When Israeli tanks and troops rolled into Gaza in December 2007, there was no doubt about the outcome of the conflict. Nor was there any doubt about who would be held responsible for using disproportionate force and deliberately harming civilians. Never mind that Israel was responding to years of rocket bombardments from Gaza on its civilian population; that it had long since pulled all its troops and settlers out of Gaza; that the ruling Hamas movement refused to recognise the Jewish state and was pledged to its destruction; and that Hamas was using its own population as human shields.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, which had remained steadfastly silent about the human rights of Israelis suffering rocket attacks, quickly swung into action. It strongly condemned Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which it said ‘resulted in massive violations of human rights of the Palestinian people and systematic destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure’. Then it set up a commission to confirm its opinion.
Step forward Richard Goldstone, ‘a Jew who has supported Israel and its people all my life’, to head the commission. Last week, the Human Rights Council graciously accepted his findings that Israel committed war crimes and may have committed crimes against humanity. And, hey presto, the job was done.
Richard Goldstone will now be lionised from Pyongyang to Ouagadougou, and all points in between where the oppressed find succour. Streets will be named after him, university chairs will be endowed in his honour and state medals will be struck for this great class-struggler. But to senior legal colleagues in South Africa, he will always be Richard Richard Goldstone.
‘Oh yes,’ says a former senior colleague who was close to Goldstone for many years. ‘We believed he saw himself as a future secretary-general of the United Nations. At the time Boutros Boutros-Ghali held the post, so it seemed a logical progression for Goldstone to become Richard Richard.’
It might appear unkind to doubt the purity of Goldstone’s motives in joining the human rights industry, poignantly as Israel’s excoriator-in-chief. But he is, it seems, regarded by colleagues who knew him well as an opportunist. And the record suggests they might be right. There is nothing in Goldstone’s biography to imply he was destined to become a hero of the people, let alone a human rights champion. During his career he has executed some canny intellectual and ideological manoeuvres, leveraging past accomplishments to propel himself further up the pole of seniority and celebrity.
While many of his countrymen were fighting against apartheid, Goldstone was loftily administering South Africa’s laws from the bench of the Supreme Court. The impression that he was at least ‘friendly’ towards the Nationalists gained weight when he was elevated to the appellate division.
‘I’m not suggesting he was ever a paid-up member of the Nationalist party,’ says his former colleague, ‘but he was very friendly towards the regime. There were many more capable jurists who were never promoted, even if they had been prepared to accept such a position. The government just didn’t promote people to the bench if they were likely to prove an ideological embarrassment — particularly if they were, like Goldstone, Jews.’
Then, just as apartheid was reaching tipping point, Goldstone jumped. He became chairman of the South African Standing Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation, a position he used to publicise the evils of apartheid and promote a new African National Congress-friendly persona (he refused to investigate ‘public violence and intimidation’ by the ANC).
Goldstone was on the road to redemption. With Mandela in power, he slid seamlessly onto the bench of the new South Africa’s highest court. Yet this was still not the summit of his ambitions. He was ready to burst onto the international stage, and in August 1994, he was appointed chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He had become a global brand.
But all that was only to prepare him for an even bigger prize — head of the UN Human Rights Council’s inquiry into the Gaza conflict. And that is where it has all gone wrong. Goldstone was not invited to investigate the causes and consequences of the conflict but, in the language of the mandate, ‘to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by the occupying power, Israel’.
There were two fatal flaws in this mandate: first, a blatant presumption of Israeli guilt; second, no mention of the role Hamas played in the conflict — the fact that the Israeli operation had been prompted by years of rocket attacks from Gaza (specifically after Israel ceased to be an occupying power).
Mary Robinson quickly spotted the problems when she turned down the job (five other candidates are said to have rejected it before it reached Goldstone). The former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for human rights said she ‘felt strongly that the Council’s resolution was one-sided and did not permit a balanced approach to determining the situation on the ground’.
The thin veneer of legal respectability was blown apart by the evidence of Britain’s Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan.
In a statement to the UN Human Rights Council, he declared: ‘Based on my knowledge and experience, I can say this: during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defence Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare… More than anything, the civilian casualties were a consequence of Hamas’s way of fighting. Hamas deliberately tried to sacrifice their own civilians… Israel had no choice apart from defending its people, to stop Hamas from attacking them with rockets.’
The Goldstone Commission could have seized the opportunity to examine the phenomenon of asymmetrical warfare and make a serious contribution to an issue that will provide a huge challenge for the West in the coming decades. Instead, it lapsed into clapped-out slogans.
Perhaps most distressing for Goldstone is not the ridicule he has attracted for accepting the mission, but the painful personal dimension of his actions. Just as he cut himself adrift from the apartheid regime when he considered it prudent, he seems to have cut himself off from his Jewish and Zionist roots in accepting the Gaza commission.
Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa who, incidentally, has a PhD in human rights law, described the mission as a ‘sham’ which demonstrated a ‘complete lack of integrity and fairness’. ‘It looks like law,’ he declared, ‘but it is not. It is just politics.’
Closer to home, a long-standing family friend of Goldstone wrote to him in blunt language: the report, she said, ‘did not arise from ignorance or naivety’. ‘I am trying so hard to resist the conclusion that your role and report might represent a self-serving desire to ingratiate yourself for a more senior position in the… United Nations. If true — and one hopes that this is not the case — at what price?’
That is a deeply troubling question. As Goldstone’s former colleague told me last weekend: ‘Richard has always exercised an exquisite sense of judgment — he has always known precisely what was in his own self-interest.’
Meanwhile, I am left with my own very personal question: where exactly was Richard Richard, paragon of human rights, when my human rights were b eing comprehensively trashed in an interrogation room at the Security Police headquarters in Pretoria? This was not Rwanda, Yugoslavia or even Gaza. My interrogation room was less than a minute’s walk from Judge Goldstone’s Supreme Court.