Christine Chinkin, professor of international law at the London School of Economics, is a much-published academic, the recipient of numerous awards.
On January 11, her signature appeared, along with the signatures of other lawyers, below a letter in the Sunday Times that was highly critical of Israel’s military action in Gaza. The signatories deplored Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel. But these attacks did not, protested the signatories, justify Israel’s military response, which, in the view of the signatories, amounted to “aggression, not self-defence.”
The signatories said that, “Israel has a right to take reasonable and proportionate means to protect its civilian population… However, the manner and scale of its operations in Gaza amount to an act of aggression and is contrary to international law, notwithstanding the rocket attacks by Hamas.”
So the signatories left not a shred of doubt where their opinions lay. They had considered the situation in Gaza and had reached a view. You and I might not agree with this view. But I for my part defend the right of the signatories to hold this view, and to express it publicly.
Although I have never met Professor Chinkin, I feel sure that she will defend my right publicly to express my extremely low opinion of this view. In particular, I reject the contention of Professor Chinkin and her co-signatories that Israel’s attack upon Gaza nine months ago was in any meaningful sense “disproportionate”. It was, in my view, a wholly justified act of self-defence that lay well within the construction of article 51 of the UN Charter.
Professor Chinkin will doubtless disagree with my assessment, just as I disagree with hers. But that’s not the point. The point is that, while I defend her right to freedom of expression, I cannot defend her apparent assumption that, in spite of having publicly expressed condemnation of Israel’s action in Gaza, she was nonetheless fully entitled subsequently to join an allegedly impartial committee of inquiry established under the auspices of the UN’s Human Rights Council to investigate “all violations of international human rights law… that might have been committed” during, before or after the Gaza operation.
Professor Chinkin had already made clear her view of Israel’s culpability. By no stretch of anyone’s imagination could she be said to have been an impartial investigator.
Indeed, we might note that although media attention has of late been focused on her having signed the January 2009 letter to the Sunday Times, this was not her first public denunciation of Israel. Almost exactly a year ago, she and Archbishop Desmond Tutu presented to the same Human Rights Council a report on the Israeli shelling of Beit Hanoun, in Gaza, on November 8 2006. She and Archbishop Tutu spoke then of Gaza as if it was still under Israeli occupation.
And, on January 5 this year, we find Professor Chinkin’s signature appended to a letter (in the Guardian) characterising Israeli bombing raids in Gaza as “brutal” and calling for EU action against the Jewish state “until it abides by its international legal and humanitarian obligations.”
Why, therefore, did Justice Richard Goldstone think it proper to invite Professor Chinkin to join his mission to Gaza?
Justice Goldstone has sought to excuse himself by declaring that his was a fact-finding expedition, not a judicial inquiry. This explanation strikes me as particularly lame, and — at best — extraordinarily naïve.
At the very least, an advocate of Justice Goldstone’s eminence ought to have insisted that Professor Chinkin’s presence on his panel be balanced by that of some jurist who did not share her prejudices — perhaps Harvard professor, Alan Dershowitz, who assures me he was not even approached.
Then there is the matter of justice not merely being done but being seen to be done.
It is simply not good enough for Justice Goldstone to say (as he did on Israeli TV in July) that he was “absolutely satisfied” that Professor Chinkin had “a completely open mind.” Even if she had, her inclusion on his panel was an astonishing affront.
For that affront alone, the government of Israel was right not to have co-operated with the Goldstone mission, whose report is, of course, irretrievably damned.