This is very interesting. The Union of the Comoros, a state party to the Rome Statute since 2002, has formally referred Israel’s attack on the flotilla that included the MV Mavi Marmara to the ICC. The question I want to address in this post is whether the Court has jurisdiction over the flotilla attack. I think it’s clear that it does — although there is at least one important wrinkle in the analysis. But I also think it’s exceedingly unlikely the OPT will open a formal investigation into the attack.
In terms of jurisdiction, the critical provision in the Rome Statute is Art. 12, “Preconditions to Jurisdiction.” Article 12(2) provides as follows (emphasis mine):
In the case of article 13, paragraph (a) or (c), the Court may exercise its jurisdiction if one or more of the following States are Parties to this Statute or have accepted the jurisdiction of the Court in accordance with paragraph 3:
(a) The State on the territory of which the conduct in question occurred or, if the crime was committed on board a vessel or aircraft, the State of registration of that vessel or aircraft;
The bolded text is critical. The Court has jurisdiction over an international crime only if that crime was committed by a national of a state party to the Rome Statute or on the territory of a state party. Art. 12(a) makes clear, however, that a vessel registered to a state party qualifies as the territory of that state. According to the referral, the MV Mavi Marmara was registered to Comoros at the time of the attack, 31 May 2010. (Comoros provides documentation of registration in an appendix to its referral that is not available on the ICC website.) For purposes of jurisdiction, therefore, the MV Mavi Marmara does indeed qualify as Comoros territory. And that means Art. 12 is satisfied.
The wrinkle in the analysis is whether the attack on the MV Mavi Marmara qualifies as a “situation.” States are permitted to refer situations to the Court, not specific crimes. Here is Art. 14(1):
A State Party may refer to the Prosecutor a situation in which one or more crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court appear to have been committed requesting the Prosecutor to investigate the situation for the purpose of determining whether one or more specific persons should be charged with the commission of such crimes.
Is Comoros referring a situation to the Court? All of the situations currently being investigated by the OTP — Kenya, Libya, Cote D’Ivoire, etc. — are much broader than the situation being referred by Comoros. That said, the referral is not limited solely to the attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. As Comoros’ supporting documentation notes, one other ship in the attacked flotilla, the MV Sofia, was registered to a state party — Greece. Moreover, the referral suggests that Israel’s June 6 attack on the MV Rachel Corrie, which was registered to Cambodia, a state party, should also be included in the overall situation. (The referral tries to link the attack on the flotilla to the situation in Gaza, suggesting that the attack would be part of any situation referred to the Court by Palestine. That’s clever but irrelevant, at least at this point, because Palestine has not yet ratified the Rome Statute.)
In terms of the Rome Statute’s legal requirements, I think that Comoros has indeed referred a situation to the Court. Article 14(1) speaks of situations in which “one or more crimes… appear to have been committed,” suggesting that even one crime can, in the right circumstances, qualify as a situation. (An attack with a nuclear or chemical weapon, for example.) The limited scope of the situation being referred by Comoros, therefore, should not legally disqualify the referral.
In short, the ICC does indeed have jurisdiction over the attack on the flotilla (and the later attack on the MV Rachel Corrie), so the OTP would be well within its rights to open a formal investigation into the attack. The real question is whether the OTP will open an investigation. A full answer is beyond the scope of this post, but I think it’s exceedingly unlikely. Although the limited scope of the referred situation is not legally disqualifying, I think it significantly reduces the situation’s overall gravity. To begin with, it is not clear whether any international crimes were committed on the MV Sofia or the MV Rachel Corrie (readers should feel free to weigh in), so the referred “situation” may, in practice, be limited to crimes allegedly committed on the MV Mavi Marmara. I don’t want to minimize the tragedy of nine civilian deaths, and I am no fan of determining gravity by simply counting victims, but I think the OTP would have a difficult time justifying a decision to prioritize the flotilla attack over many of the other situations it is considering, such as Colombia, Georgia, or Afghanistan.
Moreover, and more fundamentally, it does not seem sensible for the OTP to investigate one isolated component of the much larger conflict between Israel and Palestine. If the OTP ever does investigate that conflict — which, as I’ve discussed before, I don’t think it should — it needs to address all of the potential crimes, both Israeli and Palestinian. And that, I think, is the fatal flaw in the Comoros referral: it is essentially asking the OTP to investigate crimes committed by only one side of the conflict, Israel. Even if Israel’s account of the attack on the flotilla is correct and the IDF killed the civilians in self-defense, the ICC would still not have jurisdiction over the civilians’ actions — it is not a war crime to attack a soldier (though it could, of course, be a domestic crime).
Finally, a plea to the media: please do not overstate the importance of the OTP’s “decision” to open a preliminary examination into the attack on the flotilla. As the ICC’s press release notes, the OTP is required to conduct such an examination into every state referral, regardless of merit. I have no doubt that the OTP takes state referrals more seriously than referrals from individuals and human-rights groups. But that does not mean, nor does it even suggest, that the OTP will decide to open a formal investigation into the flotilla attack. Indeed, for all the reasons mentioned in this post, I think that is exceedingly unlikely.