Ban defends U.N. flotilla panel

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ended a long mediation drought at the U.N. last week, securing a political deal between Turkey and Israel to participate in a U.N. panel that will examine Israel’s May 31 commando raid on a Turkish aid ship, killing nine passengers. But will it live up to its billing, laid down in ...

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STF/AFP/Getty Images
STF/AFP/Getty Images
STF/AFP/Getty Images

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ended a long mediation drought at the U.N. last week, securing a political deal between Turkey and Israel to participate in a U.N. panel that will examine Israel's May 31 commando raid on a Turkish aid ship, killing nine passengers. But will it live up to its billing, laid down in a June 1 Security Council statement, to carry out a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation" into the incident?

The deal highlights Ban's persistence to secure an agreement in the face of intensive resistance from Israel and the United States, which preferred that Israel conduct its own inquiry. But the U.N. inquiry's terms of reference -- setting out the scope of the panel's powers -- will not be made public, fueling concerns by human rights groups that it will not get to the bottom of what happen.

The two sides had already begun to quarrel about the mandate and powers of the blue-ribbon panel -- headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, a respected international jurist -- before it held its first official meeting on Tuesday. And a group of nearly 190 human rights activists and academics in Colombia and abroad have appealed to Ban in a letter to reverse his decision to appoint a former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe as the panel's vice-chair, citing his alleged failure to uphold international law and hold Colombian security forces accountable for abuses of civilians.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ended a long mediation drought at the U.N. last week, securing a political deal between Turkey and Israel to participate in a U.N. panel that will examine Israel’s May 31 commando raid on a Turkish aid ship, killing nine passengers. But will it live up to its billing, laid down in a June 1 Security Council statement, to carry out a "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent investigation" into the incident?

The deal highlights Ban’s persistence to secure an agreement in the face of intensive resistance from Israel and the United States, which preferred that Israel conduct its own inquiry. But the U.N. inquiry’s terms of reference — setting out the scope of the panel’s powers — will not be made public, fueling concerns by human rights groups that it will not get to the bottom of what happen.

The two sides had already begun to quarrel about the mandate and powers of the blue-ribbon panel — headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, a respected international jurist — before it held its first official meeting on Tuesday. And a group of nearly 190 human rights activists and academics in Colombia and abroad have appealed to Ban in a letter to reverse his decision to appoint a former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe as the panel’s vice-chair, citing his alleged failure to uphold international law and hold Colombian security forces accountable for abuses of civilians.

In fact, the real significance of the panel is that it will provide Israel and Turkey with a face-saving means to restore their tattered relations, particularly at a time when tensions along the Lebanese border with Israel have renewed fears of a wider regional conflict, according to U.N. sources. It is certain to disappoint Israeli critics, particularly in Turkey, with expectations that it would lead to an independent, outside investigation into the incident and potentially subject Israeli soldiers to prosecution for the death of Turkish aid activists, according to U.N. based diplomats.

The panel is charged with reviewing national inquiries into the raid by Israeli and Turkish authorities, and trying to devise ways to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future. Officials familiar with the inquiry’s terms of reference — which by agreement will remain confidential — say it will not allow for any wide-ranging questioning of key eyewitness, including Israeli soldiers that participated in the raid. The panel — which includes representatives from Israel and Turkey — will be given a single point of contact in Israel and Turkey to seek "clarifications and additional information," according to U.N. officials.

"It is not a criminal investigation," said Martin Nesirky, the U.N.’s chief spokesman. "It has been tasked with making findings about the facts and circumstance and the context of the incident as well as recommending way of avoiding similar incidents in the future."

On Monday, Ban tried to downplay suggestions from the press that the scope of the inquiry was so narrowly drawn as to preclude prospects for a credible investigation. For instance, he denied there were any back-door agreements barring interviews with Israeli soldiers. But within hours, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s office shot off a blistering clarification of Israel’s position: "Israel will not cooperate and will not take part in any panel that seeks to interrogate Israeli soldiers," according to the statement.

The Obama administration has largely upheld the Israeli interpretation. Immediately after the panel was established, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, issued a statement underlying the narrow scope of the panel’s authority. The panel will "receive and review the reports of each government’s national investigation into the incident and make recommendations as to how to avoid such incidents in the future .The Panel is not a substitute for those national investigations," Rice said. "The United States also hopes that the Panel can serve as a vehicle to enable Israel and Turkey to move beyond the recent strains in their relationship and repair their strong historic ties." 

The U.S. statement infuriated Turkish officials, laying bare the painful concessions Turkey was required to make in order to see the U.N. panel established. The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. chargé d’affaires to protest the remarks. "The U.S. statement limits the mission of the probe," a senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official told the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News. ‘Saying ‘the probe is not a substitute for national investigations’ is misleading."

Turkey’s U.N. ambassador Ertugrul Apakan recently intensified efforts to strike a compromise with Israel on the panel in order to resume Turkey’s mediation role in the region, where it has played a critical role in mediating a dispute between Israel and Syria, according to diplomats who have spoken to Apakan. 

"They are starting to get the message that it is hard to pick a fight with Israel in the way they have and remain in the game," said Steven A. Cook, an expert on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, who said Turkey’s relations with Hamas has written the country out of the Middle East peace game.

Among the most difficult concessions accepted by Turkey was the appointment of Uribe, a close ally of the U.S. and Israel who has also been frequently accused of acquiescing in the use of excessive force against civilian targets. The letter issued by Uribe’s critics details several reports by U.N. human rights experts that document intimidation of judges and abuses of human rights groups.

"To the extent that the United Nations system in the field has witnessed and even been victim of the facts described, we would like to protest the decision taken by your excellency," the letter states. "As can be seen, the government of Mr. Uribe has been condemned for its behavior and disrespect  towards international law, which is a necessary point of reference for the analysis of the flotilla incident. Therefore, we respectfully request your excellency that, for credibility of the inquiry panel and the good of the United Nations and international law, the appointment be reconsidered."

Ban said Monday that he has already taken such concerns into account. "I believe, having known him as leader of Colombia, in my capacity as secretary-general, for such a long time, I have full confidence that he will make a good contribution to this panel."

Please follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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