by a board of inquiry led by a former head of Amnesty International.
Moreover, Ban rejected a key recommendation that there be a full independent investigation into numerous killings and injuries caused to UN personnel and Palestinian civilians during the Israeli assault.
The board issued the recommendation because its own mandate was specifically limited to examining just nine incidents (Israel launched thousands of land, sea and air attacks on the Gaza Strip over 22 days). The board noted that “it was not within its scope or capacity to reach conclusions on all aspects of these incidents relevant to assessment of the responsibility of the parties in accordance with the rules and principles of international humanitarian law.”
These limitations meant that the board was “unable to investigate fully all circumstances related to the deaths and injuries” during several incidents including an attack in the immediate vicinity of school run by UNRWA — the UN agency for Palestine refugees — in Jabaliya in which dozens of people were killed, and another incident on 27 December which killed nine students from UNRWA’s Gaza Training Center immediately across the road from the main UN compound in Gaza City. Other incidents mentioned included ones in which white phosphorus shells fell on UN schools and facilities and densely populated urban areas.
Now here is the crucial part, included in recommendation 11 in the published summary: “where civilians have been killed and there are allegations of violations of international humanitarian law, there should be thorough investigations, full investigations, and, where required, accountability.” Such investigations, the summary states, should be carried out by an “impartial inquiry mandated, and adequately resourced, to investigate allegations of violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza and southern Israel by the [Israeli army] and by Hamas and other Palestinian militants.”
The board of inquiry corroborated the already existing masses of evidence collected by local and international human rights organizations, eyewitness accounts from UN and other humanitarian personnel, and the legal examination by the distinguished (but vilified by Israel and the US) UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk.
And yet none of this death and destruction, not the use of white phosphorus in flagrant violation of international law, not even against the UN (if that is all the secretary-general cares about) merited any further examination.
In his 4 May letter to the Security Council accompanying the summary, Ban wrote, “I do not plan any further inquiry,” adding perhaps as an excuse that “the government of Israel has agreed to meet with United Nations Secretariat officials to address the Board’s recommendations, in as far as they related to Israel.”
Israel, however, made its position very clear in a foreign ministry statement: “Israel rejects the criticism in the committee’s summary report, and determines that in both spirit and language, the report is tendentious, patently biased and ignores the facts.” Israel accused the board of inquiry of preferring the claims of Hamas, “a murderous terror organization and by doing so has misled the world.” Would Israeli representatives say anything different when they meet the secretary-general’s staff?
Ban could even have called Israel’s bluff and said that since Israel did not view the current report as sufficiently thorough, he would indeed order a full, impartial inquiry as recommended.
But the reality is that Ban has learned all the “right” lessons from the past. In 1996, then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published — against American “advice” — a UN report that demolished Israeli claims that its shelling on 18 April that year of the UN peacekeeping base in Qana, Lebanon, killing 106 people, was an accident. Boutros-Ghali effectively paid with his job as the Clinton Administration vetoed his bid for a second term. In 2002, after the Israeli army destroyed much of Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, the Security Council ordered then Secretary-General Kofi Annan to carry out an investigation. But Israel refused to allow the inquiry team into the country, and so Annan, rather than going back to the Security Council to ask for its support in carrying out his mandate, simply told the investigation team to disband and go home.
Ban is taking things even further. He apparently created the board of inquiry not in order to find out the truth, but only as a political exercise to cover himself from the charge of total inaction. But the board of inquiry members did take their mandate very seriously and honestly. By rejecting their call for accountability, Ban has in effect rejected and betrayed his own mandate to uphold the UN Charter and international humanitarian law.
And on what grounds did the secretary-general decide to publish only 27 pages? Most likely the rest of the report was not only damning to Israel, but would have exposed his decision to block further investigation as even more nakedly cynical.
It is especially puzzling since Ban himself had described the board of inquiry as “independent.” In response to allegations he had “watered down” the document, he stated: “I do not have any authority to edit or change any wording” of its “conclusion and recommendations.”
He did much more than that: he withheld 85 percent of the report! It may be true that the report is just an “internal document and is not for public release” as Ban wrote in his letter, and that the inquiry “is not a judicial body or court of law.”
But the Security Council — the UN’s most authoritative body — is not the public, and it ought at least to be able to see it even if the public cannot. Of course it is very likely that by some means or another some members of the council do have the full report, and it is likely that Israel has it as well, otherwise how did the pressures on the secretary-general not to publish it originate in the first place?
The UN Charter places on the secretary-general the responsibility to inform the Security Council of grave breaches of the charter so that it can act. Ban is actually hiding evidence of grave breaches in order to spare the Security Council the embarrassment of having to act against Israel which remains as ever the special case enjoying full impunity.
In the absence of any credible explanation for stopping even the 15 members of the Security Council from officially seeing the full report the presumption must be that Ban is engaging in a cover-up to protect Israel and therefore his own job. Equally puzzling is the acquiescence of the Security Council to this scandal. It is known that Ban’s action has been prompted, or fully approved by three permanent members. Why did the 12 others keep quiet?
In Gaza, there are numerous, credible and mounting allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including testimonies published in the Israeli media from Israeli soldiers themselves. The ongoing blockade preventing the movement of basic supplies and people in and out of an occupied territory is a prima facie breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Unlike other alleged war crimes in other parts of the world, the evidence is all there requiring little effort to find, including numerous statements from Israeli leaders showing that they had the motivation and intent to harm civilians as an act of punishment or revenge.
Yet once again, when it comes to Israel, UN officials actively collude in protecting the perpetrators. How could an investigation of an aggression which involved severe war crimes, deliberate attacks on civilians, destruction of civilian infrastructure, usage of banned weapons, attacks on UN installations, siege and deprivation be quietly shelved upon the discretion of the secretary-general alone?
The answer may be simple, but alarmingly revealing; the office of the secretary -general carries with it so much prestige, privilege and material reward, it seems not many can resist the temptation of holding on to the job at any price even if that price is paid in innocent people’s blood. The hunger for a second term requires so much obsequiousness and opportunism that the holder of this position becomes a burden rather than an asset, an obstacle to the UN functioning effectively.
It is not only Palestinians who are the victims of such outrageous and immoral actions, but the last vestiges of credibility of the UN itself. I hold — as do most Palestinians — enormous admiration and respect for the work of UNRWA and its personnel who remained under Israeli bombardment in Gaza risking their lives along with the communities they serve. These UN personnel also deserve better; they too are betrayed by the cowardice of those above them.
Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This essay first appeared in The Jordan and is republished with the author’s permission.