No, Going to the ICC Is Not “Lawfare” by Palestine
Just Security has published two long guest posts (here and here) on the ICC and Palestine by Nimrod Karin, a J.S.D. candidate at New York University School of Law who was previously Deputy Legal Adviser to Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. There is much to respect about the posts, which are careful, substantive, and avoid needless hyperbole. And I agree with Karin on a surprising number of issues, particularly concerning the institutional reasons why (for better or worse) the ICC is likely to avoid opening a formal investigation into the situation in Palestine.
I disagree, though, with Karin’s insistence that Palestine has engaged in “lawfare” by ratifying the Rome Statute and using Art. 12(3) to accept the Court’s jurisdiction retroactive to 13 June 2014 — the day after the kidnapping and murder of the three young Israelis. Here is what he says in his second post (emphasis in original):
To readers who are utterly unsurprised by the dating of the ad hoc declaration I would simply add – likewise. It’s an example illustrating the strategic nature of the Palestinian multilateral maneuvering, which is squarely within their prerogative, acting as any other self-interested political entity would. But then maybe we should dial down the discourse depicting this as an idealistically motivated move – striking a blow for international criminal justice, or placing a conflict under the umbrella of law – and come to terms with the fact that the Palestinians are practicing lawfare by any other name, even at the expense of the values supposedly guiding their march to the ICC.
I wince whenever I see the term “lawfare,” because it is normally just short-hand for “I disagree with X’s legal actions.” Even if the concept has meaning, though, I don’t see how it can be used to describe what Palestine has done. To begin with, as Karin acknowledges, Palestine did not pluck the June 13 date out of thin air — it’s the same date that the Human Rights Committee selected for the beginning of the Schabas Commission’s mandate. Perhaps that was a political decision by the HRC, but Palestine can hardly be faulted for following its lead, especially given that it could have gone much further back in time (its first Art. 12(3) declaration purported to accept jurisdiction from 1 July 2002) — something for which Karin curiously gives Palestine no credit whatsoever.
I also don’t understand what is so troubling about the June 13 date. To be sure, the kidnap and murder of the three young Israelis was a horrific act. But it’s anything but clear whether Hamas leadership was responsible for their kidnapping and murder. It’s not even clear whether they were killed late on June 12 or early June 13 — the latter date within Palestine’s grant of jurisdiction. So how can Palestine’s choice of June 13 be some kind of devious move to maximise Israel’s criminal exposure while minimising its own?
More fundamentally, though, I simply reject the basic premise of Karin’s argument: namely, that taking a dispute to an international criminal tribunal with general jurisdiction can be seen as lawfare. Perhaps it’s possible to view tribunals with a one-sided mandate (de jure or de facto) as lawfare — the IMT prosecuting only Nazis, the ICTR prosecuting only Hutus. But the ICC? The ICC investigates situations, not specific crimes. By ratifying the Rome Statute and filing its Art. 12(3) declaration, Palestine has taken both Israel and itself to the ICC, not Israel alone. Palestine thus no longer has any control whatsoever over which individuals and which crimes the OTP investigates. That’s not lawfare, that’s bravery — especially given that, as I’ve pointed out time and again on the blog, the OTP is quite likely to go after Hamas crimes before it goes after Israeli crimes. In fact, the only lawfare being practiced in the context of Operation Protective Edge would seem to be by Israel, which has responded to the OTP’s preliminary investigation — which it opened as a matter of situation-neutral policy, not because of some kind of animus toward Israel — by condemning the ICC as a “political body” and launching a campaign to convince member states to stop funding it (which would be a clear violation of their treaty obligations under the Rome Statute).
I have little doubt that Palestine would be delighted if the ICC prosecuted only Israelis for international crimes. But it has to know how unlikely that is. Instead of condemning its decision to ratify the Rome Statute and submit an Art. 12(3) declaration as “lawfare,” therefore, we should be celebrating its commitment to international criminal justice. Indeed, if a state can practice lawfare by giving an international criminal tribunal the jurisdiction to investigate its own crimes as well as the crimes committed by its enemy, the concept has no meaning at all.