The summary of the March 14th edition of Hardtalk appearing on the BBC website is as follows:
“Two decades ago the world’s killing fields were in the Balkans and Rwanda but right now, they’re in Syria. Can we be any more confident today, than we were back then, that the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity will be brought to justice? HARDtalk speaks to Theodor Meron, currently serving a second term as President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. When it comes to delivering justice, is the international legal framework now in place fit for purpose? “
Members of the audience tuning in because they are actually interested in the subject of potential legal action against either or both sides in the Syrian conflict would have been left feeling rather sold short after watching or listening to this programme, as the subject was given barely a minute of attention towards its end.
What they did hear, however, was host Stephen Sackur blithely lumping the subject of Israeli settlements together with crimes against humanity in, among other places, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur and Rwanda.
At 19:44 in the above audio recording, Sackur says to his interviewee Theodor Meron:
“Let’s talk about one particular case, which is again very relevant to your past, and that is Israel. Israel stands accused by many observers around the world of violating the Geneva Conventions – fundamental international law – when it comes to settlements. You wrote a legal advice for the Israeli prime minister back in 1967, right after the Six Day War, in which you said settling Jewish civilians on occupied land, in your view, would fundamentally contravene the Geneva Convention.”
Meron: “This is still my view.”
Sackur: “Still your view?”
Meron: “This is still my view.”
Sakur: “So in that case, do you think..”
Meron: “I am sorry my opinion was not listened to; I think those settlements certainly make no contribution to peace.”
Sackur: “Do you think Israel should face international legal action on the back of – for example – Chapter Eight of the ICC, concerning war crimes?”
Meron: “It would be a very difficult question for the ICC to tackle, but because of my Israeli past I feel not comfortable in discussing the jurisdictional or political aspect of..”
Sackur: “Well, precisely.”
Meron: “Because of my past.”
Sackur: “Well hang on a minute; that is your past. You’re no longer a citizen of Israel. You took US citizenship, but you advised the Israeli government for years and therefore you, more than anybody, could send a message ringing around the world about your belief of how Israel stands before international law.”
There are – as is well known – many legal opinions which differ with that of Theodor Meron, although Sackur elected to avoid any mention of that point and indeed a detailed and factual discussion of the subject would have actually distracted from what was clearly his purpose. The BBC is of course perfectly entitled to discuss the legal aspects of Israeli settlements, but its editorial guidelines would require that such a discussion be factual and balanced, with fair representation of differing views on the subject.
Sackur, however, was obviously not interested in such a discussion because – despite Meron’s clearly expressed reluctance to get into the issue – all that was important to him was getting across to audiences the ‘sound bite’ framing of the building of towns, villages and residential neighbourhoods as being a war crime on a par with the mass slaughter of civilians. That, together with Sackur’s call for a “message” to be sent “ringing around the world” can be seen as nothing other than a deliberately demagogic and politically motivated action which severely compromises the BBC’s claim of impartiality.