British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, took a sudden last-minute decision this week to oppose the International Criminal Court inquiry launched last month into war crimes that may have been committed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2014.
While declaring his support for the ICC, the Prime Minister said this particular inquiry was “an attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s”.
In the past the ICC has turned down Palestinian requests for inquiries into Israeli conduct in Gaza and the West Bank on the grounds that Palestine was not a state.
This situation changed in 2012 when Palestine was recognised as a state by the UN and again in 2015 when it was accepted as a member by the ICC – and the UK did not vote against either.
The Palestinian request for an inquiry – made in 2015 – took five years to be processed and even in 2020, when the chief prosecutor was ready to launch an inquiry, she asked a panel of judges to rule whether the ICC really had jurisdiction.
Germany put forward counterarguments, as did Hungary, Brazil and Australia, but the judges ruled last month – in February 2021 – that there was no jurisdictional problem and therefore the inquiry could go ahead. Again the UK did not publicly oppose.
On the day of the announcement the Israeli prime minister launched a diplomatic offensive, summoning all his ambassador at a weekend and ordering them to set all other work aside and lobby their host governments to block the inquiry.
The lobbying appears to have been successful. That is why the Prime Minister’s announcement, which is of vital, even existential, significance to a Palestinian state, was made neither in Ramallah, nor in Jerusalem, nor even by the Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons, but in a letter from Downing Street to the Conservative Friends of Israel.
Palestinian ambassador Husam Zomlot said: “It is clear that the UK now believes Israel is above the law. There is no other interpretation of a statement that gives carte blanche to Israel. If ‘friends and allies’ are exempt from international law, there is no foundation for the rules-based global order.”
Two questions now arise. The Middle East minister made a statement about the ICC inquiry on March 2nd which made no mention of a change in policy. What happened since then to change the Prime Minister’s mind?
Secondly, Scottish QC Karim Khan takes over as ICC Prosecutor in June and will be responsible for conducting the inquiry. Could the Prime Minister’s letter conflating UK support for reform of the ICC with the UK’s new-found opposition to an inquiry be intended to influence him?
|Dear Stephen, Eric and Stuart,|
As you are aware, the UK is a strong supporter of the ICC in line with its founding statute. We have been working with other countries to bring about positive change at the Court’. This process has been driven by our ambition to strengthen the ICC. The election of two highly qualified UK nationals, Judge Joanna Korner QC and Karim Khan QC, to the roles of Judge and Prosecutor to the ICC respectively, will help serve reform. This was a key priority for the UK, demonstrating our enduring commitment to strengthening the Court and serving international justice.
As a founder member of the ICC, we have been one of its strongest supporters and continue to respect the independence of the institutions. We oppose the ICC’s investigation into war crimes in Palestine. We do not accept that the ICC has jurisdiction in this instance, given that Israel is not a party to the Statute of Rome and Palestine is not a sovereign state. This investigation gives the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s.
Yours ever, Boris
Reactions to the Prime Minister’s letter to Conservative Friends of Israel
Julie Elliott MP wrote to the Prime Minister to protest his actions.
I have today written to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary regarding the PM’s comments about the ICC.— Julie Elliott (@JulieElliottMP) April 15, 2021
Read it here 👇 pic.twitter.com/9U6QV2ns2x
The Palestinian Ambassador called on the UK Government to respect the integrity of the court:
The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls in a statement on the UK government to respect the independence and integrity of the International Criminal Court following UK premier’s remarks about ICC’s #Palestine probe. Thread ⤵️— Palestine in the UK (@PalMissionUK) April 15, 2021
A group of charities condemned the UK Government’s interference with the international court’s decisions
The Prime Minister is undermining the independence of the ICC, say Caabu and other charities and human rights groups.— Caabu (@Caabu) April 14, 2021
Former Chair of the Britain Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group put it succinctly:
2/2 But Boris Johnson thinks he knows jurisdiction of @IntlCrimCourt better than the court itself. In a letter to lobby group he says UK opposes this investigation of a “friend and ally”. UK either supports independence of the court or it does not. We can’t have it both ways pic.twitter.com/A5SvAxEsMn— Richard Burden (@RichardBurden27) April 14, 2021
Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) balances the risks versus the benefits of the investigation:
Yes, the prospect of an International Criminal Court investigation is undoubtedly making Israeli authorities more defensive, but when the alternative is impunity for war crimes, that’s a price to be paid. https://t.co/AHVZEOegyC pic.twitter.com/thOqLSeEpc— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) April 13, 2021