Analysis from Israel

Any legal case has two main components – the facts and the law. In my last post, I analyzed the International Criminal Court’s disregard of salient facts in its ruling on Thursday overturning the chief prosecutor’s decision not to investigate Israel’s botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza. But the ruling was equally contemptuous of several fundamental legal principles.

The first of these is that judicial decisions should be dictated by law, not politics. The majority judges threw this principle out the window when they asserted that whether the alleged crime was sufficiently grave to merit ICC attention should depend not on what actually happened, but on the amount of “attention and concern that these events attracted” from the international community, as reflected in “several fact-finding efforts on behalf of States and the United Nations.” In other words, the ICC’s choice of cases will depend not on their objective legal merits, but on how many resolutions the dictators who dominate the U.N. Human Rights Council decide to devote to it.

As legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich aptly noted, the ICC is thereby “saying ‘drop dead’ to victims U.N. not interested in,” which is a travesty in and of itself: It means the court will spend its scarce resources investigating 10 people killed while attacking soldiers intercepting a blockade-busting flotilla, but ignore – to cite just one example – the tens of thousands of Syrian civilians killed by their own government’s barrel bombs.

No less appalling, however, is that this is a standard of justice used only in the most benighted regimes: Prosecutions will be based on neither facts nor law, but solely on whether they serve the interests of the politicians in power.

The second fundamental legal principle the decision guts is that the same person shouldn’t be prosecutor, judge and jury. Since a prosecutor is obviously invested in his own case, he cannot be an impartial judge.

But the ICC judges, sitting as a “pre-trial chamber,” decided to actively force the prosecutor to pursue an investigation she considered unjustified (technically, they only ordered her to “reconsider” her decision, but in practice, that order leaves her little choice). Thus the court is no longer an impartial arbiter between prosecution and defense; it is now actively invested in the success of the case.

This blurring of boundaries is justifiable only in extraordinary circumstances. That is why, as Judge Peter Kovacs noted in his dissent, “the Pre-Trial Chamber’s role is merely to make sure that the Prosecutor has not abused her discretion” – or at least, it ought to be. Instead, the majority decided to leave her no discretion at all.

Finally, the court ignored the law itself. As Kovacs also noted in his dissent, customary international law explicitly allows countries to enforce a lawful blockade, including by force if necessary. The blockade of Gaza is legal according to one of the very U.N. fact-finding committees the majority cited in its decision. And force was necessary in this case, since the ship refused repeated orders to halt and then attacked the Israeli boarding party with “fists, knives, chains, wooden clubs, iron rods, and slingshots with metal and glass projectiles.” Thus the casualties “were apparently incidental to lawful action taken in conjunction with protection of the blockade,” and as such, it’s likely that “most if not all of those acts will not qualify as war crimes.”

Yet the majority judges’ opinion doesn’t even mention the laws of blockade much less discuss their application to this case. Evidently, they consider customary international law irrelevant to their decisions.

In my earlier post, I compared the majority ruling to something out of Alice in Wonderland. And in fact, the three elements cited above are precisely the elements that make the Queen of Hearts’ courtroom so arbitrary: The law is irrelevant; judgment depends solely on the whim of the rulers; and the same person is prosecutor, judge and jury.

But the Queen of Hearts is actually preferable, because at least she’s honest about the arbitrary nature of her decisions: “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.” The ICC maintains an expensive taxpayer-funded legal bureaucracy in an effort to disguise it.

Originally published in Commentary on July 20, 2015

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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