DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The war between Israel and Hamas has claimed well over a thousand lives. In the conflict both sides have accused each other of war crimes. Israel says it is fighting a terrorist organization that is firing barrages of rockets at its cities while using the people of Gaza as human shields. Hamas says it's fighting a country that uses its massive military indiscriminately against civilians and blockades Gaza restricting the rights and movements of so many Palestinians. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed William Schabas, a Canadian expert in international law to lead a small fact-finding mission to determine among other things if either or both sides have committed war crimes. For Schabas access to sites isn't quite as important as access to people.
WILLIAM SCHABAS: It's always very dramatic to go and see a bombed out building or something that's been destroyed but it's really much more about the interaction with the individuals to provide in a way a bit of a platform for victims to come and express themselves and say what they've been through.
GREENE: Those interactions might also include people in government who are willing to talk about military orders and action.
SCHABAS: Sometimes people make mistakes. Maybe some of the -what have been described as atrocities were actually mistakes. Then of course when it's not a mistake and when they've targeted something you need to have the explanations about attempts to minimize damage to noncombatants - what we call collateral damage.
GREENE: Now this committee could refer its findings to the U.N. or even the International Criminal Court. But without even having started the mission, Schabas's appointment has already come under question in part because of his public criticism of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Schabas told us while he hopes the committee's work might contribute in some way to peace in the region, he is under no illusion this investigation will be easy.
SCHABAS: I am by nature an optimist, but I don't know that that would describe my sentiments right now. It would be my hope, obviously I don't want to spend six months of my life wasting time and not accomplishing anything. It wasn't my decision to set up this commission by the way; this was the judgment of the human rights council.
They took a vote, and they decided democratically. And then they asked me to participate, and I'm just doing it out of a sense of duty mainly to the United Nations. But my hope obviously would be that this may contribute to peace to the region. Now, I don't want to sound pompous and suggest this is the most decisive thing that's happened. Many, many people have tried - presidents of the United States, Tony Blair - so why would a modest little commission of three commissioners with a small budget and a short timeframe make any difference? But perhaps we'll contribute to it, and I think it's worth the effort.
GREENE: I just want to ask you about the choice to be part of this. You said back in 2012 very famously now that, quote, "my favorite would be Netanyahu in the dock of the International Criminal Court." After saying that, do you feel like you have the credibility here and can be impartial?
SCHABAS: Well, you've asked two questions there, credibility and impartiality. You know, I have opinions, very well-known I think, because I am of course someone who often speaks in public, and I lecture to students all the time and attend conferences. If I told you I was a specialist in international human rights law, and then you said, well, what do you think of the Middle East? And if I were to answer you, well, that's interesting - I never really thought about it. That wouldn't be credible at all. So anybody in my position has thought a great deal about it.
But my position is that you put your views beside; you park them at the door. Some of my critics have talked about my views in great detail, and my sense from listening to them is that it's not that they want someone who is impartial and doesn't have views; they just like to have a commissioner whose views are closer to their own. And that's not a solution to this either.
GREENE: What I hear you saying is since you sort of told me that impartiality and credibility are two separate questions is that you are confident that you can be impartial but that some of your critics might have damaged your credibility in some way?
SCHABAS: I don't know whether they've damage it or not. I've been very harshly attacked in a few countries. I haven't been getting that message, I have to say, from other parts of the world and from other constituencies. I've had a huge number of messages of encouragement and support. I don't I certainly don't want to be in the way of this because this isn't about me. It's about having a successful commission. And if at some point it becomes clear to myself and to the people who put their trust in me, the presidents of the human rights council in particular, that I'm an obstacle to this going forward, why I'll be the first to offer to step aside. But that hasn't happened, and so I have a job to do. And I just have to do it as professionally and as honestly as I can.
GREENE: Let me just play something for you here if I can. This was the voice of Israel's ambassador to the United Nations speaking about the - your appointment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RON PROSOR: When it comes to the U.N. bias against Israel, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The organization shows an outspoken critic of Israel. This is the understatement of the day. William Schabas to lead this Gaza inquiry, this makes about as much sense as choosing Count Dracula to run the blood bank.
GREENE: How do you respond to that?
SCHABAS: Count Dracula, that's very clever. I hadn't heard that before. You know, the ambassador of Israel, he doesn't want this commission. He won't be happy with anybody, and I'm obviously a lightning rod. And a few of my previous statements have contributed to that. But he wouldn't be happy with anybody because he's opposed to the commission; he's opposed to the human rights council; he's opposed to all of the human rights mechanisms within the United Nations. That's his target.
Perhaps I underestimated the venom that would be associated with my own appointment. But this is all to be expected. There's nothing surprising there. If there are other important governments around the world and more credible that come and say, I'm not the right person - I'm going to be a little more attentive to them than I am to the Israeli permanent representative.
GREENE: Can you just tell me what you feel makes this investigation so important? What do we stand to gain from it, and I guess, asked in another way, what would we we lose if you weren't pursuing this?
SCHABAS: The world has watched a tragic, tragic loss of life, frightening events, terrible destruction. And there are very conflicting narratives about what's going on. There are competing explanations, human rights monitoring organizations have issued statements and reports and attempted to address it, as have journalists who were there.
But a body like this from the United Nations adds a level of expertise and professionalism and it brings with it the credibility of the organization. That's important. Things like this shouldn't happen; 2000 people lose their lives in a conflict mainly in an occupied territory. This sort of thing shouldn't happen without some proper explanation and with a proper assessment of the facts. It would be a travesty for the U.N. to just pass over it. And so that's what's important about it.
GREENE: William Schabas, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it.
SCHABAS: Thank you.
GREENE: William Schabas is chair of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that will examine possible war crimes in the conflict between Hamas and Israel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.