Schumer calls for Schabas’s removal, winning Jewish praise

Communal leaders applaud US senator after he urges HRC to oust head of Gaza probe

US Democratic Senator from New York Charles Schumer addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington on Monday, March 3, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Nicholas Kamm)
US Democratic Senator from New York Charles Schumer addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington on Monday, March 3, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Nicholas Kamm)

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Friday urged the UN Human Rights Council to remove William Schabas as head of the probe into the recent Gaza conflict, citing his past comments against Israel which the senator says rules him out as a fair judge of the war.

Schumer added that if Schabas is not removed, the US should halt its funding of the UNHRC as well as any participation in it.

Jewish leaders applauded the senator’s stance, with the heads of the Conference of Presidents, Robert G. Sugarman and Malcolm Hoenlein, saying they too have urged UN chief Ban-ki Moon to reconsider Schabas’s appointment.

“We hope that the House and Senate will join and follow Senator Schumer’s lead in communicating their opposition to Schabas having a continuing role in any investigation of the Gaza conflict,” the Conference leadership said.

In light of Schabas’s past comments against the Israeli leadership, Schumer had written to Washington’s UN ambassador, Samantha Power, “asserting that Schabas should be removed or otherwise the US should move to defund the $1.5 million it contributes to the UNHCR and also cease its participation in it,” a statement by the Council of Presidents said.

William Schabas (screen capture: YouTube)
William Schabas (screen capture: YouTube)

The statement quoted US Jewish leaders as saying that they had raised these same concerns with UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, noting the biases Schabas brings to the table — therefore negating any respect for the commission and its findings.

Schabas, a Canadian law professor, was appointed earlier this week to head the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)’s fact-finding mission into Israel’s conduct during its Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, drawing criticism from Israeli quarters — with a Channel 2 report saying most ministers in the Israeli government believe Jerusalem should not cooperate with what is seen by many as a biased commission.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that by appointing the commission, the HRC was lending legitimacy to such terror groups as the Islamic State and Hamas.

Netanyahu said the commission should look elsewhere, not Israel, for war crimes, and intimated that Israel would not cooperate with its members, although he did not explicitly rule out such cooperation.

“This commission’s report has already been written, the one leading it [Canadian Prof. William Schabas] has already decided that Hamas is not a terrorist organization, and that’s why there is nothing for them to do here,” he said.

“First, let them visit Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli. Let them see the Islamic State, the Syrian army, let them see Hamas — that’s where they’ll find war crimes, not here.”

Netanyahu was referring to statements Schabas, a professor of International Law at London’s Middlesex University, has made in the past, calling for Netanyahu and former president Shimon Peres to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes.

The prime minister was also referencing comments made by Schabas in an interview with Channel 2 on Tuesday evening, in which he refused to outright condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization or reveal how the commission plans to investigate it.

“It would be inappropriate for me to say” if Hamas is a terrorist organization, Schabas said, stressing that the investigation into the Gaza conflict must be opened “in as neutral a manner as possible.”

Schabas also said past comments he had made concerning the Israeli leadership’s implication in crimes against humanity had been “exaggerated.”

“I said my favorite [Western leader to try at the International Criminal Court] was Netanyahu. I was echoing the Goldstone Report,” Schabas explained, referring to the UN fact-finding mission on the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip — which, Finance Minister Yair Lapid quickly pointed out, was compiled when former prime minister Ehud Olmert, and not Netanyahu, was serving as premier.

Earlier Wednesday, a report by Channel 2 revealed that the majority of Israeli government ministers, 14 out of 22, oppose cooperating with the probe ordered by the HRC into the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip.

On Monday, Israel decried the appointment of the three members of the investigative UN committee to review the recent military operation in Gaza, saying the identity of the three proved that the results of the probe were a foregone conclusion.

But Schabas, who was appointed to lead the inquiry, defended his record to Israeli media Tuesday and said past statements he’s made that paint him as anti-Israel would have no bearing on his probe of the Gaza conflict.

Schabas told Army Radio in an interview on Tuesday that he is not anti-Israel, has visited Israel in the past to give university presentations and is a member of the editorial board of an Israeli legal journal. He indicated his panel would look at all aspects of wrongdoing regardless of which side was behind them, stressing that regardless of his personal opinions, he will be objective.

“What has to happen in a commission like this is that people like myself have to put anything they may have thought and said behind them and to approach their mandate in the most fair and objective and impartial manner possible. And that’s what I intend to do,” he told Channel 2.

The probe team has been tasked with reporting back to the council by March 2015.

— AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report

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