How to run an inquiry

2010-06-18 00:00

IN the aftermath of the bloody events on the aid ship Mavi Marmara, where nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed by Israeli commandos on May 31, Israel has set up a judicial inquiry into the affair. Since Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who chose the members of the inquiry, has already described the victims as “violent Turkish terror extremists” on a “ship of hate”, some people doubt that the investigation will be impartial.

On June 15, the second inquiry into “Bloody Sunday” in the Northern Irish city of Derry, where 14 civil rights marchers were killed by British paratroops on January 30, 1972, delivered its report. The first people to see it were the relatives of the victims. On the whole, they seemed satisfied.

The British inquiry was chaired by Lord Mark Saville, a former High Court judge. Since the inquiry involved the British Army, the other two members were senior judges from New Zealand and Canada, not from Britain. And the Saville inquiry’s report was utterly damning.

It said that none of the casualties had guns, and that there were “no instances where it appeared to us that soldiers either were or might have been justified in firing”. The paratroops gave no warnings before they started shooting, and a number of soldiers afterwards “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing”.

The report also said bluntly that the soldiers had lost their self-control, “forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training, and failing to satisfy themselves that they had identified targets posing a threat of causing death or serious injury…There was a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline.” Neither their commanders nor the British government wanted to kill innocent people, but they were to blame for it nevertheless.

Prime Minister David Cameron, disclosing the conclusions of the report to the House of Commons in London, did not pull his punches either. “You do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. It. Was. Wrong.” And he apologised on behalf of the British state, without qualifications.

If a similarly impartial tribunal inquired into the events that occurred aboard the Gaza-bound aid ship last month, it would probably come to identical conclusions. We know enough about confrontations where none of the soldiers or police die, but lots of the demonstrators/protesters/rio­ters do, to understand the psychology and the crowd dynamics of it.

That impartial inquiry would probably conclude that there was a “serious and widespread loss of fire discipline” among the Israeli commandos (five of the nine dead civilians were shot in the back or the back of the head). It would also probably find that few if any of the activists had lethal weapons, or acted in ways that justified killing them.

The report would almost certainly agree that nobody in authority in Israel intended a massacre, but that the government and the military must still bear the blame for the killings. Like the Saville report, it would not talk of “murder” or “unlawful killing”, but it would leave the door open for prosecutions by the appropriate authorities. And the Israeli prime minister, of course, would apologise on behalf of the nation.

All of this may well come to pass in Israel — in 2048, 38 years from now. Because that is how long it took the British government to get from the Widgery report, the original whitewash that was produced only months after the Bloody Sunday massacre, to the Saville report.

Lord Chief Justice John Widgery’s report in 1972 was a shameless cover-up that blamed the victims: “There is a strong suspicion that some [of the dead and wounded] had been firing weapons or handling bombs in the course of the afternoon.” And, of course, it exonerated the soldiers: “There is no reason to suppose that the soldiers would have opened fire if they had not been fired upon first.”

Those lies stood for 38 years, which is why the first people to be shown Saville’s report this week were the victims’ families. It won’t bring the dead back to life, but it is a reckoning of sorts. The British government is a slow learner, but it does learn.

Tony Blair, back when he was still a new and popular figure, ordered this second inquiry into Blood Sunday in 1998. Only 12 years and £191 million later, it has finally seen the light.

Israel has appointed ex-Supreme Court judge Yaakov Tirkel, retired Israeli army officer Amos Horev, and Shabbtai Rosen, an Israeli professor of international law, to the current inquiry, but the only two foreign members are observers who have no vote, so this will probably be Israel’s Widgery report. There may be an Israeli version of the Saville report eventually, but not this year or next.

Who knows? By 2041, only 38 years late, the United States may even hold an inquiry into the “loss of fire discipline” by U.S. paratroops in Falluja in 2003, the massacre of Sunni Arab youths that sparked the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation of Iraq. But not yet.

Sovereignty means never having to say you’re sorry. Or at least not for a long, long while.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London- based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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