It is hard to imagine a less fitting tribute to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz than Israel’s international lobbying effort to cut funding to the International Criminal Court, an institution whose mandate is to hold individuals accountable for crimes such as, you guessed it, genocide.
Yet, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was revealed that a number of the ICC's top donors will reject Israel’s lobbying efforts to dent funding to the court, which is currently running on a very tight budget to deal with cases involving a Ugandan commander of the rebel Lord Resistance Army (that’s Kony’s gang), Congolese rebel commanders, and the former president of Cte d’Ivoire, among others. The states who said they would reject Israel's efforts to effectively cripple the court include Canada, a steadfast Israeli ally, and Germany, which, given its history, stated that it “couldn’t imagine” cutting funding.
The idea of an international criminal court predates the Holocaust, but it was only after the horrors of World War Two that it really took root. Nonetheless, it still took 50 years of work to start negotiating the Rome Statute, the ICC’s foundational treaty, and more than a decade after that for states to submit to its jurisdiction. Today the ICC stands as the successor to the Nuremberg trials and subsequent ad hoc international tribunals established to deal on a case-by-case basis with specific wars and genocides. As a permanent international court, the ICC’s purpose is not only to hold perpetrators of international crimes, like those committed during the Holocaust, to account; it is also to act as a deterrent to the commission of those crimes. In short its purpose is “Never Again”.
It’s not easy for states to trade in some of their sovereignty to back impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, but many do so because it is important on a moral level and because these crimes pose a threat to international peace and security. Moreover, the ICC statute contains an essential jurisdictional safeguard in that it is complimentary to national jurisdictions. The ICC can only prosecute in cases where a member state has proven itself unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out the investigation or prosecution. It’s not like a team of international lawyers is about to swoop into Israel to kidnap her soldiers before she's had a chance to deal with them herself.
Israel’s request that states stop funding the ICC – funds it needs to pay its staff – comes on the heels of her punishing the Palestinians for submitting to the court’s jurisdiction by holding back Palestinian tax dollars that the Palestinian Authority needs to pay its civil servants. (Well, at least Israel hasn't built a settlement on the court’s property.)
Palestine should be lauded for taking the unilateral action of submitting itself to the ICC’s jurisdiction, for it represents a desire to peacefully address crimes committed on its territory by all parties. One of the major reasons to hold individual people accountable is to avoid assigning collective guilt – that is, to the Palestinian or Israeli people on the whole – and thereby stop a cycle of violent retribution by one group against another.
Israel’s go-to argument is of course that international institutions are biased and politicized and, so, it chooses to boycott and obstruct them. But the ICC isn’t a political body, no matter what Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claims. It isn’t even a part of the UN system. There have, however, been times when states made the court’s work next-to impossible, such as when the prosecutor was forced to drop charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta due a lack of evidence that was caused by Kenya’s obstruction, but that doesn’t seem to be Israel’s genuine concern. Rather, it seems that Israel is the one attempting to politicize the court.
Fortunately, in this case, the court and the states party to it have rejected these attempts.
Jess Salomon is a former UN war crimes lawyer from Montreal, Canada, who is now a stand-up comic. She tweets at @jess_salomon.
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