A few months ago, the Sri Lankan government detained United Nations staff and their families, holding them against their will in detention camps run as the Sri Lankan government fought enemies it calls terrorists. The UN did not even publicly acknowledge the detention until badgering by the press forced their hand, and the response since then can best be described as tepid.
On the other hand, the UN has just issued the findings of a Board of Inquiry that blasted Israel for alleged breaches of the UN’s “inviolability and immunity.” The newly released “Report of the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry into Certain Incidents in the Gaza Strip Between 27 December 2008 and 19 January 2009” was personally commissioned by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The report focused on nine incidents in which death, injuries, and damage occurred in or around UN facilities or otherwise involved UN personnel during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Although UN Boards of Inquiry are not supposed to be judicial bodies or courts of law and are not supposed to consider questions of legal liability, the Gaza Board of Inquiry operated as prosecutor, judge, and jury. The Board found Israel guilty in most of the nine incidents, accusing the Israeli Defense Force of gross negligence and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of UN personnel and of civilians seeking shelter in UN facilities. It demanded more than $11 million in “reparations” from Israel for property losses and damage. And the UN board demanded a public apology from the Israeli government for daring to charge that Hamas used the areas within and immediately adjacent to UN facilities for military-related activity. Despite eyewitness reports supporting Israel’s claims and a history of Hamas actions consistent with those claims, the UN Board dismissed them as untrue and said that Israel should never have made such claims unless it was absolutely certain of their veracity – a practical impossibility in the fog of war.
Not only did the demand for reparations appear in the Board of Inquiry Report, but I learned from a highly placed senior Israeli government official that the subject came up during Ban Ki-moon’s meeting on May 4th with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The report cited Hamas just once for launching a rocket aimed at Israel civilians, which apparently exploded prematurely and caused damage within Gaza. Hamas was asked to pay some $29,000 for this damage. When I asked Ban Ki-moon at his press conference on May 5th whether the UN was investigating complaints that it had received regarding Hamas’ use of children as human shields (which could well have happened within or near UN-run schools), he equivocated.
Compare this with Sri Lanka. Its government deliberately detained UN personnel and their families in violation of international law. UN officials said nothing until the press discovered this event, and the UN has not demanded any compensation or other form of accountability. By contrast, Israel did all that it could to minimize collateral injuries and damage to UN personnel and facilities, which Israel had good reason to believe were being misused by Hamas terrorists in the middle of a war, yet the UN insisted on reparations and public apologies from the Israeli government.
Let’s take a look at some facts to put the Sri Lankan and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts into perspective. The number of civilian deaths in Sri Lanka since the end of January 2009 from the intense fighting there has exceeded 6,500. The government continues to use heavy artillery and air power to vanquish the dwindling remnants of ethnic Tamil Tiger rebels seeking their own homeland, without regard to the safety of civilians caught in the crossfire.
Even if we were to believe the Palestinians’ inflated casualty figures in Gaza during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas, there were 1,285 Palestinian deaths, among which 895 were civilians - about 14 percent of the civilian death toll in Sri Lanka since late January of this year.
In April 2009, Sri Lanka rejected a call from the UN for a ceasefire, saying that such a ceasefire would allow the rebels to regroup. It has not even acceded to the temporary “pause” that Ban Ki-moon recently suggested. According to Amnesty International, “Even as the fighting rages on, the Sri Lankan government has sought significant international financial, material, and technical aid from various countries as well as international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, without agreeing to international standards or international monitoring.” Virtually no humanitarian aid has been permitted into the Sri Lankan war zone. Thousands of people in the war zone have no access to medical care, according to Amnesty International. Health officials in the area have reported the deaths of starving elderly and children who were denied access to food. The ability of the UN to shelter any civilians, even if it had tried, is zero.
Israel acceded to the UN’s call for a ceasefire, even though arms smuggling to Hamas terrorists and rocket attacks aimed at Israeli civilians did not cease. During its military operation in Gaza, Israel did what it could to avoid civilian casualties even though Hamas was using its own populace as human shields. UN shelters for civilians were permitted to operate, even though Hamas has a history of using UN facilities to hide its terrorist activities. Some humanitarian aid was permitted to go through, despite the risk that it would be used as a cover for arms smuggling.
The Sri Lankan government justifies its actions on the grounds that it is fighting a terrorist organization. In a letter to the New York Times dated May 4, 2009, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States wrote that the “Tamil Tigers are a terrorist organization no different than…Hamas.” (Emphasis added.)
The Tamil Tiger rebels are far from blameless, to be sure, and have used civilians as buffers against government forces. But the Sri Lankan ambassador’s comparison of his government’s war against the Tamil Tigers to Israel’s war against Hamas is duplicitous. Sri Lankan officials have in the past shamelessly accused Israel of all manner of human rights violations for protecting its civilian population from Hamas. By their logic, Israel is supposed to sit on its hands and do nothing against a terrorist organization committed to its destruction, while Sri Lanka can do whatever it pleases – causing mass civilian deaths and forced detentions including of UN personnel and their families in the process – because it is supposedly fighting the very same kind of terrorist organization as Hamas.
The United Nations has bought into this double standard. The UN has done nothing of substance to stop the carnage in Sri Lanka and to hold the Sri Lankan government fully accountable for its illegal detention of UN personnel and their families. However, this same UN has spared no effort to hold Israel accountable for just about anything and everything that has happened in Gaza, irrespective of whom was ultimately at fault. It's only the latest illustration of the higher standards Israel must meet in the world body's eyes to accomplish the most basic of all national functions: survive.