Does the UK support the ICC? Yes. And No.

Foreign Commonwealth & Development office questions

Questions Tuesday April 20th 11.30

Foreign Office minister James Cleverly told the Commons that the UK still “absolutely respects the independence of the International Criminal Court” even though the Prime Minister accused it of launching a war crimes inquiry that was “a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s”.

If these two statements are difficult to reconcile, then it would not be the first time that a declaration by the Prime Minister has contained two seemingly mutually contradictory statements.

In a perplexed tone of voice Wayne David, Labour’s shadow Middle East minister, asked him: “So does the Minister believe that the court is independent or not?”

The minister assured him that “the UK will remain a strong supporter of the ICC”. He did not actually mention the change of policy announced by the Prime Minister in a letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel the week before and reliable sources say that the Foreign Office did not even know about the letter until after it had been sent. 

The fact that the policy had changed was reported to Parliament on the same day in a written answer to a question tabled by another member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Jack Lopresti MP. The written answer confirmed that the Government “do not consider that the ICC has jurisdiction”.

What is still not clear is when and why the Government changed its mind. In 2020 the ICC set up a panel of judges to settle the issue of whether they had jurisdiction to launch an inquiry into possible war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank.

Germany sent its foreign minister to argue the case that it did not. After a year the panel ruled that the ICC did indeed have jurisdiction because the ICC had accepted Palestine as a member in 2015 and that in turn was because the UN had recognised Palestine as a state in 2012.

Since 2012 the UK Government’s position has been that it had no objection in principle to recognising Palestine as a state and it would so do when it would ‘best serve the interests of peace’. It did not support the position adopted by Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Australia that Palestine was not a state.

The mystery now is what the UK hopes to achieve by expressing doubts which they did not express at a time when it might have been influential.  Why wait until the issue is closed?

One possible answer is contained in the Prime Minister’s letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel which seems to hint that he is hoping that Scottish QC Karim Khan who takes over as Chief Prosecutor for the ICC from June 2021 will decide to drop the inquiry. 

The letter says that the the UK supports “reform” of the ICC and that the UK opposes the war crimes inquiry and that the election of Karim Khan QC “will help serve reform”.  But of course the post of Chief Prosecutor is independent and Boris Johnson said that the UK will “continue to respect the independence” of the ICC.

Conservative MP Andrew Selous welcomed the minister’s opening words, but added: “Does he agree, though, that a just and lasting peace must be built on the rule of law, with severe consequences for systematic breaches, whoever commits them?”

The minister replied that: “We regularly call on Israel to abide by its obligations under international law, and we have regular conversations on this issue,” but he failed to answer the question about whether he would impose “severe consequences for systematic breaches”.

Image ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

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