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Palestinians Lose Attempt to Sue Israelis for ‘War Crimes’ On a Technicality – International Court Prosecutors Leave Opening for Future Suits

The International Criminal Court building in the Hague, the Netherlands.

The International Criminal Court building in the Hague, the Netherlands.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a key defeat for NGO “Lawfare” in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday decided that it does not have jurisdiction to begin an investigation over cases related to the 2008-09 Gaza War because “Palestine” is not a state.

In January 2009, the Palestinian Authority (PA) filed a letter with the Court, purporting to accept the ICC’s jurisdiction in order to bring war crimes cases against Israeli officials, notes Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which was involved in the case from the outset.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), governed by the Rome Statute, is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.

The ICC is an independent international organisation, and is not part of the United Nations system. Its seat is at The Hague in the Netherlands. Although the Court’s expenses are funded primarily by States Parties, it also receives voluntary contributions from governments, international organizations, individuals, corporations and other entities.

The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) is one of the four organs of the Court and is headed by Luis Moreno – Ocampo, the Prosecutor, who took office on 16 June 2003.

“Throughout this process, the ICC – created to punish the worst perpetrators of war crimes and mass murder – was exploited by several EU- and European-government funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which intensively lobbied the OTP as part of their campaign to attack the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” says Anne Herzberg, legal advisor for NGO Monitor. “The NGOs Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Al Haq, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l´Homme (FIDH), and Adalah campaigned at the ICC in support of the Palestinian Authority’s political goals. This clearly was contradictory to the spirit and substance of peace negotiations.”

On behalf of NGO Monitor, Herzberg submitted a legal brief on the case. The brief argued that the ICC’s jurisdiction is defined by the 1998 Rome Statute, which makes clear that only states can accept the Court’s jurisdiction. The Statute was adopted after years of careful diplomatic negotiations, and allowing the PA to fall under the Court’s jurisdiction would have essentially amounted to a re-writing of the Statute. In addition, the brief argued that, contrary to claims by NGO proponents of the PA initiative, the ICC was not established as a court of universal jurisdiction, and NGO attempts to transform it into such would be legally improper. The OTP used similar arguments to support its decision.

“The fact that the case even proceeded this far was clear legal overreaching, but it shows the strength of NGOs that lead the de-legitimization and demonization campaigns against Israel,” adds Herzberg.

“The OTP’s decision today is a strong rebuke to these NGOs, their political agenda, and their campaign to isolate Israel from the international community,” notes Herzberg. “International arenas are routinely hijacked for political purposes, but today’s decision was markedly different.”

This victory over Israel’s Palestinian foes may not be long lasting, and depends strictly on the UN General Assembly’s decision in the near future to recognize or avoid the recognition of a State of Palestine.

Sealing the International Court’s 8 point decision are two crucial notes, numbered 7 & 8:

7. The Office has been informed that Palestine has been recognised as a State in bilateral relations by more than 130 governments and by certain international organisations, including United Nation bodies. However, the current status granted to Palestine by the United Nations General Assembly is that of “observer”, not as a “Non-member State”. The Office understands that on 23 September 2011, Palestine submitted an application for admission to the United Nations as a Member State in accordance with article 4(2) of the United Nations Charter, but the Security Council has not yet made a recommendation in this regard. While this process has no direct link with the declaration lodged by Palestine, it informs the current legal status of Palestine for the interpretation and application of article 12.

8. The Office could in the future consider allegations of crimes committed in Palestine, should competent organs of the United Nations or eventually the Assembly of States Parties resolve the legal issue relevant to an assessment of article 12 or should the Security Council, in accordance with article 13(b), make a referral providing jurisdiction.

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