The Risk of Trivializing International Law

By Yoav J. Tenembaum  Published: August 14, 2014

Palais des Nations

The appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council of a special commission to investigate Israeli actions during the latest war in the Gaza Strip seems to confirm the skepticism with which that organization is held by many people in North America and Europe.

The UN Human Rights Council replaced in 2006 the UN Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately, the change in name was not followed by a change in attitude.

The obsessive concentration on Israel, at the expense of many other countries where human rights are flagrantly violated, is not the exclusive purview of the UN Human Rights Commission, to be sure. The UN in general tends to devote more time to Israel than to any other country; so much so that one wonders if Israel did not exist what would the UN do with so much spare time left.

The appointment of the special commission on the Gaza War is particularly odd.

To begin with, there is a clear assumption that only Israel's actions must be investigated.

Also, it presumes that Israel has infringed humanitarian international law before the commission has even started working.

Further, the person appointed to head the commission is Professor William Schabas, whose record is singularly hostile to Israel. Suffice it to look at his statements on Israel and its leaders to realize that. Even the notion of ostensible impartiality is clearly absent in his case. Let us be clear: Professor Schabas is not critical of Israel. He is completely biased against it.

Beyond that, he is quoted as having said that Iran's call to destroy Israel is mere "political views" and not "a call for genocide." I always thought that calling for the destruction of a sovereign state, which is a member of the United Nations, is something that goes beyond "political views." Indeed, one wonders why an expert in international law would not be able to find a suitable legal term to define such a call to destroy Israel, even if he deemed the word "genocide" to be inappropriate.

Apart from that, Professor Schabas appears to have a problem connecting legal opinion with historical facts. When asked on the 12th of August on Israeli TV (Channel 10) why did he call to bring Benjamin Netanyahu to justice at the International Criminal Court, he replied that his comment was advanced in relation to the Goldstone Commission. His remark, he stressed, should be viewed in the context of that Commission. The Goldstone Commission was set up, following Operation Cast Lead in 2008, to investigate Israeli actions in Gaza. The problem with his remark, though, is that Netanyahu was then Leader of the Opposition, and his name wasn't even mentioned in the Goldstone Commission.

Thus, to appoint a person who is clearly biased against Israel, who believes that a call to destroy a sovereign state should be regarded solely as "political views" and who justifies his legal opinion to bring an Israeli political leader to justice based on mistaken facts, if not on his fertile imagination, is incomprehensible.

Israel's legendary foreign minister, the late Abba Eban, once said that if a resolution were presented by countries hostile to Israel before the UN stipulating that the Earth was flat, only a minority of countries would oppose it.

International Law is too important to be left in the hands of institutions that make a mockery out of it. If international law is to be taken seriously, it must be formulated, interpreted and implemented seriously. The UN is engaged in various laudable enterprises. However, the UN, and particularly the UN Human Rights Council, runs the risk of trivializing international law. That would be even worse than having no legal framework within which international relations are conducted.

About the Author

Yoav Tenembaum


Dr. Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the graduate Diplomacy Program (Political Science Department), Tel Aviv University, Israel.

One of the courses he taught is on Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution in Modern History, which places much emphasis on the development of International Law and its application in the resolution of international conflicts. He also taught on Diplomacy and International Crises, The Shaping of Foreign Policy and Decision-Making, and others.

Dr. Tenembaum has lectured widely on various aspects of the Arab-Israeli dispute, in Israel, South America and Britain. He has been invited on several occasions to lecture on the subject by the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University.

Article picture: Room XX, Palais des Nations by Miquel Barceló.

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