South African to head U.N. rights inquiry in Gaza

GENEVA Fri Apr 3, 2009 10:16am EDT

Committee members Justice Richard Goldstone (R), of South Africa, and Professor Mark Pieth (L), of Switzerland talk during a news conference held by the Independent Inquiry into the United Nations Oil for Food Program, August 9, 2004 in New York. REUTERS/Henny Ray Abrams HRA

Committee members Justice Richard Goldstone (R), of South Africa, and Professor Mark Pieth (L), of Switzerland talk during a news conference held by the Independent Inquiry into the United Nations Oil for Food Program, August 9, 2004 in New York.

Credit: Reuters/Henny Ray Abrams HRA

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GENEVA (Reuters) - South African judge Richard Goldstone urged Israeli and Palestinian authorities Friday to cooperate with a U.N. investigation he is heading to examine alleged war crimes in their recent conflict.

The former war crimes prosecutor said that the fact-finding mission would review the conduct of both sides "before, during and after" the Israeli offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip from December 27 to January 18.

Possible Palestinian violations in southern Israel will also be assessed, Goldstone said, telling a news conference that his four-member team expects to travel to the region in a few weeks and issue a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in July.

"There are substantial allegations of war crimes having been committed before, during and after the military operations in Gaza," Goldstone said.

"I would request the cooperation of the relevant authorities to enable members of the mission to visit and meet victims both in Israel and in Gaza and in the occupied territories," he said.

According to a Palestinian rights group, 1,417 people including 926 civilians were killed in the conflict. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

Israel has accused Hamas fighters in Gaza of using civilians as human shields during the fighting. Rights groups have also criticized Hamas for firing rockets at civilian targets in southern Israel.

The team's mandate stems from a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council at a special session on January 12.

The 47 member-state forum, dominated by Muslim countries and their allies, condemned Israel for "grave violations" of human rights during its assault and called for an international probe.

The other members of the inquiry are Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani, British international law professor Christine Chinkin, and retired Irish colonel Desmond Travers.

CREDIBILITY AND INDEPENDENCE

Council president, Nigerian ambassador Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi, conceded it had taken time to assemble experts whose mandate had been widened to include violations by all sides.

"We wanted to make sure the team we are putting together was credible, of high caliber and truly independent," he said.

But he hoped that they would shed light on the "legality of thousands of deaths and injuries and widespread destruction."

Goldstone, who is Jewish and has served for years as a governor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that he had spent many days and "sleepless nights" deciding whether to accept the mandate, saying the request came as "quite a shock."

"I believe I can approach the daunting task I have accepted in an even-handed and impartial manner and give it the same attention that I have to situations in my own country," said the former judge of South Africa's constitutional court.

He later served as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

"Certainly it has been my experience in South Africa, the Balkans and Rwanda that transparent, public investigations are very important, important particularly for the victims because it brings acknowledgement of what happened to them," he said.

He hoped that the findings would make a "meaningful contribution to the peace process in the Middle East."

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and independent U.N. rights envoy Richard Falk have also called for an investigation into whether Israeli forces committed war crimes in the coastal strip where 1.5 million people live.

Pillay, a former judge at the International Criminal Court, has raised specific concerns about the Israeli shelling of a home that killed 30 Palestinian civilians, and a lack of care for young, starving children whose mothers died in the attack.

Falk, in a report to the Council last month, said launching attacks without the ability to distinguish between military targets and surrounding civilians "would seem to constitute a war crime of the greatest magnitude under international law."

As Gaza's borders were sealed, civilians could not escape harm, which may constitute a crime against humanity, according to the American law professor. He suggested the U.N. Security Council might set up an ad hoc criminal tribunal on the matter.

(Editing by Laura MacInnis and Dominic Evans)

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