William Schabas has spent one day on the job and he’s already fighting to defend himself.
The Canadian law professor accepted the position to lead a United Nations commission set to examine potential war crimes during the conflict in Gaza and immediately faced accusations that he was anti-Israel.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Schabas shot down the suggestion that he adamantly opposed Israel but said it was very difficult to not have a position about the country’s recent actions.
“I’m not anti-Israel,” Schabas said. “I think that’s just what unconditional supporters of the current regime and extremists within Israel [say] who think that anyone who might disagree with the policy of the government of Israel at the present time is anti-Israel. It’s a slur. It’s a slander. And it’s not fair to do it.”
That isn’t to say the 63-year-old professor, stately and bespectacled, hasn’t voiced harsh opinions before.
Schabas suggested in a 2013 speech that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be “in the dock of an international court.” He also wrote in 2010 that Netanyahu could be considered as “the single individual most likely to threaten the survival of Israel.” But as he was quick to remind, Schabas is also a member of the editorial board of the Israel Law Review. It’s not so much that he is against the country and its leadership entirely, but rather that personal impartiality is a near impossible task, according to Schabas.
It has only been a few weeks since the UN Human Rights Council, prompted by mounting international pressure, decided that it would launch an independent inquiry into possible violations of human rights in Palestinian Territory and East Jerusalem. The deadline set for the commission to report its findings is March 2015.
Amal Alamuddin, a British-Lebanese human rights lawyer, was selected to join the commission as well but turned down the offer from the UN on Monday.
“I am horrified by the situation in the occupied Gaza Strip, particularly the civilian casualties that have been caused, and strongly believe that there should be an independent investigation and accountability for crimes that have been committed,” Alamuddin said in a statement released by her fiance George Clooney’s agent.
“I was contacted by the UN about this for the first time this morning. I am honoured to have received the offer, but given existing commitments—including eight ongoing cases—unfortunately could not accept this role. I wish my colleagues who will serve on the commission courage and strength in their endeavours.”
Senegalese lawyer Doudou Diene (PDF) was the third person selected to join the commission. Schabas said that he didn’t know anything further about Alamuddin’s departure but speculated it was a combination of her business with work and wedding preparations.
Schabas has faced the harshest criticism from Hillel Neuer, the head of the Geneva-based advocacy group UN Watch, who asked that the professor step down from the position.
“Under international law, William Schabas is obliged to recuse himself because his repeated calls to indict Israeli leaders obviously gives rise to actual bias or the appearance thereof,” Neuer said in a statement.
The findings of the commission’s inquiry could lead to engagement from the International Criminal Court (ICC), assuming that Palestine officially recognizes its jurisdiction. Previously not acknowledged as a state in past human rights violation inquiries, including 2009’s Goldstone report, Palestine has shown interest in cooperating with the ICC.
While Schabas is only in the planning stages for his work, he insists that his research will be purely objective, no matter how hard that may be.
“It will be difficult,” Schabas told The Daily Beast. “Of course, it will be difficult because this is a subject about which everybody is very emotional and very concerned. I don’t know where you’d find three or four commissioners anywhere in the world who would have the skills and the knowledge to do this job who wouldn’t have already thought a great deal about Palestine and Israel. Everybody’s thought about it.”
The President of the UN Human Rights Council, Baudelaire Ndog Ella said in a statement Tuesday that he has yet to decide on a replacement for Alamuddin but expressed regret about her departure. He did not mention any of the allegations levelled against Schabas.
As Schabas sets out to begin his research, he is keeping his personal thoughts on the violent conflict close to the chest.
“Do I have opinions about it? Sure,” Schabas said. “Do I want to share them? No because I want to preserve as much as possible my detachment and impartiality. This commission is not about my opinions.”