More countries condemn war crimes in Gaza

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

In a report published on June 19, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) provided details of six aerial attacks by Israeli forces in Gaza that suggested the use of up to 2,000-pound bombs on residential buildings, a school, refugee camps and a public market.

The bombs (US-made GBU-31s) could penetrate several floors of concrete and cause tall buildings to completely collapse – as we can see in published photographs of the devastation all over Gaza.

The OHCHR has verified 218 deaths in those six attacks; there’s information that the number “could be much higher.” It said the series of bombings – carried out just between Oct. 7 and Dec. 2, 2023 – already suggested that Israel’s military had “repeatedly violated fundamental principles of the laws of war [international humanitarian law].”

How can Israel be called to account for these “suggested” war crimes, among other criminal acts committed so far, which fall under that category and crimes against humanity?

The two international courts established with separate and distinct mandates to handle such cases are the International Court of Justice (established on June 25, 1945 under the UN Charter) and the International Criminal Court (set up permanently by the Rome Statute, a treaty, on July 1, 2002).

The ICJ adjudicates general disputes among nations, whereas the ICC investigates and prosecutes cases against “natural persons” 18 years or older. Both courts are located in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

Israel currently faces suits in both courts: for genocide before the ICJ and for war crimes and crimes against humanity before the ICC.

It was South Africa that filed the genocide case at the ICJ on Dec. 29, 2023, alleging that Israel has been violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in its military offensives in Gaza since Oct. 7, 2023. Israel says it is retaliating for the incursion and attack by Hamas on its territory early on that day. A militant armed Palestinian organization, Hamas has governed Gaza since June 2007.

The Israeli offensive has destroyed large sections of Gaza, killed more than 36,000 civilians, caused massive displacements, deprivation of medical care and starvation verging on famine among about half of the Palestinian population (numbering more than two million).

Last May 24, the ICJ ordered Israel to immediately halt its offensive in the southern city of Rafah. But Israel hasn’t complied until now.

Since South Africa filed the original case last December, 11 countries have either filed or announced their intentions to join as complainants. Spain has declared its intent to join on June 6. The 11 nations (in chronological order since Feb. 8 to June 3) are: Nicaragua, Belgium, Ireland, Colombia, Turkiye, Libya, Egypt, Maldives, Chile, Mexico and Palestine.

Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico, Libya and Palestine have filed formal requests and are awaiting action from the ICJ. The seven others have assumed a common political stance by announcing their intention to join the case.

As regards the ICC, in January 2015, its previous chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda initiated a preliminary examination into the “situation in the Palestinian territories” for potential war crimes committed by both Israel and Palestinian forces. On the basis of her findings, the ICC authorized a formal investigation in 2019.

Her successor as chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, continued Bensouda’s work and three weeks ago, announced his decision to seek arrest warrants from ICC judges against Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defense minister Yoav Gallant for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Gaza war.

He also wants similar warrants against three top Hamas leaders for the same crimes allegedly committed during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on communities near Israel’s border with Gaza. 

Importantly, ICC member-states/state-parties are obliged to honor the court’s warrants once issued.

The international media quickly pointed out that Khan’s move was the first time an ICC prosecutor has taken such action against the leaders of a “close Western ally.” Both Israel and the United States reacted strongly against Khan’s move.

On May 21, Israel’s government spokesperson issued a statement calling on the “nations of the civilized, free world… who despise terrorists and anyone who supports them” to stand by Israel and condemn Khan’s move. “Make sure the ICC understand where you stand,” the statement urged. “Oppose the prosecutor’s decision and declare that, even if warrants are issued, you do not intend to enforce them. Because that is not about our leaders. It’s about our survival.”

The following week, however, the Guardian, in a team-up with two Israeli-based publications, disclosed the findings of a remarkable investigative journalism project – partly detailed in this space on June 1 – that exposed how Israel’s intelligence agencies waged a nine-year covert “war” to undermine, influence and intimidate the ICC.

The Guardian’s disclosures apparently spurred a majority of the ICC’s 124 state-parties to rally behind the court. They also took note that Khan’s office had been subjected to “several forms of threats” and “hostile intelligence activity” apparently intended to interfere with and improperly influence the prosecutor’s work.

In an unprecedented move, a joint statement was issued just last June 14 by 93 ICC state-parties vowing to “defend the institution and its integrity from any political interference and [from] pressure against the court, its officials and those cooperating with it.”

The statement was drafted by five ICC state-parties: Belgium, Chile, Jordan, Senegal and Slovenia, apparently representing each one’s geographical region. It was effectively presented to the other state-parties for their endorsement.

“This is a unique moment of international solidarity with 93 ICC state-parties standing up for global justice and accountability for mass atrocities,” observed Danya Chaikel, the International Federation for Human Rights representative in the ICC.

“They are collectively opposing the egregious threats to the court from powerful countries including Israel, the US and Russia and strongly rejecting [these countries’] efforts to manipulate the rule of law for political gains.”

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