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My Schabas Dinner

A personal encounter with the former head of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry into alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza

James Kirchick
March 09, 2015
William Schabas(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
William Schabas(Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; main photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, Canadian legal scholar William Schabas resigned from his position as head of a United Nations-sponsored inquiry charged with investigating alleged war crimes committed last year in the midst of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. From the beginning, the Schabas Commission, as it came to be known, was a dubious enterprise. Schabas had been appointed to lead the three-member panel by the United Nations Human Rights Council, a notoriously anti-Israel body. Schabas himself had a long public record of questionable comments in regard to the Jewish state, for instance, in 2012, he said, “My favorite would be [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in the dock of the International Criminal Court.”

All of these factors ensured that the forthcoming Schabas report, like the one authored by South African jurist Richard Goldstone about the 2009 Gaza War and on behalf of the same U.N. body (and which Goldstone himself later publicly denounced), would be a sham. However it was something far more technical, but no less inexcusable, that led to Schabas’ resignation. In 2012, Schabas wrote a legal opinion for the Palestine Liberation Organization, for which he was paid $1,300. Like most virulent critics of Israel hoist by their own petard, Schabas immediately portrayed himself as the victim of a malevolent campaign of character assassination. “This work in defense of human rights appears to have made me a huge target for malicious attacks,” he wrote in a letter to the president of the Human Rights Council. Even though Schabas resigned, the damage was done: The report he prepared, which will undoubtedly heap disproportionate blame on Israel, will still be published in March.

The furor over Schabas’ past statements and objectivity, however, has obscured a larger problem with his appointment. Schabas was, like Goldstone before him, a natural to lead a U.N. indictment of the Jewish state. An expert in the field of international law, Schabas is part of the incestuous club of academically credentialed critics that hovers around institutions like the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other ostensibly nongovernmental organizations that have, over the years, attempted to amass for themselves the powers of sovereign governments despite not being elected by anyone.

A central tenet of this clique’s shared worldview is a belief that the state’s power to wage war is fundamentally immoral. Violence perpetrated by the underdog—“resistance” by terrorist groups—falls under a different set of rules, however, a less stringent code of morality. And so, little by little, using the tools of “lawfare,” these individuals and organizations have attempted to legislate warfare out of existence by constraining the ability of democracies to defend their people from terrorism. “What distinguishes the human-rights world is its insistence on denouncing each and every proposal to secure the domestic front,” Adrian Karatnycky, then-president of Freedom House, and Arch Puddington, Freedom House’s vice president for research, wrote of the “human rights lobby” shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In their attempts to render Israel incapable of defending itself against terror, members of the human rights lobby typically dress up their arguments in complicated legalisms. Rarely do they ever express their radicalism as plainly as William Schabas did, however, in a small, intimate dinner last fall that I attended. (The conversation is from memory, confirmed with someone else in attendance.)

A man of warm disposition, Schabas opened by regaling the table about his hobbies. He told us of his stamp collection (which, he said, includes many stamps on the theme of human rights as well as ones from Israel), and his love of music and swimming. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that lurking beneath the soft-spoken, bearded philatelist was a radical pacifist with his head in the sand.

“I don’t want to fine-tune” how people go to war, is how Schabas described his outlook as an international legal expert. But what initially seemed like a completely reasonable position for a man investigating alleged war crimes to take was really just a dodge. Schabas doesn’t want “to fine-tune” war. He wants to personally abolish it.

“I have a feeling that as human beings put on this planet that we’re at a period where we may not quite be there, but we’re getting close to abolishing war,” Schabas said, speaking of how much more violent the world was 100 years ago.

“We have the possibility to outlaw war completely,” he went on.

“You mean actually not have war?” I asked. “I think war is innate to humankind.”

“I disagree.”

“You really do? The last time we tried to outlaw war was the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and that didn’t go very well.”

“We outlawed it,” Schabas replied. “The Kellogg-Briand pact was the beginning. And then the Nuremberg trial. And the Charter of the United Nations. And it’s prevented global war.”

Attributing the failure thus far of World War III to launch to the niceties of the U.N. Charter and not, say, to the terrors of Mutually Assured Destruction, is the hallmark of a Model U.N. participant, not a serious scholar of global history. Neither the U.N. Charter nor the countless other treaties and legal instruments devised after World War II did anything to prevent the proliferation of incredibly bloody conflicts across the Third World (Korea, Vietnam, Angola, etc.) that functioned as Cold War proxy battles, nor the many small wars that have collectively claimed the lives of millions (Rwanda, Sudan, the Balkans, etc.) since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Budapest Memorandum has not stopped Russia from waging war on Ukraine. U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701 have not led to Hezbollah’s disarmament. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has not stopped Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and a host of other nations—all signatories to the document—from exploiting children as soldiers.

Later in the evening, Schabas was asked to address a problem inherent in the practice of international law, specifically as it applies to Israel and its adversaries—namely that the latter groups, in their conduct as belligerents, make no pretensions whatsoever to abide by any norms, legal or moral. “I think that they have their own rule book,” Schabas replied.

“What is it?” someone else at the table asked.

“I don’t know what it is exactly. I think everybody involved in combat plays by rules. They just disagree about what the rules are and we may not agree with the rules that they’re playing by … I don’t know that the Hezbollah fighter faced with a school filled with children is going to say, ‘let’s go and kill them.’ ”

It is all well and good that William Schabas recused himself from an enterprise that was corrupt from the beginning. But the explanations cited for his unsuitability are comparatively minor and tawdry next to the fact that he is a fool.


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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.

James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.

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