On April 1, 2011, the South African judge Richard Goldstone published an op-ed in The Washington Post qualifying some claims he had made in a controversial UN report on Israel’s conduct during its 2008 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. His apparent retraction of an important claim in the report -- that Israel had a policy of intentionally targeting civilians -- set off a firestorm of speculation about his motives and the legitimacy of his original report. Several of Goldstone’s co-investigators subsequently spoke out in defense of the report’s original findings, but Israel has called on the United Nations to officially renounce them.
The hubbub over the Goldstone report raises the question of whether the UN is capable of independent human rights investigations. But in truth, governments tend to decry negative reports about their behavior regardless of where they come from. Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) known and respected for its investigative reporting, is also regularly accused of bias against Israel and is lambasted by the other countries singled out in its reports. The International Criminal Court’s investigations of human rights abuses in Sudan have also been denounced by Khartoum.
Indeed if anything, UN investigations are generally perceived as being more credible -- and, in fact, sometimes are more credible -- than the available alternatives. For example, the UN report on rape during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, authored by former Prime Minister of Poland Tadeuz Maczowiecki, aggregated hundreds of interviews of authorities, doctors, and rape survivors. It is regarded as among the most well-researched and accurate portrayals of these crimes, particularly in comparison to many of the more sensationalistic media and NGO reports of the period, as well as those of other international organizations. But even the best reporting can fall victim to charges of impartiality: to this day, the Bosnian Serb government denies many of the Mazowieki report’s allegations as one-sided.
The real problem is that states generally dislike criticism, wherever it comes from, most
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