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Volume 714: debated on Monday 2 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what support they will give to the recommendations of the United Nations fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict, as contained in the Goldstone report, to implement the international rule of law.

My Lords, we have made it clear that the Goldstone report on Gaza has its flaws, including not adequately recognising Israel’s right to protect its citizens. However, the report raises important issues that are of serious concern. Attacks by Palestinian militants in Israel constitute a breach of international humanitarian law. The report also makes allegations about Israeli conduct, and we urge the Israeli Government to carry out full, credible and impartial investigations.

I thank the noble Lord for that reply. He will probably recall that when we called for accountability in the wake of the conflict in Gaza, we were told to wait for the Goldstone report. That report has been published and says that there is serious evidence of war crimes which ought to be investigated. Yet, as the Minister has just repeated, the Government say that the report has flaws. Will the Minister publish the legal advice on which this conclusion is based and, if there is no accountability and justice, will he say whether he thinks there can be any hope of peace in the Middle East?

My Lords, the report to which the noble Baroness refers is due to be debated in the United Nations on 4 November, which I believe is the earliest opportunity. That debate will reveal the arguments and why nations support or do not support the Goldstone report. It made broad interpretations of international law with which we did not agree, which will become evident when we make our views known on that occasion. It does not allow us to resile from our obligations to have an independent and thorough investigation into the Israeli defence forces. It has happened in respect of previous conflicts and Israel can be proud of those reports because they have hidden nothing and revealed everything. That will help everyone involved in the peace process.

My Lords, the United Nations Human Rights Commission devalued itself by putting Libya into the chair and finding itself able to criticise only Israel. Is there not a danger now that this new council, created by the United Nations in 2006, will go the same way by its manner of selecting from the Goldstone report only those sections dealing with the allegations against Israel and ignoring those against Hamas?

My noble friend makes a point that many fear. Having spent some time in the United Nations system, I can say that we have to live with the system that emerges. I rely on those who are prepared to challenge such a position to do so when the United Nations debates this more fully early this month.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that the Goldstone report criticised Hamas just as it criticised the Government of Israel? Does he not agree that the Israeli Government’s rather intemperate attacks on the Goldstone report might be a little more credible if they had actually been prepared to admit Judge Goldstone and his colleagues to Israel, and to co-operate with them, which they refused to do? Would it not be better if they addressed the report rather than playing the man?

Personally, my Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with the views of the noble Lord. After a decade of negotiating in that part of the world, I have come to the conclusion that the farther one is from the conflict, the clearer the solution. The negotiations therefore become opaque and very difficult. The Israelis thought that the process was flawed from the beginning, because of the basis of the terms of reference, but in hindsight it seems to me that in any situation we will make less progress by apportioning blame and more by looking to the future.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that even Goldstone thinks that his report cannot be used as evidence in law, and has said so? Does he also agree that there is a danger here for any army engaged in war—for example, our own in Afghanistan? If we were to ask the Taliban what they thought of the civilian deaths occurring in Afghanistan, for example, and were to report that to a largely hostile United Nations commission, it would make it extremely difficult for any army to go to war in any situation.

I doubt that I can go as far as my noble friend in his allusion to the Taliban being an independent judge of affairs in their state. I believe that it is on the historical record that, when the Israelis have investigated, post-conflict, the situations of their armed forces, Ministry of Defence, et cetera, they have come up with robust, clear, transparent and very significant conclusions. That is why an inquiry from Israel would be far more significant than waiting for ever for Hamas inquiries.

My Lords, I was in southern Israel when we had only 15 seconds to rush into air-raid shelters as rocket bombs from Gaza rained down on us. The destruction and loss of life caused by Operation Cast Lead is, indeed, truly regrettable, but does the precedent set by the Goldstone report, in accusing Israel of crimes against humanity in its targeted response to terrorist attacks, take into account the possible implications for our own British security in response to terrorism directed at us?

I think that that question deviates considerably from the Question on the Order Paper. While I may have sympathy with the question, I have no intention of seeking to provide the answer, because we are discussing a very serious situation where, as recently as yesterday, interventions by the American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, offer some hope that things might move forward. As I have said, my previous experience has told me that the harsher the opinions issued within 24 hours of an announcement, the more that you can repent at your leisure.

My Lords, a few minutes ago the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, made a very balanced point. I think that everyone agrees that terrible things occurred on both sides during the Gaza conflict, as tend to be the case in such situations. However, when the United Nations comes to debate this matter later in the week, would the Minister agree that the reports of the UN authorities, and its Human Rights Council, would carry more authority if they gave the same attention to abuses of human rights by, say, China in Tibet or Russia in Chechnya—or even by the United States in Iraq—rather than becoming solely focused on the Israeli question, serious though that is?

I thank the noble Lord for that travelogue. The truth is that the UN will be debating a specific issue, and from my experience it is better to relate to that than to extend it to other circumstances, because if you do so it tends to make the solution to the issue on the paper even less possible.