TWN Info Service on Health Issues (March 09/03)
24 March 2009
Third World Network

UN: Investigators Call for Gaza War Crimes Inquiry

In an open letter to the UN Secretary General, and the UN Security Council, a group of investigators and judges have called for an international investigation into all serious violations of international humanitarian law during the recent conflict in Gaza.

The following story is reproduced with permission from South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #6661, 17 March 2009.

With best wishes
Evelyne Hong

United Nations: World's top investigators call for Gaza war crimes inquiry

By Kanaga Raja, Geneva, 16 March 2009

A group of sixteen of the world's most experienced investigators and judges on Monday called for a full international investigation into alleged abuses of international law during the recent conflict in Gaza.

The call was made in an open letter to the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as well as all fifteen members of the UN Security Council.

The letter stresses the need for an investigation into "all serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict". It argues that the UN investigation "should not be limited only to attacks on UN facilities."

The signatories to the letter -- who have led investigations of crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, East Timor, Lebanon and Peru -- say that they have been "shocked to the core" by events in Gaza.

Among the notable signatories to the letter are Prof. Dr. M. Cherif Bassiouni (USA) - Chairman of the UN Commission of Experts to Investigate Violations of International Humanitarian Law in the Former Yugoslavia (1992-1994) and Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the UN Diplomatic Conference on the International Criminal Court (1998); Prof. Dr. Antonio Cassese (Italy) - First President (1993-1997) and Judge (1993-2000) of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1993-1997) and Head of the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (2004); and Ms. Hina Jilani (Pakistan) - Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders (2000-2008) and Member of the Darfur Commission of Inquiry (2006).

Other leading human rights figures signing the letter include Justice Richard J. Goldstone (South Africa) - Chairman of the South Africa Standing Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation (1991-1994), Chief Prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda (1994-1996), Judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa (1996-2003) and Chairman of the UN Independent Inquiry Commission on Kosovo (1999); Prof. Dr. Salomon Lerner Febres (Peru) - Chairman of the Peru Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2001-2003); and Prof. Dr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro (Brazil) - UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burundi (1995-1998) and in Myanmar (2000-2008) and Chairman of the Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste (2006).

Also signing on to the open letter are Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (South Africa), Chairman of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1995-1998) and Noble Peace Prize winner (1984); Ms. Mary Robinson (Ireland), President of Ireland (1990-1997) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002); Mr Luc Cote (Canada) - Former Executive Director of the Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste (2006) and Director of Prosecutions of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (2003-2005); Prof. Dr Stelios Perrakis (Greece) - Member of the UN Commission of Inquiry to Lebanon (2006); and Prof. William A. Schabas (Canada) - Member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2002-2004).

The letter comes at a time when a UN Board of Inquiry is expected to report to the UN Secretary-General on its initial findings regarding attacks on UN facilities and personnel in the region.

The letter by the leading investigators and judges joins mounting calls from civil society groups including Amnesty International, which supported the call in the open letter, and others for an independent investigation into the recent conflict in Gaza.

The UN Human Rights Council, in a special session in early January this year, adopted a resolution strongly condemning the ongoing Israeli military operation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, which, the Council said, has resulted in massive violations of human rights of the Palestinian people and systematic destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure.

In the resolution, the Council called for the immediate cessation of Israeli military attacks throughout the Palestinian Occupied Territory, particularly in the Occupied Gaza Strip that have resulted thus far in the killing of more than 900 and the injury to more than 4,000 Palestinians, including a large number of women and children, and the end to the launching of the crude rockets against Israeli civilians that resulted in the loss of 4 civilian lives and some injuries.

(An update by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - OCHA - in early February this year cites the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health saying that as of 5 February, the death toll stood at 1,440, of whom 431 were children and 114 were women. The number of injuries stood at 5,380, of whom 1,872 are children and 800 are women, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. OCHA noted that three Israelis have been killed and 183 injured since 27 December by rocket and mortar fire by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip. Eleven Israeli soldiers have been killed and 340 wounded.)

The Human Rights Council also requested the Secretary General of the United Nations to investigate the latest targeting of UN Relief and Works Agency facilities in Gaza, including schools, that resulted in the killing of tens of Palestinian civilians including women and children, and to submit a report to the General Assembly in this regard.

A signatory to the open letter, Prof. William A. Schabas, former member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said: "The international community must apply the same standard to Gaza as it does to other conflicts and investigate all abuses of the laws of war and human rights. The current UN inquiry is no substitute for a full investigation. It is not only the UN personnel that deserve truth and justice, but Palestinians and Israelis themselves."

The open letter said that allegations of serious violations of the laws of war have emerged throughout the latest Gaza conflict - relating to the conduct and actions by both the Israeli military and the Palestinian armed groups.

"As individuals with direct experience of international justice and reconciliation of conflict, we believe there is an important case to be made for an international investigation of gross violations of the laws of war, committed by all parties to the Gaza conflict.

"Without setting the record straight in a credible and impartial manner, it will be difficult for those communities that have borne the heavy cost of violence to move beyond the terrible aftermath of conflict and help build a better peace."

The letter said that a prompt, independent and impartial investigation would provide a public record of gross violations of international humanitarian law committed and provide recommendations on how those responsible for crimes should be held to account.

"We have seen at first hand the importance of investigating the truth and delivering justice for the victims of conflict and believe it is a precondition to move forward and achieve peace in the Middle East," the signatories said.

The international humanitarian law enshrined in the Geneva conventions provides universal standards of conduct of war for both state and non-state actors. The world must vigilantly demand respect for these standards and investigate and condemn their violations.

"We urge world leaders to send an unfaltering signal that the targeting of civilians during conflict is unacceptable by any party on any count. We call on them to support the establishment of a United Nations commission of inquiry into the Gaza conflict."

According to the signatories, the commission should have the greatest possible expertise and authority and:

-- a mandate to carry out a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of all allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict; it should not be limited only to attacks on UN facilities;

-- act in accordance with the strictest international standards governing such investigations;

-- if it finds sufficient evidence, it should provide recommendations as to the appropriate prosecution of those responsible for gross violations of the law by the relevant authorities.

"The events in Gaza have shocked us to the core. Relief and reconstruction are desperately needed but, for the real wounds to heal, we must also establish the truth about crimes perpetuated against civilians on both sides," the open letter concluded.