Israel Gave the UN Information That Led to Head of Gaza Probe's Resignation

William Schabas quit amid allegations of anti-Israel bias; Schabas says he did not want personal attacks to detract from inquiry.

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The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Four days ago, the Israeli government provided the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva with the “incriminating” information that led to the resignation of Professor William Schabas as head of the UN inquiry into the last summer’s Gaza conflict.

On Tuesday afternoon, acting president of the UN Human Rights Council, German Ambassador Joachim Ruecker, issued a statement saying that on Friday, January 30, he received an official letter of complaint from the Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva Eviatar Manor regarding William Schabas. The letter contained previously unreported information that in 2012, Professor Schabas authored a legal opinion on behalf of the PLO, for which he was paid $1,300.

Manor wrote to the President of the Human Rights Council that this poses a substantial conflict of interest for Schabas, and requested that he therefore be removed from his position.

After the letter was received, the German Ambassador and other senior members of the Human Rights Council questioned Schabas about the matter. As their investigation continued, Schabas hastened to tender his resignation. On Monday, he submitted a letter to the President of the Human Rights Council. In his letter, Manor emphasized that Israel had evidence showing that Schabas had a “contractual relationship” with the Palestinian side prior to his appointment as chairperson of the Gaza inquiry.

“We consider that this demonstrates incontrovertibly a blatant conflict of interest Now it is clear that Mr. Schabas’ continued tenure on the Commission is untenable and would violate the most basic principles of impartiality and fairness,” Manor wrote. “Such shocking evidence of conflict of interest, if presented before any legal organ, whether national or international, or before any fair-minded observer, would be cause for immediate disqualification and dismissal of the person involved.”

In wake of the Israeli complaint, the Human Rights Council began to examine the matter and also requested a legal opinion from UN headquarters in New York.

The “contractual relationship” between Schabas and Palestinian officials that the Israeli ambassador referred to was a seven-page document that the professor of international law submitted to the PLO negotiations department on October 28, 2012. The document contained a legal opinion regarding the implications of upgrading the Palestinians’ UN status to that of a nonmember observer state for the process, begun in January 2009, of joining the International Court of Criminal Justice in The Hague. Schabas was paid $1,300 by the PLO for providing this legal opinion.

Schabas wrote that he was resigning in order to prevent Israel’s accusations against him from distracting attention from the writing of the report and publication of its findings. Schabas explained that the legal opinion he wrote for the PLO in 2012, for which he was paid $1,300, was no different from other legal opinions he provided for various governments and organizations. “My views on Israel and Palestine, and on other subjects, are well-known and very public,” he wrote. “This work in defense of human rights seems to have made me a huge target for malicious attacks,” he added.

A senior Israeli official said that Schabas resigned because the new information indicated that he lied to the UN Human Rights Council during the appointment process by not fully disclosing his professional ties with official Palestinian organizations.

In his statement, the President of the Human Rights Council said, “The President respects the decision of Professor Schabas and appreciates that in this way even the appearance of a conflict of interest is avoided, thus preserving the integrity of the process.”

Ruecker also noted that “the Commission is now in the final phase of collecting evidence from as many victims and witnesses as possible from both sides” and that the Commission’s report is due to be presented to the council at its upcoming session on March 23.

In addition, “The President is currently in discussions with the remaining two members of the Commission of Inquiry to discuss the appointment of the new Chairperson.

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