What is the International Criminal Court and why it has Israeli officials worried

AP , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

Israeli officials sound increasingly concerned that the International Criminal Court could issue arrest warrants for the country’s leaders more than six months into the Israeli war on Gaza.

International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan
International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan. AGP

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has written in general terms about ICC action against Israeli troops and officials, and Israel’s foreign ministry has said it is also tracking reports of pending action.

The ICC was established in 2002 as the permanent court of last resort to prosecute individuals responsible for the world’s most heinous atrocities – war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression.

The Rome Statute creating the ICC was adopted in 1998 and entered into force when it got 60 ratifications on July 1, 2002. The U.N. General Assembly endorsed the ICC, but the court is independent.

Without a police force, the ICC relies on member states to arrest suspects, which has proven to be a major obstacle to prosecutions.

Netanyahu said Friday on the social platform X that Israel “will never accept any attempt by the ICC to undermine its inherent right of self-defence.”

“While the ICC will not affect Israel’s actions, it would set a dangerous precedent,” he wrote.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said late Sunday that it had informed missions abroad of “rumours” that the court could order the arrest of senior Israeli political and military officials. The ministry did not give a source for the rumours.

In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, the court’s prosecution office declined to comment in detail.

The United States said Monday it opposed the ICC investigation into Israel's conduct in Gaza.

The US Congress threatened the ICC that arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials will be met with U.S. retaliation — and legislation to that effect is already in the works, Axios reported.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul told Axios he expects a House bill to sanction ICC officials involved in investigating the U.S. and its allies.

 

WHAT IS THE ICC?

The ICC’s 124 member states have signed on to the Rome Statute. Dozens of countries did not sign and do not accept the court’s jurisdiction over war crimes, genocide and other crimes. They include Israel, the United States, Russia and China.

The ICC becomes involved when nations are unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes on their territory. Israel argues that it has a functioning court system, and disputes over a nation’s ability or willingness to prosecute have fueled past disputes between the court and individual countries.

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump slapped economic and travel sanctions on the ICC prosecutor and another senior prosecution office staffer. The ICC staff were looking into U.S. and allies’ troops and intelligence officials for possible war crimes in Afghanistan.

US President Joe Biden, whose administration has provided crucial military and political support for Israel in its assault on Gaza, lifted the sanctions in 2021.

The ICC has 17 ongoing investigations, has issued a total of 42 arrest warrants and taken 21 suspects into custody. Its judges have convicted 10 suspects and acquitted four.

In its early years, the court was criticized for focusing on crimes in Africa — 10 of its investigations are in African nations — but now it has investigations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

 

WHAT IS THE ICC'S RELATIONSHIP WITH ISRAEL AND PALESTINE?

The U.N. General Assembly raised the Palestinians’ status in 2012 from a U.N. observer to a non-member observer state. That opened the door for the Palestinian territories to join international organizations including the ICC.

The ICC accepted “The State of Palestine” as a member in 2015, a year after the Palestinians accepted the court’s jurisdiction.

The court’s chief prosecutor at the time announced in 2021 that she was opening an investigation into possible Israeli crimes on Palestinian territory. Israel often levies accusations of bias at the U.N. and international bodies, and Netanyahu slammed the decision as antisemitic.

Current ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan visited Ramallah and Israel in December, meeting Palestinian officials and families of Israelis killed or taken captive by resistance groups in the Oct. 7 operation.

Khan called for the immediate and unconditional release of all captives.

Khan said “international humanitarian law must still apply” in the Israeli war and “the Israeli military knows the law that must be applied.” After the visit, Khan said an ICC investigation into possible crimes by Israeli forces and Hamas “is a priority for my office.”

 

WHO ELSE HAS THE ICC CHARGED?

A year ago the court issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on charges of responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. Russia responded by issuing its arrest warrants for Khan and ICC judges.

Other high-profile leaders charged by the court include ousted Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir on allegations including genocide in his country’s Darfur region. Former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed by rebels shortly after the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest on charges linked to the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2011.

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