An Interview with Justice Richard J. Goldstone

by Jennifer Parker

On Wednesday, January 27, I interviewed Justice Richard J. Goldstone before he delivered the George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture entitled “Accountability for War Crimes.” (I also reported on the event for the Yale Daily News.) Justice Goldstone is a widely respected jurist with an equally intimidating résumé: he has served as a member of the South African Constitutional Court and as Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. As head of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, he recently published “The Goldstone Report.” It charges both Israel and Palestinian armed groups with committing war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. Israel is heavily censured throughout the report, particularly for its use of “disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population.”

Justice Goldstone addresses the press after presenting the results of a UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza confict. (Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons)

Q: If one were to look at South Africa during the height of Apartheid, one would have said that the situation looked insoluble, and that the brutal repressive regime could never be changed peacefully. Yet that happened, and South Africa has become in many ways a shining example for the world. What is the lesson there for Israel and Palestine?

A: To me the biggest lesson is that there is no problem that is irresoluble. The position in South Africa was generally accepted by 99% of South Africans and 100% of world as being irresolvable and heading for a bloodbath. There appeared to be no prospect for the White minority who had oppressed Blacks for over three centuries, handing over government to a Black majority. It just seemed an impossible scenario. And yet, it happened. The associated lesson is that these things don’t occur without good leaders. For that reason, I have always applauded the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize to both Mandela and De Klerk. They came from opposite corners, they didn’t particularly like each other, but they respected that the other could deliver on what he promised. That required leadership on both sides. There are no good leaders on either side of the Palestinian/Israeli issue.

Q: The American government has been accused of being an obstacle to a reasonable peace process through excessive bias towards Israel. Do you agree with this? And if so, what steps can America take towards becoming a more effective force for peace?

A: This doesn’t apply exclusively to America, but in order to effectively mediate one has to be completely objective and completely open, and not be perceived justifiably or unjustifiably as being biased in favor of one side. I think that this is the problem at the moment, that the U.S. is seen as being overprotective of the Israelis. I think that makes it difficult for the United States to play a really meaningful role.

Q: If you were in charge of a peace process in the Middle East, what would you be doing?

A: I would certainly be getting all parties to come to table without preconditions. I think that’s an essential first step. I don’t believe that there should be any issues that shouldn’t be capable of discussion, as much as they may be anathama to one side or the other. I don’t believe that you can have meaningful discussions with important issues being left off the table. Nor can you leave the important issues for the end– it’s a waste of peoples’ time to deal with easily resoluble, less important issues.

Q: Do you see a solution to the settlement issue?

A: I’m not an expert on the Middle East, I think that should be something on the table. I’m sure there are possible solutions of land swaps and boundary discussions, border discussions. It’s difficult to tell any South African that there’s no solution, even to the most intractable problems. When there’s goodwill and there’s leadership, I have no doubt that the truth can be resolved.

Jennifer Parker ’11 is a Modern Middle East Studies major in Silliman College.