The world of U.N. human rights, best known for a human rights council with members like Libya, Saudi Arabia, and China, has just outdone itself. A short press release on Monday announces that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has made some new appointments. The biographies attached leave out a few salient facts – and for good reason. The U.N.’s top human rights officer turns out not to be the model of independence and justice she professes.
Pillay has chosen Sweden’s Lennert Aspegren for the job of “independent expert” and upgraded current U.N. “independent expert” American Mary McGowan Davis to become Aspegren’s boss. Both are charged with assessing how “independently” Israel and its judiciary have responded to the notorious Goldstone Report. But the connections among Pillay, Goldstone, Aspegren and McGowan Davis, as well as other Pillay choices, are dizzying – and disconcerting.
The saga begins a few months after Pillay’s ascendancy to the job of high commissioner in September 2008, during the Gaza war in late 2008 and early January 2009. The U.N. Human Rights Council began the New Year by doing everything in its power to prevent Israel from exercising its right of self-defense against Palestinian rocket attacks emanating from Gaza.
Despite the fact that High Commissioner Pillay was for many years a judge on the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal, which should have taught her to listen to all sides before making up her mind, she immediately drew the central legal conclusion only one day after Israel began its military operation in Gaza. On December 28, 2008, she issued a press release in which she “condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force.” At the Human Rights Council on January 9, 2009, she first declared Israel guilty of “egregious violations of human rights” and then she demanded “credible, independent, and transparent investigations … to identify violations and establish responsibilities.”
She got her wish. Three days later, on January 12, 2010, the Council created what came to be called the Goldstone inquiry, a so-called “independent international fact-finding mission.” Notwithstanding the title, the Council’s resolution made sure that the point of the mission was to investigate what the Council and Pillay had already decided were “violations of human rights by Israel against the Palestinian people.”
The council asked Pillay to prepare a separate report – despite the fact that she had already drawn her own conclusions – on the same alleged Israeli violations that she had spoken about so soon after coming into office.
The four members of the Gaza inquiry were carefully selected over the next few months and announced by the president of the Council on April 3, 2009. Every one of them, including the man who was appointed chair, South African judge Richard Goldstone, had published their views, uniformly claiming that Israel was guilty of the very crimes they were being hired to investigate, before they were selected for the Council.
Pillay had her own personal connections with Goldstone. Goldstone had been a judge on the highest courts in South Africa. Post-apartheid, Pillay was also named a judge of the High Court of South Africa. Goldstone was appointed the first prosecutor of the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal. Less than a year later, Pillay was part of the first cohort of judges appointed to the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal. When they were both at the Tribunal, Goldstone and Pillay cooperated closely. By the time of the Gaza conflict, then, the Goldstone-Pillay tag team was primed.
Pillay had no qualms about the prejudicial mandate that she had been handed by the Council. The reasons were soon clear. Rather than recognizing and condemning Hamas as a terrorist organization that openly advocates genocide, her August 2009 report lauds Hamas for having "made public statements that it is committed to respect international human rights and humanitarian law."
A month later, in Pillay’s words, she and “Justice Goldstone made a similar assessment.” Goldstone released his report on September 15, 2009. Extreme, even by U.N. standards, his report contains blood libel that, in the Gaza war, the Israeli government deliberately set out to murder Palestinian civilians, rather than to protect Israeli civilians from a deadly eight-year assault.