By Antonio Cassese

Published: October 14 2009 03:00 | Last updated: October 14 2009 03:00

Today the United Nations Security Council will discuss the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Top of the agenda will be the critically important UN report by Justice Richard Goldstone on Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip at the turn of the year.

The report presents evidence that both Israel and Palestinian armed groups committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the fighting, some of which should be prosecuted as war crimes. It calls on both sides to conduct impartial investigations and prosecute those found responsible. It challenges the international community to break with past practice and take bold steps towards peace.

Not surprisingly, Hamas and Israel both say the report unfairly criticises the actions of their respective forces – actions they insist were strictly defensive. Each blames the other for disregarding the laws of war.

More dismayingly, the US and privately some European countries have also criticised the report as biased against Israel, and promised to prevent any serious UN role in monitoring its recommendations.

The evidence of serious wrongdoing by Hamas and Israel is carefully marshalled, as one might expect from a fact-finding mission led by Justice Goldstone, a man of great integrity and one of the world’s most respected jurists, with whom I worked on the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, where he was chief prosecutor. His team has carefully established the details of attacks and deaths and injuries of civilians, and has systematically analysed facts in the light of applicable international standards.

Those who claim the mission’s mandate was biased against Israel seem to have ignored a significant fact: Justice Goldstone, whose mission was initially asked to look into alleged violations only by Israel, demanded – and received – a change of mandate to include attacks by Hamas. The report describes Hamas’s rocket strikes against civilian populations in Israel as possible crimes against humanity.

Some critics have launched personal attacks on Justice Goldstone’s character. Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s finance minister, went so far as to suggest that Justice Goldstone, who is Jewish and has deep ties to Israel, was an “anti-Semite” of a kind who “despise and hate our own people”.

Critics have also given inaccurate descriptions of the report’s findings. It contains recommendations in two key areas. With regard to alleged violations and crimes, it calls on the Palestinian and Israeli authorities to conduct good faith investigations in conformity with international standards within six months. Further, it asks the Security Council to create a committee of experts to monitor these domestic investigations. If – and only if – the parties do not undertake credible inquiries within six months, the report recommends pursuing accountability through international judicial action. Both recommendations are in keeping with international law and practice, and reflect what the US and European governments regularly advocate in other settings.

European governments now have a historic opportunity to demand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the same accountability that they seek in other conflicts. Spurious claims that the report is biased are excuses to avoid any accountability by both Palestinians and Israelis. Failure to demand justice would betray the rights of Israeli and Palestinian victims and undermine the broader international legal principles that European governments support.

With a Nobel Peace Prize laureate at its helm, the US government can show that it applies international law equally around the world, whether it affects friend or foe. A failure to push the recommendations of the Goldstone report will undermine the Obama administration’s ability to press for justice in places such as Kenya, the Congo and Darfur.

Lack of accountability continues to prove one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the Middle East, and is used to justify further violence. The Goldstone report presents a chance to rectify that mistake. If governments evade its recommendations, that would be a missed opportunity to strengthen conditions for a just and durable peace in the Middle East; and a deadly blow for accountability mechanisms in many other conflicts. The writer is president of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

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