The National
October 19, 2009 - 12:00am

The recent UN condemnation of Israel brings to mind the image of Nero fiddling away while Rome burned. In the aftermath of the Gaza war, there can be little doubt that war crimes were committed – crimes that will eventually have to be answered for – but the UN Human Rights Council’s vote on Friday is a variation on a very old tune that has done little to assuage the flames in the Middle East. Indeed, by pushing one-sided recriminations into the Security Council at this juncture, the recent resolution makes justice more difficult to attain and peace a more distant prospect.

A distinction needs to be drawn between the quality of the information and the course of action chosen. The human rights vote was based on elements of a report by the South African judge Richard Goldstone, a report with even-handed and hard-hitting conclusions that surprised some, but really reflected what many already knew. Any fair observer of the Gaza war and its prelude– the Israeli army’s litany of deliberate attacks on civilians and non-military infrastructure, Hamas’s rocket barrages on Israeli neighbourhoods – would acknowledge war crimes were committed. But the Human Rights Council’s vote is just an echo of arguments on both sides that have been sounded from the rooftops for the past year. There is remarkably little room for substantive action as the United States would assuredly block Security Council measures against Israel that had any teeth. So a symbolic gesture on human rights sets up another opportunity for deadlock and acrimony at the highest levels of decision-making.

It is hard to imagine how the political manoeuvring surrounding the vote could possibly have portrayed any of the parties in a worse light. The Israeli government, already backed into a corner because of its obstinacy over the peace process, was prodded into further hostility. The interior minister Eli Yishai’s statement that the Israeli army handled civilians in Gaza with “silk gloves” is grotesque in its distortion of the facts. And after unleashing an anti-Semitic rant against Mr Goldstone when his report also accused it of war crimes, Hamas emerges almost unscathed in the recent resolution, reinforcing the perceived bias against Israel.

Members of the Human Rights Council uniformly appeared petty and poorly organised: Britain blamed other European nations for forcing it to refuse to vote at all, hardly an example of the leadership London aspires to; Egypt unnecessarily forced the issue by disallowing even a two-hour delay to resolve differences.

But the most damage was self-inflicted by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who first agreed to delay the issue then changed his position in the face of domestic outrage, which may prove to be the coup de grace for a statesman who was already struggling to stay on his feet. The timing is critical. A weakened Mr Abbas endangers the already shaky prospects of a Palestinian reconciliation hoped for this month.

As preferable as a delay would have been, the United States’s pressure on Mr Abbas and its pro-Israeli position in the Security Council hurts its credibility as a peace broker. Every side emerges the loser. The Human Rights Council, despite its laudable mission, has often been accused of irrelevancy. At this critical juncture, even that would have been preferable to further fuelling the fire.


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