On the same day that the BBC News website published its selectively framed report on the resignation of William Schabas from the position of chair of the UN HRC commission of inquiry (established in July 2014 before the conflict between Hamas and Israel had even come to an end), the BBC World Service Radio programme ‘Newshour’ broadcast a five-minute long item on the same story.
That entire item (from 37:33 here) was devoted to the provision of a platform for Schabas to promote his version of events. Presenter Tim Franks introduced it as follows:
“The Israeli government has called on the UN Human Rights Council to scrap its inquiry into last year’s Gaza-Israel conflict. The Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made the demand after the Chairman of the commission of inquiry handed in his resignation on Monday. William Schabas, a Canadian professor of international law, stepped down after Israel had complained that in 2012 he’d offered legal advice to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Earlier, Professor Schabas came into the Newshour studio.”
William Schabas: “Israel has been attacking me since the day…since the minute…I was appointed, claiming that I show appearance of bias or that I’m biased and that campaign has continued. A few weeks ago they announced that they were organizing their attack on the report of the commission and that personal attacks on me would be an important part of that.”
Schabas is not asked to provide a credible source for that latter claim and Franks fails to inform listeners that criticism of Schabas’ appointment has also come from many non-Israeli sources. Schabas continues:
“About a week ago – or more than that – they formulated a complaint to the Human Rights Council asking formally for my removal and that was discussed last night by the executive of the Human Rights Council and they decided to follow up on the complaint and to investigate it. So what that means is that there’s an investigation ongoing into my alleged lack of impartiality.”
TF: “What – just to be clear – you did paid work for the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, back in 2013: is that right?”
WS: “I did a…I was asked as an international lawyer to provide a legal opinion to the Palestine Liberation Organisation about the International Criminal Court. I did that. I have done lots of work for governments. They call me and ask me for legal opinions and they pay me for them and sometimes, if they don’t want to bother, they read my books and they do it even in Israel.”
Franks refrains from inquiring whether the $1,300 fee Schabas charged the PLO for that seven-page legal opinion is the going rate for all governments seeking his advice. He continues:
TF: “Sure, but as a lawyer you will know that it’s not just about justice being done – it’s about justice being seen to be done. There at least could be the perception of a conflict of interests; the fact that you had done work for the PLO.”
WS: “Well that appears to be the conclusion – that there’s an issue there. As I say it’s probably on the scale of things that they’ve been criticizing me about not the major event. So in any case, they’ve decided to investigate this.”
TF: “Why had you not declared that you’d done this?”
WS: Well when I was appointed by the Human Rights Council I was called up and asked if I wanted to do it and then the next thing they know I was appointed. So I wasn’t asked to make a long disclosure or anything. I have a long list of things that I’ve done – writings about Palestine, speeches and all of that. That wouldn’t be at the top of the list. There would be a long list and they knew about it. Everybody knew about it.”
In fact, in his previously submitted unsuccessful application for the post of ‘Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories since 1967’ in 2013, Schabas had also failed to declare his paid work for the PLO in 2012. Refraining from joining the obvious dots between Schabas’ claim that “everybody knew” about his record of anti-Israel statements and activities, the fact that – according to him – he was not required by the UN HRC to declare any conflict of interests and his appointment to the post nonetheless, Franks continues:
TF: “A long list – what – of your views on Israel?”
WS: “Views, engagement in one way or another; participating in events and so on. So that was not a secret to anybody.”
TF: “OK. And just for new readers here, to – I mean – if I can summarise that it would be that you’ve been strongly critical of the Israeli government policy and strongly supportive of the Palestinians over the past few years. Would that be a reasonable summary?”
WS: “As a brief summary – my views in the past – that’s fair enough.”
Schabas’ on-record remarks of course go far beyond Tim Franks’ tepid description: “Why are we going after the president of Sudan for Darfur and not the president of Israel for Gaza?” is not by any stretch of the imagination criticism of “Israeli government policy”, not least because the president of Israel has no role in determining government policy.
Franks then goes on to ask whether or not the inquiry will have to start from scratch in light of Schabas’ resignation, to which his interviewee replies in the negative before going on to describe what the commission has done so far. Schabas says:
“We made solemn affirmations to be independent and impartial and I believe we conducted ourselves. We’ve surprised many people. Netanyahu even today was saying why are they only looking at Israel – why don’t they look at Hamas? They should be looking at Hamas. And everybody in Israel knows we did look at Hamas.”
Franks makes no effort to clarify to listeners that the mandate of the commission of inquiry set up by the UN HRC was biased and politically motivated by definition, with its start date defined as one day after the kidnapping and murders of three Israeli teenagers by a Hamas-funded terror cell and its geographic stipulations excluding “violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” in Israel – such as missile fire at civilian targets.
“Decides to urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014, whether before, during or after, to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and to identify those responsible, to make recommendations, in particular on accountability measures, all with a view to avoiding and ending impunity and ensuring that those responsible are held accountable, and on ways and means to protect civilians against any further assaults, and to report to the Council at its twenty-eighth session.” [emphasis added]
Schabas – who is on record as stating that it would be “inappropriate” for him to answer the question of whether or not he considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization – continues:
“We’ve had witnesses – victims – from inside Israel who travelled – had to travel – to Geneva. One poor man who’d lost his legs – blown off by a mortar – and he had to make that long, painful trip to Geneva to meet us because they wouldn’t let us go and see him at his kibbutz in southern Israel where we wanted to go because they wouldn’t let us into the country.”
In contrast to the impression perhaps received by listeners, the seven-person Israeli delegation to Geneva was not organized by Schabas and his commission, but by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.
Schabas ends the item by complimenting himself on the commission’s treatment of the Israeli delegation.
“The Israeli victims who came to meet with us in Geneva came back – I think pleasantly surprised is the way to describe them – with the dignity in which they were…and the welcome and the way they were treated and the genuine interest that three commissioners – not just myself but the others – had in learning about their victimization because there are victims on all sides of the fence in this conflict.”
Clearly listeners to the BBC World Service learned very little about the all-important background to the story of Schabas’ resignation from this item. Schabas’ record of anti-Israel statements and activism is blurred by Franks and misleadingly presented as criticism of Israeli government policy. Schabas is given a platform from which to promote himself as a victim of Israeli “attacks” whilst the much more important topic of the political motivations which lie behind mandate he accepted with his appointment – and the implications for the objectivity and relevance of the report which will be produced in his absence – is completely avoided.
Once again the BBC has failed in its mission to “build a global understanding of international issues”.