Richard Goldstone

The South African judge's Gaza report is just another example of his intensely political attitude to the law

The behaviour of the South African judge Richard Goldstone, whose report on Israel’s actions in Gaza has drawn furious criticism not just from Israel but by many neutral observers, will not surprise those who have followed his career. 

Three things stand out about Goldstone since his student days. Those who know him say that, above all, he has always been extremely ambitious. Second, he is able and intelligent. And third, he is a man of great political shrewdness. Many believe that all his legal and judicial actions are ultimately dictated by political considerations. 

As a young advocate in apartheid South Africa, Goldstone devoted himself to commercial law. He drew criticism for the way he entertained at his home the attorneys who might bring him cases: this was greatly frowned on for it was viewed as touting for custom and a sign of overweening ambition. Similarly, his decision to accept nomination as a judge from the apartheid regime was deplored by many liberal lawyers who refused to accept such nomination because it meant enforcing the country’s laws. 

But when entrusted by President F. W. de Klerk with a Commission to investigate the causes of violence, Goldstone displayed nifty footwork and turned up all manner of damning evidence against the regime but did not investigate the ANC’s armed wing or any form of violence organised by the organisation. This made him the ANC’s favourite judge, particularly since he seemed intent on producing the maximum political publicity. 

Given the sensational nature of these reports — at a time when the eyes of the world were fixed upon South Africa — the result gave Goldstone an international reputation as a fearless crusader against apartheid. Reports began to circulate that he was attempting to set himself up for a large international job. Moreover, although he was supposed to report to de Klerk and Mandela, he carried out a surprise raid on the offices of military intelligence and issued a statement suggesting that the military were involved in illegal behaviour. De Klerk had to dismiss 23 senior military figures though the evidence for their guilt which Goldstone had promised was never forthcoming. The officers sued de Klerk, who had to back down and apologise, but the damage was done. De Klerk was furious at the deliberately sensational use of untested evidence and, knowing that Goldstone’s ambitions went as far as succeeding Boutros Boutros-Ghali as UN Secretary-General, referred to him as “Richard Richard-Goldstone”.

Then, to the ANC’s delight, just before the 1994 election Goldstone made allegations of illegal behaviour against three police generals, effectively ending their careers. Yet he had made no attempt to put these allegations to the men. Goldstone made no bones about the fact that his decision to publicise these allegations was based not on judicial grounds but on a desire for political publicity. The ANC loved it: when they won, he was given a seat on the Constitutional Court. 

His international reward came when he was appointed Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and hurried to secure prosecutions. Seizing upon the illegal detention and kidnapping of General Djordje Djukic and Colonel Alexsa Krsmanovic by Muslims in Sarajevo, Goldstone suggested that there were grounds for a prosecution and the men were flown to The Hague. Thus he broke the rules of procedure of the ICTY, for he failed even to ask the High Court in Belgrade, which had already instituted proceedings against the two men, for a deferral of competence to the ICTY. Moreover, by accepting them as de jure prisoners, he legitimised their undoubtedly illegal kidnapping. In his eagerness for prosecutions, Goldstone was now on very thin ice. Realising that he had acted illegally, Goldstone quickly changed the status of his prisoners from accused to witnesses. He then broke the rules again by indicting Djukic and thereafter suggested that the two men testify against their accomplices or face the alternative of being handed back to the Muslim authorities, who would doubtless torture them. This was indeed Krsmanovic’s fate, but Djukic was dying of cancer and Goldstone withdrew the indictment. 

The Gaza inquiry was always going to be suspected of bias, having been commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, itself packed with notorious human rights violators. Both Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Mary Robinson, the former Irish President, turned down the mission for that reason. The accusation is that, having decided that to gain international advancement at the UN, Goldstone must run with the Islamist hounds, even though this is at the expense of the Israeli (and Jewish) hares. There is no doubt that the fact of his Jewishness makes his testimony doubly precious to the anti-Israel side, a fact acknowledged by Hamas, which has publicly thanked him. Small wonder that such fury is now being expressed against Goldstone throughout the Jewish world.

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