Richard Goldstone in UN Human Rights Council
Richard Goldstone during a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 29, 2009. Photo by AP
Text size

It is one of the few points of agreement between people who are strongly pro-Palestinian and people who are strongly pro-Israeli: All too often, the United Nations fails its tests.

Both sides have their reasons. Palestinians will argue, and legitimately, that the veto power of the United States has shielded Israel time and again from Security Council censure.

This has been true even in cases where the White House itself had grave reservations about Israeli military operations and settlement actions, which then continued unabated.

Israelis will maintain, and with justification, that UN bodies hypocritically single out Israel for condemnation and have shown overwhelming bias against its policies. This has been particularly true in the case of the UN Commission on Human Rights – in which a genocidal Sudan passed judgment on the Jewish state – and of its successor, the Human Rights Council, criticized both by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Human Rights Watch (HRW) for the extreme imbalance of its concentration on Israel.

As the death toll in Syria climbs toward an unfathomable 10,000, if there were ever a test of the world body, it is now. And if ever the UN Security Council has met the test by proving itself a sham, it is now.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, a lifelong student of the United Nations' failings when it comes to Israel and Palestine, has taken full advantage in insulating himself from the consequences of the carnage he so closely controls.

When Assad unleashed a murderous onslaught over the weekend, with witnesses reporting hundreds killed and a field hospital bombed to obliteration, he did so knowing that he held the only cards he needed – not one, but two vetoes. Thirteen nations condemned his actions in the Security Council. Only Russia and China supported him.

When Assad carpet-shelled the city of Homs on Monday, he did so knowing how the UN so often views violence in this part of the world: in practice, Muslims can kill Muslims with impunity and prolonged freedom from sanction.

Assad has also shown skill in playing rifts within Islam to his advantage, and may also have gained indirect benefit from the Israel-Palestinian divide, and the somewhat muffled nature of condemnation from this corner of the region.

There are, for example, Israelis who warn that if Assad is toppled, the outcome may only be worse for Israel. There are pro-Palestinian activists abroad who duck the issue, seeming to suggest that opposition to Syrian actions may be used by Israel as a kind of "Assad-washing," muddying the memory of the 2008-9 Gaza war, and complicating campaigns for BDS (anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions).

It is the Gaza war, however, which points to what the UN should and must do now: Find a Goldstone for Syria.

The UN needs to make a move capable of putting Bashar Assad on notice that he is not free to act as he pleases – that his actions will be subject to investigation, and that they may be viewed as war crimes in a future court of international law.

In creating the Richard Goldstone-led fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict the UN created a mechanism which put both Israel and Hamas in the glare of international scrutiny. It put special focus on policies that subject non-combatants to the direct risk of lethal harm.

Flawed, much-hindered, and little-loved, the Goldstone Report did not put an end to Israeli and Hamas military attacks that killed civilians. But it represented a turning point in accountability, one that has caused both Israel and Hamas to reevaluate longstanding reliance on military doctrines which place civilians directly in harm's way.

For all that Israel stonewalled and scorned the inquiry, it may actually have done more for Israelis than any other UN decision in recent memory. In unacknowledged response to its findings, the report has effectively changed Israeli military and geopolitical strategic practice.

No longer is there an automatic resort to the strategy that informed IDF tactics from Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, 1996, and Dahiya ten years later, to Cast Lead in Gaza: disproportionate firepower marshaled in vain attempts to force Arab civilians to pressure their governments or armed groups in their midst.

Hamas, as well, has shown signs of internal debate and reevaluation over the efficacy and future of armed struggle.

If only for the sake of Syria's children, it is time for the United Nations to protect those it has so often failed to protect elsewhere.

The UN needs to learn from its own history, and do better. There are children who cannot wait. The UN must recognize that immunity from censure, from effective protest, from sanction, directly endanger the lives of non-combatants.

The United Nations needs to create a Goldstone-type inquiry for the atrocities in Syria. The UN needs to send a direct message to Bashar Assad: A regime which resorts to war crimes will have to answer for them.