BBC framing of the Schabas resignation story misleads audiences

On February 3rd an article titled “Gaza conflict: Schabas quits UN inquiry over bias claims” appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page. Those who read right to the end would have noticed that the report continues to promote the standard BBC narrative which continues to ignore the fact that post-conflict examinations of the civilian/combatant casualty ratio suggest that the UN’s claims on that topic are inaccurate.Schabas art main

“The war left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, the majority civilians, according to the UN. Tens of thousands of homes in Gaza were also destroyed or badly damaged.”

There is no publicly available evidence to suggest that the BBC has carried out any independent investigation into this subject since the end of the hostilities and yet, despite the fact that the problematic methodology upon which UN OCHA’s statements were based was evident from the early stages of the conflict and the appearance of more up to date information since, the BBC continues to quote and promote that organisation’s claims.

The most notable feature of this article, however, is its framing of the story. By means of that selective framing readers are led to believe that Israel was alone in protesting William Schabas’ bias.

“Israel had accused Prof Schabas of “clear and documented bias” against it.”

“UNHRC spokesman Rolando Gomez said Israel had accused Prof Schabas of having a “conflict of interest”, AFP news agency reports, due to paid consultancy work done by Prof Schabas for the PLO in 2012.”

Whilst the letter alerting the President of the UN Human Rights Council to Schabas’ paid consultancy work for the PLO did indeed come from Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, in the months since Schabas’ appointment last August, a number of prominent figures from around the world have raised concerns regarding his objectivity.

In September 2014, for example, Lord David Pannick, QC wrote in The Times:

“The chairman is to be William Schabas, an international law professor from Canada, and a critic of Israeli policy. He commented last year that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, was his favourite candidate to see “in the dock” of the International Criminal Court. He has made a similar statement about Shimon Peres, the former president of Israel. These are surprising statements given the strength of competing candidates in the Middle East and other repressive countries in the world.

The basic legal principle, summarised by Lord Hope of Craighead for the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords in 2001, is that a person should not sit in a judicial or quasi-judicial role if “the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased”. The appearance of bias is sufficient to disqualify a person. There is no need to show actual bias.”

Criticism of Schabas’ appointment had also been voiced in the months following his appointment by other international lawyers and human rights activists, indicating that – contrary to the misleading impression promoted by the BBC – Israel was not alone in pointing out the issues arising from his numerous on record statements and  his participation in political campaigning and anti-Israel activity such as the infamous ‘Russell Tribunal.

Similarly, this BBC article also frames criticism of the UN HRC’s inquiry as an exclusively Israeli affair.

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the investigation should now be scrapped.

The inquiry’s panel, which was commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), is due to issue its findings in March.

Mr Netanyahu said the council was “an anti-Israel body” whose record proved it had “nothing to do with human rights”.

“This is the same council that in 2014 made more decisions against Israel than against Iran, Syria and North Korea combined,” he said.

“After the resignation of William Schabas it is time to shelve the anti-Israeli report his committee wrote.””

The UN HRC’s obsession with and bias against Israel is of course very well documented and has been the subject of comment from the UN Secretary General, ambassadors and visiting dignitaries. The resolution which created the commission of inquiry to which Schabas was appointed was criticized by members of the US Congress and the US representative at the UN HRC described it as “yet another one-sided mechanism targeting Israel” whilst the representative of the EU member states on the  Human Rights Council stated that was “unbalanced, inaccurate, and prejudges the outcome of the investigation by making legal statements.”.

In other words, Israel is not alone in noting the politicized nature of the UN HRC as a whole and its latest inquiry in particular or the pre-existing bias of the man it selected to head that inquiry. Through its very selective framing of this story, however, the BBC misled audiences by suggesting that Israel stands alone against an otherwise unified consensus. 

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