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Professor William Schabas: Leading Gaza inquiry is my 'duty'

William SchabasMiddlesex academic has no qualms about heading up UN Commission of Inquiry

William Schabas, Professor of International Law at Middlesex University, is no stranger to working on major international human rights projects.

From 2002 to 2004 he served on the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recorded human rights abuses during the 11-year civil war in the West African country, and later drafted the 2010 report of the UN Secretary-General on the status of the death penalty.

However, he may just have taken on his most challenging role yet, having accepted the position of Chair on an international Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Gaza.

"The challenge for the commissioners is to put their personal views aside and do this in as impartial and professional a manner as possible."

A hugely sensitive issue, his appointment has, unsurprisingly, come under intense scrutiny in the media since the announcement was made on 11 August.

In an attempt to undermine his position, many have cited comments Professor Schabas has made in the past about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Canadian academic says those speaking out against his appointment are not seeking neutrality.

"The complaint is that I should be impartial, but really what the critics want is not that I'm impartial, they want me to have different views of the situation," he responds.

"Everyone is going to have different views and the challenge for the commissioners is to put their personal views aside and do this in as impartial and professional a manner as possible."

Currently, Professor Schabas and Senegalese lawyer Doudou Diène are waiting to find out who the third and final commissioner on the team will be. Initially, prominent British-Lebanese lawyer Amal Alamuddin was named, but she later had to withdraw citing existing commitments.

"When the President of the Human Rights Council asks you to do something, I feel a sense of duty to agree."

Speaking to the press, Alamuddin wished those who will serve on the commission "courage and strength in their endeavours" – words of encouragement that reflect the sensitivity and gravity of the task at hand.

However, this is something that Professor Schabas is not only fully aware of, but totally willing to accept in the pursuit of a better future for both Israel and Palestine.

"Of course, it's an intensely challenging mandate, but one which has the potential to make a positive contribution to peace and justice in the Middle East, so it is obviously something I want to do," he explains.

William Schabas"When the President of the Human Rights Council asks you to do something, I feel a sense of duty to agree. I expected it to be rough going when I took it on, and it's going to be, but that's not a good reason for not doing it. I don't think it's an easy thing to find people who will take on this job, but someone has to do it – it's important."

Crucially, for such a vital role, Professor Schabas has many years of experience working on other human rights cases to draw upon – whether it's understanding how to process large amounts of evidence from his time on the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission; being able to lead a team, as he did as Head of the Irish Centre for Human Rights; or knowing the ins and outs of how the UN works from his previous positions there.

Of course, this knowledge can only be utilised if the Commission receives cooperation from both Israel and Palestine.

"It's uncertain yet the kind of access we'll be able to have," he says. "I don't know if the issue is really so much of going into Israel as it is being able to have access to the people and the information that we want."

"It's all part of an ongoing process that hopefully is at some point going to bring an end to conflict and bring some kind of stable peace."

However, Professor Schabas is hopeful that the Israeli authorities will bear in mind the words of Richard Goldstone, who led a previous Gaza inquiry in 2009 for the UN. In 2011, Goldstone said that the report he submitted would have been different had he known then what he was later told about the Israeli position.

"I think it is in Israel's best interest to cooperate with the Commission," says Professor Schabas.

Should a thorough investigation be enabled, the Middlesex academic says that the inquiry could be a "game changer" in the history of the region.

"The view is to making recommendations about accountability," he explains.

"Although it doesn't say this explicitly in the mandate or in the resolution, it's clear that an institution like the International Criminal Court (ICC) is contemplated and I think that this may be the distinguishing feature of this Commission compared with its predecessors."

Such an outcome, however, hinges on Palestine's position, as it has not yet granted jurisdiction to the ICC. If it were to, this would open up the possibility of criminal prosecutions, should the Commission make any such recommendations.

"That's the game changer, if you want, the new element, and it's all part of an ongoing process in that part of the world that hopefully is at some point going to bring an end to conflict and bring some kind of stable peace," says Professor Schabas who, when he's not assisting the UN, uses his vast experience to supervise the School of Law's doctoral students.

He also has a message for those under his tutelage who are keen to follow in his footsteps and take up the challenge of international human rights law: put in the hours.

 "When the United Nations turns to me they are doing it because they view me as an expert – I have expertise in the area," he advises.

"I gained that by working hard for many, many years doing research, writing and studying."

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