William Schabas, chosen to chair the inquiry committee, a move compared by Israel to “inviting ISIS to organize religious tolerance week,” has strong Jewish roots.
His paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Galicia in Central Europe who moved to New York at the turn of the 20th century. “I was not raised with any religion,” Schabas told the Forward, but he’d go on occasion with his father to synagogue. “I’m not a religious person but I’m very comfortable and proud of my Jewish ancestry, I’ts part of me,” he said. “I feel very good and positive about it.” Schabas also fondly recalls family meals at Jewish delicatessens.
Schabas is a member of the advisory board of the Rene Cassin organization, a London-based Jewish human rights group. His father, Ezra Schabas is a leading figure in the Canadian classical music scene. A clarinetist, conductor, music teacher and theorist, Ezra Schabas is a member of the Canadian Royal Conservatory and has won many musical awards. He was educated in New York, served in the U.S. army in World War II and later moved to Toronto.
Schabas doesn’t know the exact origin of his family’s name, but he is sure it comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat (shabbas in Yiddish.) It is an unusual name for Ashkenazi Jews, a fact that led one rabbi to suggest that the family may have Sephardic origins as well.
Since being nominated to chair the inquiry commission, the phone in Schabas’ London home has been ringing off the hook and his email inbox is overflowing. Many of those contacting him, Schabas said, share pretty much the same complaint: “Why is the U.N. singling out Israel, while human rights are violated in so many other countries?” Surprisingly, Schabas agrees that these claims have some merit.
“One of the great problems of the U.N. human rights system is double standards,” he said, “and there are double standards throughout the system because of the politics of the human rights council.”
He blames the bias on the political agendas of the countries making up the council, a phenomenon he describes as “regrettable.” But Schabas also sees a silver lining for Israel within the double standard of the United Nations.
“The double standards issue works in different ways in different places,” he said. In the UN Security Council, he noted, where the United States almost always vetoes resolutions critical of Israel, the bias runs the other way. “Let’s just say that it’s a plausible complaint that maybe Israel has gotten a lot of attention at the Human Rights Council but at the same time it has perhaps had a lot of inattention at the Security Council, so the double standards work in both directions for Israel.”
The name William Schabas was well known to Israelis and to supporters of Israel even before he was selected to head the inquiry committee. In his blog, in writings and in public appearances, Schabas has taken a publicly critical approach to Israeli policies. His most famous saying, which has won endless mentions in recent days, was that he’d like to see Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “in the dock of an international court.”
Schabas views many of the citations as out-of-context. The remark was made, he explained, as part of a discussion about how the International Criminal Court is often viewed as focusing solely on African leaders to the exclusion of others. He insists that regardless of the context, it has nothing to do with his current assignment. “I wasn’t made the chairman of this commission because of my opinions and I intend to park them at the door,” he said.
Schabas also clarified that even if he did support trying Netanyahu in Hague, “I didn’t say he was guilty of anything.”
Israel’s greatest concern, that its leaders will be dragged to the ICC and charged with war crimes, is not unfounded, Schabas believes. While the previous inquiry commission, led by judge Richard Goldstone, did not lead to legal steps, this time could be different.
“If there’s one distinction between the work of this commission and that of the Goldstone commission, that would be it,” he said. Schabas noted that the “specter of the International Criminal Court” is “increasingly present” and that while the Palestinians did not pursue this avenue after the Goldstone report came out, now they do seem inclined to do so. “So that makes the link between the work of an international commission of inquiry and the International Criminal Court much more serious.”
“I don’t think that Israel’s done itself any favors throughout the years by refusing to cooperate,” he said. Schabas is aware that Israel has already stated in public its position — that it did not target civilians but that it was Hamas that used innocent Palestinians as human shields. But there is still a need to work with the commission and respond to questions relating to the details of events, he said.
“I don’t see why it wouldn’t be to the benefit of Israel to cooperate in that sense, so I hope they’ll do it. But not everybody behaves rationally in these situations,” said Schabas.
Schabas was part of a six-member “truth commission” set up by a non-governmental group called the Iran Tribunals that took on the task of investigating human rights violations in the Islamic Republic.
The commission looked into political arrests, torture and mass executions and concluded: “These violations of human rights were devised, instigated and executed (or caused to be executed) by a single central authority and as such the Islamic Republic of Iran is the only authority responsible for these acts.”
Schabas has visited Iran several times for academic meetings, stating that he does not believe in academic boycotts whether imposed on Iran or on Israel, a position that he said got him “in hot water” in Britain, where he now lives and works. During his last visit to Tehran, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still in power, Schabas presented a film about the Nuremberg trials “which was probably troublesome for the regime at the time,” he said.
Schabas’ co-commissioner is Doudou Diene from Senegal, who serves as the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
In 2003, Diene visited Canada to investigate problems of racism in Canada. He found numerous problems of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia and even an increase in anti-Semitism. “The resurgence of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia requires not only vigilant attention and repression but also measures to promote dialogue between the communities concerned,” Diene wrote in his final report. The Canadian Jewish community, through several of its communal institutions, fully cooperated with Diene’s inquiry.