Analysis from Israel

If the International Criminal Court ever had any pretensions of being a serious legal institution, they were effectively demolished by yesterday’s ruling overturning Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s decision not to investigate Israel’s botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza. Reading the ruling feels like falling down the rabbit hole straight into the Queen of Hearts’ courtroom, for many reasons. But here’s the one I found most astonishing: In a 27-page document devoted almost entirely to discussing whether the alleged Israeli crimes were grave enough to merit the court’s attention, not once did the majority judges mention one of the most salient facts of the case: that flotilla passengers had attacked the Israeli soldiers with “fists, knives, chains, wooden clubs, iron rods, and slingshots with metal and glass projectiles,” causing nine soldiers serious injuries.

That fact appeared only in Judge Peter Kovacs’ dissent. Anyone reading the majority decision would conclude that the soldiers opened fire for no reason whatsoever.

This is not a minor detail; it was central to Bensouda’s decision to close the case. She noted that the soldiers opened fire, ultimately killing 10 passengers, aboard only one of the flotilla’s seven ships – the one where passengers attacked them. That strongly indicates there was no deliberate plan to kill civilians; rather, the soldiers intended to peacefully intercept all the vessels, and the killings were the unpremeditated result of a chaotic combat situation that unexpectedly developed aboard one ship. Or in her words, “none of the information available suggests […] the intended object of the attack was the civilian passengers on board these vessels.”

The majority judges, however, dismiss that conclusion, asserting that the lack of casualties aboard the other ships doesn’t preclude the possibility that soldiers intended from the outset to kill the Mavi Marmara’s passengers. They then offer a string of wild suppositions to explain why soldiers might have wanted to perpetrate a massacre aboard that ship but not the others. Perhaps, they suggest gravely, it’s because the Mavi Marmara carried the most passengers. Or, perhaps because it carried no humanitarian aid. In any event, the soldiers clearly used more violence against the Mavi Marmara than against other ships that also refused their orders to halt, so “It is reasonable to consider these circumstances as possibly explaining that the Mavi Marmara was treated by the IDF differently from the other vessels of the flotilla from the outset.”

But of course, the only way to make that unsupported speculation remotely plausible is by ignoring the fact that the Mavi Marmara was the only ship whose passengers brutally attacked the soldiers. Once you acknowledge this fact, it’s obvious that it’s a far more likely explanation for the ship’s different treatment than any of the majority judges’ outlandish theories.

So how do they get around this problem? Very simply: by refusing to admit the fact’s existence. At no point in those 27 pages do they ever acknowledge that the passengers attacked the soldiers. And then, having obliterated the actual reason why the soldiers opened fire from the record, they can accuse Bensouda of having erred by not considering their alternate-universe theory that the soldiers opened fire out of malice aforethought.

In the Queen of Hearts’ courtroom, the rule is “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.” The ICC judges, in contrast, are perfectly willing to let the verdict precede the sentence; they merely insist that said verdict exclude any evidence which might contradict their preconceived conclusions.

And, in that case, the Queen of Hearts’ approach actually makes much more sense. If you already know what the verdict is going to be, it’s much more efficient to move straight to the sentence. At least that way you don’t waste taxpayers’ time and money on lengthy legal proceedings.

Originally published in Commentary on July 17, 2015

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The International Criminal Court’s fundamental flaw

In my last column, I noted in passing that the International Criminal Court’s blatant anti-Israel bias is merely a symptom of a more fundamental flaw. That isn’t self-evident; court supporters would doubtless argue, just as many people do about the United Nations, that while the court’s anti-Israel bias is regrettable, it’s an isolated flaw that doesn’t outweigh the benefit of ending impunity for atrocities.

What convinced me both that the ICC is unredeemable and that the impunity problem has a better solution was actually a book by one of the court’s ardent supporters—Philippe Sands, a law professor and international lawyer who has worked on ICC cases. In East West Street, Sands traces the development of two key concepts in international law—crimes against humanity and genocide—to their respective culminations in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and the Genocide Convention of 1948. But for me, the real eye-opener was his description of the international wrangling that preceded the Nuremberg Trials.

Nuremberg is sometimes derided as victor’s justice. And in one sense, it obviously was: Four of the victors of World War II—America, Britain, Russia and France—decided to put senior officials of their vanquished foe on trial. But what was striking about Nuremberg was the massive degree of international concord required to hold those trials. Lawyers representing several very different legal systems and several very different systems of government nevertheless had to agree on every word and even every comma in the indictments. And since those lawyers were acting on their governments’ behalf, political approval by all four governments was also needed.

In contrast, the ICC needs no international buy-in at all to pursue a case. Granted, its prosecutors and judges come from many different countries, but they represent neither their home governments nor their home legal systems. Politically, they represent nobody but themselves. Legally, they represent one particular interpretation of international law—an interpretation popular with academics and “human rights” organizations, but less so with national governments.

At first glance, both of the above may sound like pluses. Prosecutorial and judicial independence are generally good things, whereas many governments and legal systems leave much to be desired when it comes to protecting human rights.

But the ICC’s version of prosecutorial and judicial independence is very different from the version found in most democracies because the latter is not completely unconstrained. In democracies, prosecutors and judges are constrained first of all by democratically enacted legislation, and usually by democratically enacted constitutions as well. They’re also constrained by the fact that they, too, are citizens of their country, and therefore share concerns important to most of their countrymen—for instance, national self-defense—but unimportant to judges and prosecutors from other countries (which those at the ICC almost always will be).

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