William Schabas is a professor of international law at the Middlesex University London School of Law and is on the board of editors of the Israel Law Review.
On Monday, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced the appointment of three members to an independent commission of inquiry to investigate purported violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem and particularly the Gaza Strip.
The three appointees include Schabas who will serve as the commission’s chairman, Amal Alamuddin from the U.K., and Doudou Diene from Senegal.
However, Geneva-based UN Watch was quick to issue a statement calling for Schabas to recuse himself from the Gaza inquiry saying he is “legally disqualified by prior statements expressing his wish to see Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres indicated before the International Criminal Court.”
Schabas, who is in Toronto visiting family this week, says the plan to set up the commission is a result of a resolution from the Human Rights Council, adopted towards the end of July. He was approached a few weeks ago by the UN indicating the High Commissioner of Human Rights wanted to propose him as a member and asked if he would he accept the position.
“I said yes I would, and then I heard yesterday they have made me the chairman of it,” he says.
The inquiry’s mandate is to prepare a report on any violations of human rights in international humanitarian law and focus in particular on accountability, suggesting how those who are responsible for violations, if they took place, should be brought to justice.
Schabas says the criticism over his appointment is “quite unfair” and “taken out of context.”
“I think when everything is assessed overall people will realize I can be fair and impartial,” he says.
UN Watch cited several prior statements by Schabas in which it believes he demonstrated bias, including one in which he stated: “My favorite would be Netanyahu in the dock of the International Criminal Court.” [Video here.]
Schabas says the interpretation of his statements has been “exaggerated.”
“The one being really focused on is a comment I made in a talk in New York about a year and a half ago where I was speaking about the International Criminal Court and the fact it has focused all of its energy on Africa. I referred to Archbishop Tutu who said, ‘Well maybe they should look at Tony Blair and I said my favourite would be Netanyahu.
“That was really just reflecting what the Goldstone Commission had said that they should look at war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Israel. It’s calling for someone to stand trial, which is not the same thing as saying someone is guilty,” he says.
Another allegation is he attended a conference in Iran and that trip was viewed as being anti-Israel.
“What is not said is that I went to participate in showing a film about the Nuremburg Trial,” he says, noting he has travelled to Israel many times to lecture at universities and is on the board of editors of the Israel Law Review.
“If I were anti-Israel I wouldn’t be doing that,” he adds.
A spokesman for Amnesty International Canada said Schabas is a “known and well respected international human rights lawyer” but offered no further comment on his appointment to the UN inquiry.
Schabas acknowledges he has differences of opinion on aspects of politics in Israel.
“Probably everyone in Israel has criticized the government at some point over the last 10 or 15 years and so have I. The job of a jurist is to put your opinions and views on these things to one side and try your best to be objective and impartial and that’s what I will do,” he says.
The report could serve to prepare the groundwork for prosecutions at the International Criminal Court.
Schabas says what’s interesting about the commission is that the International Criminal Court is a real player in the sense that the prospect of prosecution “is a real one now.”
“It hasn’t been that in the past — there were jurisdictional issues and debates about whether Palestine was a state, whether it could give jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court, but it seems increasingly likely Palestine will give jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court,” he says.
The report is to be presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2015 and it will then debate it and adopt a resolution on further action.
Schabas says the media attention over his appointment has been “unpleasant” but said “nobody has thrown a rock through my window yet but anything is possible.”