The Guardian’s Conal Urquhart, Conflict, and an Interesting Conflict of Interests.

Conal Urquhart

With Harriet Sherwood apparently having abandoned Jerusalem in favour of Libya, (was it something we said?) CiF reports from this part of the world are mostly being written by Conal Urquhart. On April 14th, CiF published Urquhart’s version of ‘everything a Guardian reader needs to know about the Goldstone Report’.

In his opening sentence Urquhart quotes unverified casualty figures in Gaza, opting for the number promoted by Palestinian NGOs which contributed to the Goldstone report. However, in November 2010, Hamas admitted that some 700 of the dead were actually terrorist combatants, and the total number of casualties is set at 1,166 following IDF investigations, of which some 60% were combatants.

Whilst making a passing mention of Mary Robinson’s refusal to head the UNHRC commissioned investigation, Urquhart fails to expand on the subject of the biased mandate of the investigation or the fact that the UNHRC’s anti-Israel stance is both well-known and has been much criticized, even by UN officials themselves.

Urquhart also fails to mention the conflicts of interest affecting Goldstone himself as well as the other members of the mission and its staff. As NGO Monitor reports:

  • Several members of the Goldstone Mission have had significant links to NGOs, including HRW, Amnesty International, and PCHR.  These same NGOs were among the most cited in the Goldstone report.  These connections, which were not disclosed by the Mission, call into question the ability of panel members and staff to objectively evaluate information submitted by these organizations. These conflicts are in clear violation of the International Bar Association’s London-Lund Guidelines for Fact Finding Missions.[1]
  • Three members of the Mission – Goldstone, Hina Jilani, and Desmond Travers – signed a March 2009 letter initiated by Amnesty International  and widely publicized, stating that “events in Gaza have shocked us to the core.”
  •  The fourth member, Christine Chinkin, who declared Israel’s actions to be a “war crime” and delegitimized Israel’s right to self-defense while the fighting in Gaza was still underway, was also previously a consultant to Amnesty International.
  • Goldstone mission staff researcher, Sareta Ashraph, is a UK lawyer and a member of Amnesty International who has a history of anti-Israel political activity.  For instance, in 2003, she was an organizer for a Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights “lawfare” lecture given by Raji Sourani, head of PCHR, and chaired by Daniel Machover, the attorney responsible for filing PCHR’s 2005 case against Doron Almog and a leading proponent of lawfare.  Ashraph also worked in the West Bank on “investigations of allegations of violations of international humanitarian law following ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ in 2002.”
  •  Francesca Marotta, Head of the Secretariat UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, is a long-time employee of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights as Coordinator of the Methodology, Education and Training Unit, Research and Right to Development Branch and the “UNHCHR officer responsible for the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”  In1997 and 1999, she held meetings with PCHR.

As previously reported by NGO Monitor, Goldstone was an HRW board member at the time of his appointment.  Although he stepped down after NGO Monitor pointed to this conflict of interest, his mission has been vigorously promoted by both HRW and Ken Roth.  Goldstone’s September 17, 2009 oped in the New York Times closely echoed language from a September 16, 2009 HRW press release. (In this time frame, HRW was forced to suspend and open an investigation of “senior military expert” Marc Garlasco, who co-authored a number of reports targeting Israel.)

Urquhart goes on to imply that Israeli objections to the obviously biased mandate of the mission were the fruit of no more than base subjective emotions:

“If the appointment of a Jewish Zionist judge with impeccable international credentials was meant to appease Israel, it failed. The Israeli government and its supporters in the Israeli media went for Goldstone with a vengeance.” (my emphasis)

The next claim presented by Urquhart is that Israel refused to co-operate with the mission, ignoring the fact that to expect Israel to afford credence to such a one-sided project is tantamount to demanding that a soon to be executed prisoner load the firing squad’s rifles himself. He completely ignores the fact that several Israeli bodies did present – or at least try to – evidence to the Goldstone mission. 108 Israeli citizens from the regions targeted by Hamas rockets did give evidence to the commission. One of them later reported that:

“When I stood up and started to testify before the judges, Justice Goldstone fell asleep in front of me. It was an embarrassing moment but I continued talking, realizing that I should not have high hopes”

Urquhart’s claims that “[a]t the same time the Israeli army embarked on an unprecedented investigation into its own “war crimes” (my emphasis) also fail to take into account that the IDF’s legal division, which is completely independent from the chain of command, investigates any and every accusation of wrongdoing by Israeli soldiers, even if no official complaint has been made or if the accusation merely appears in a media report or comes from  a hostile NGO.  Urquhart’s claim that it was only the existence of the Goldstone mission which “galvanised Israel to start investigations” is also untrue: by July 2009 an initial report had already been released although investigations were still ongoing.

Given that so much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the Goldstone ‘fact-finding’ mission and the resulting report itself, not to mention Goldstone’s recent backtracking, readers may be rather perplexed by Conal Urquhart’s pious adherence to the official UNHRC mantra. His orthodoxy becomes a little more transparent when one appreciates that Urquhart was, at least until two months ago (and may still be) a UN employee, in addition to his writing for the Guardian.

Urquhart has been in this region since about 2002, spending considerable time in Gaza in the framework of his role as External Relations Advisor for the UN Development Programme. His wife, Kirstie Campbell, is also a UN employee; spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme.

The underlying problem with the UN Human Rights Council is that is dominated by the 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. This is what enables it to place human rights abusing countries such as Libya and Iran on its council and sub-committees and this is what was behind the conception of the Goldstone report with its biased mandate and the continued and relentless obsession with Israel, often at the exclusion of urgent human rights issues in some of its own member states.

But the UNHRC is far from the only UN body influenced by the OIC agenda. The UN Development Programme functions under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council, where, of the current 54 member states, 11 are members of the OIC. Currently active members of the UN Development Programme’s board include Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Yemen, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Cameroon and Bangladesh – all of which are members of the OIC, with the latter two also holding vice-presidency of the body.

Thus, considering that the UNDP tells us that it “operates according to the principles and values of the United Nations”, we might reasonably ask ourselves whether someone such as Conal Urquhart who has imbibed that organizational culture for considerable time is capable of offering an impartial and objective view of a report commissioned by the UNHRC and compiled with the aid of the equally partisan UN OCHA.

This CiF article by Urquhart would not only suggest that his objectivity is severely compromised, but it also prompts wider questions as to Urquhart’s suitability in general as a reporter on Israeli affairs due to the obvious conflict of interests brought about by a journalist also having financial and employment ties to the United Nations.

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