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Inside story on Sir Geoffrey’s UN inquiry into Gaza blockade

Nov 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout, News

Sir Geoffrey Palmer has been cautiously silent about his recent stint as chair of a UN inquiry into Israeli troops boarding ships trying to breach the Gaza strip naval blockade – with one exception: his grandson, journalism student RUSSELL PALMER:

WHEN people find out that my grandfather is Sir Geoffrey Palmer, their eyes usually widen and they start telling me how amazing he is. I’ve been told more than once that he’s “basically New Zealand royalty”.

But to me, he’s just Granddad.

I’m his eldest grandchild, and since I’m also a journalism student at Whitireia I felt it was my duty to talk to him about the hardest thing he’s had to do, his nine month posting to New York to chair the inquiry panel.

At Queen’s Birthday weekend last year, he was excited by the prospect of going to New York with my grandmother Margaret and helping in the Middle East situation.

“I knew I had to bring Margaret with me or it would never have worked,” he says.

Granddad and I don’t really do long-distance calls, and his computer had the report on it and had to be kept secure.

The UN gave him a super-encrypted thumb drive, and he didn’t dare connect anything to the internet. It was a bit hard keeping in touch.

Grandma did send occasional email updates using her funky new iPad. She told us about going to various operas and museums, and walking home in the freezing temperatures because all the taxis were taken.

The event Granddad and his fellow panellists were investigating happened on May 30, 2010, and involved Israeli troops boarding a flotilla of six ships trying to break a naval blockade of the Gaza strip.

Nine Turkish people were killed by the Israeli troops on one of the ships.  Israel expressed regret but will not apologise.

The report was published on the front page of the New York Times on September 1.

It found Israel had not breached international law in the boarding of the vessels, and that the flotilla “needlessly carried the potential for escalation”.

It also found the force used by the Israeli defence forces was unacceptable. As a result the state should make an “appropriate statement of regret” and offer payment to the families of the deceased.

Granddad said he would be fine talking to his grandson about the assignment, on the proviso we didn’t delve into the report’s content, or the people or countries involved.

“The report speaks for itself, it’s out there,” he said.

“It provided some insight into what happened that was not available before. It gives an account of the legal principles, and those are contested, but nevertheless, it is there.”

On a Tuesday afternoon I wandered to their house, and was invited in with a hug and a handshake. Grandma was busy in the kitchen, having decided to bake me a cake.

It’s a little awkward interviewing someone like Sir Geoffrey, grandson or not. He’s practised at public speaking and dealing with media, and I couldn’t help wondering how different this might be to other interviews he’d done.

I began asking questions about how he got involved, and why this was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do.

“I took some advice from people who I respect and they virtually all told me not to do it, because it was such a difficult assignment.

“But I decided I would do it because it seemed to me to be quite important to try and contribute something constructive to the difficulties of that part of the world.”

He has definite views on things, especially when he gets involved, but he doesn’t come to opinions lightly.

He said the report is an accurate reflection of his and vice-chair of the panel Colombian ex-President Uribe’s view.

Living and working in New York was a change from being in Wellington. He tells me how he changed his habits so he could really focus, working weekdays but keeping weekends and evenings free.

“That was very unusual for me.”

In the knowledge that the report would have profound political consequences, he purposely struck them from his mind. His role was to remain impartial, to hold both governments to account and to form an international view on the issue.

“I could not have had any bias in this or it would have been hopeless, I was nevertheless accused of it afterwards, but it didn’t exist,” he said.

“It turned out that we could do a report in accordance with the instructions we were given and it turned out to be extra difficult because both sides had different views of the facts and the law. And those views did not really change over time.”

It was a difficult task, intellectually and analytically, but especially because it involved political cultures he was unfamiliar with.

He felt the stress of the task combined with being in a city halfway round the world from home, but he said it didn’t affect him emotionally.

“I feel happy that I was able to do what was required to be done, to produce a report, present it to the Secretary-General and it can be considered at the UN. But I’m glad it’s finished.”

Since returning, he seems more at ease with himself. He’s gone from being very busy, to merely teaching at university and occasionally practising law.

And there’s another big project – writing his memoirs. A biography on his political work appeared last year, and while he’s found it helpful for his research, he now wants to tell his own version.

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