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Truthdigger of the Week: Navi Pillay

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Posted on Aug 10, 2014

    United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay visits South Sudan in April. AP/UNMISS

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

In a letter dated July 25, over 100 U.S. lawmakers aggressively criticized the United Nations Human Rights Council for launching an inquiry into the question of whether Israel’s Netanyahu government committed war crimes during its nearly monthlong operation in the Gaza Strip. Addressed to longtime human rights lawyer and sixth-year high commissioner Navanethem “Navi” Pillay, it began: “The United Nations Human Rights Council simply cannot be taken seriously as a human rights organization when it establishes a commission of inquiry to unjustly probe alleged war crimes and violations of international law by the nation defending its citizens from rocket attacks and terror tunnels, rather than the terrorist group whose depravity makes a policy of using its citizens as human shields while its terror commanders flee to fortified bunkers.

“These grave violations of international law cannot be ignored,” the letter concluded. “Any nation or multilateral body that values human rights must condemn the use of civilians as human shields. This is the effort the United Nations should be leading and you should be speaking out against.”

The inquiry referenced pertains to the loss of life and the destruction of private residences and shelter facilities within Gaza amid attacks by the Israeli military.

Pillay responded to the Congress members in a letter on Aug. 6. “It is truly tragic that civilians in the Gaza Strip are bearing the brunt of this crisis,” she began. “According to information collected by my Office in Gaza, more than 1,800 Palestinians have now reportedly been killed since the start of Israel’s latest military operations, most of whom are civilians, including more than 400 children. I have been particularly alarmed by the reported attacks by Israel on hospitals and schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza serving as shelters to some 270,000 Palestinians. On the Israeli side also, at least 67 Israelis have reportedly been killed, including two Israeli civilians, in addition to one foreign national.”

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Being clear on where her concerns lie—with the welfare of both Israelis and Palestinians menaced by armed conflict—Pillay reminded her detractors that in a mid-July statement to the Human Rights Council, she “condemned the indiscriminate firing by Hamas and other armed groups of thousands of rockets, as well as mortars, from Gaza, which endangers the lives of civilians in Israel.” She also “stated unequivocally that it was unacceptable to locate military assets in densely populated areas or to launch attacks from such areas, putting civilians at grave risk.”

The high number of civilian casualties on the Gaza side however “raised serious concerns about the respect by Israel for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack.” Reiterating one of her long-held positions and using the language of one of the legislators’ key talking points, she affirmed that “Israel does indeed have a right to defend itself against the indiscriminate firing of rockets, but the actions of Hamas and other armed groups do not absolve Israel of its need to respect its obligations under international law.”

The U.S. lawmakers’ selective apportioning of legal care and humane concern should beggar belief; evidence of Israeli fault in the killing of Palestinian civilians, possibly qualifying as war crimes, is abundant. But the distortions are not surprising. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a U.S. government ally in a region teeming with people who are furious over the ruin American foreign policy has made and continues to make of their communities. And so truth is sidelined by the need to shore up a partner’s increasingly indefensible image. Only partial, expurgated versions of events pass the lips and fingertips of complicit officials.

In the final passages of her letter, Pillay casually undid her critics by informing them of her office’s authority and duties. “I regret to note that resolution 107 passed by the United States House of Representatives on 30 July, and resolution 526 passed by the United States Senate on 29 July condemn the establishment by the Human Rights Council of a commission of inquiry on the basis that it is ‘biased,’ and ‘calls for yet another prejudged investigation of Israel,’ ” she wrote. “In fact, resolution S-21/1 of the Human Rights Council mandates the independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in the occupied Gaza Strip.

“I have reiterated, on a number of occasions, the need for real accountability considering the increasing evidence of incidents that may constitute war crimes on both sides,” she continued. “The establishment of an independent commission of inquiry should be welcomed by all of us who cherish the rule of law.”

Moving a layer deeper, Pillay reminded her opponents and everyone reading along of the broad context of the present struggle. “Let us not forget that the current conflict and destruction comes at a time when the people of Gaza have already been suffering from prolonged occupation and seven years of an air, land and sea blockade imposed by the Israeli authorities,” she said.

When trying to determine the true meaning of statements made by parties engaged in high stakes conflict, it is always useful to consider who has what to lose. The lawmakers criticizing Pillay for attempting to do her job represent a government entangled with the interests of multinational business, including and especially purveyors of Middle Eastern oil. The United Nations’ investigative committees on the other hand have no property or state power to lose or gain. They have only their reputations as keepers of the organization’s 1948 mandate, written by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, among others, “to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom … to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands,” and to engage “in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.” In the effort to determine who is more likely telling the truth, then, it stands as a principle of reason that statements made by stakeholding parties should be regarded with the highest possible skepticism. In this instance, the legislators are a pack of bullies trying to smear their appointed critics with the very dishonesty they’re guilty of: partisanship, prejudice and omission. It’s an effective strategy in the eyes of a witness who values fairness, as in the abstract, the global public indisputably does.

Readers seeking other means to assess Pillay’s loyalties don’t need to look far. She once defended and was later nominated to her position in the High Court of her native South Africa by Nelson Mandela. After earning a law degree from the Ivy League university attended by Barack Obama, she went on in South Africa to create services for women and victims of domestic abuse, get rape and sexual assault recognized in certain cases by the U.N. as acts of genocide, and help write an equality clause prohibiting discrimination on grounds of race, religion and sexual orientation into her country’s constitution. More recently, she has expressed strong support for NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and the privacy rights of average people. (“Those who disclose human rights violations should be protected: We need them,” she said at a news conference in July.)

When she was confirmed in 2008 as head of “the only office at the UN to be fiercely uncompromising and independent about human rights standards,” she described the job as “being the voice of the victim everywhere.” For impugning her integrity, “every one of her congressional critics”—including those Truthdig has supported in the past, such as Calif. Rep. Henry Waxman—“have dishonored this nation’s claimed concern for human rights, as well as their own integrity,” says Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer. It is not they whom Eleanor Roosevelt and other Americans involved in creating the U.N. would be proud of. Pillay’s advocacy goes a long way toward fulfilling the promise of the institution, and her refusal to be intimidated honors the standard she set for the office. For being a faithful champion of both Palestinians and Israelis suffering in the current brutality, we honor her as our Truthdigger of the Week.

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