By Millicent Zighe
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under sustained condemnation for opposing the International Criminal Court’s investigation into crimes alleged to have been committed in Gaza and the West Bank.
Palestine and several civil society organisations, including the Council for Arab-British Understanding and Welfare Association, issued separate statements criticising Johnson’s remarks.
The Prime Minister’s letter to the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) lobby group, saying although his government had respect for the independence of the ICC, it opposed the court’s decision to examine Israel, prompted the reactions.
“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 prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of UK’s,” Johnson wrote in the April 12 letter.
In a statement posted on the official website of the diplomatic mission to the UK, Palestine said the letter “marks a low point in UK-Palestine relations and undermines the UK’s credibility on the international stage”.
“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 to continue its illegal settlement project in occupied territory, and signals to Israel that no matter its actions vis-à-vis the Palestinian people in occupied territory, it will not be held to account,” read the statement.
“On the one hand, Prime Minister Johnson claims to support the mission of the ICC. On the other, he seems to argue that its mission cannot extend to Israel because it is a ‘friend and an ally of the UK’.”
CFI’s parliamentary chairmen, Stephen Crabb (MP) and Lord Pickles, and honorary president, Lord Polak, endorsed the letter, saying: “We strongly welcome the Prime Minister’s confirmation of the UK’s opposition to the ICC’s controversial investigation. The investigation has rightly been condemned for giving the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally.’’
Hours after CFI’s statement, British civil society organisations under the umbrella UK Charities said Johnson’s letter sets a dangerous precedent that could impact victims of grave crimes and threatens the viability, objectives, and future of the court.
“The investigation is the first genuine hope that alleged perpetrators of the most serious crimes will be held to account for their actions. The ICC is committed to undertaking an investigation that is ‘conducted independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favour’. Providing impartial justice and ending decades of impunity would bring the prospect of lasting peace closer and would signal an end to the suffering endured by generations across the region,” read the statement.
“The UK government could be a bastion of international law and human rights – but instead it is undermining international criminal proceedings and standing in the way of justice. No longer can the UK government genuinely assert that ‘Promoting international criminal justice and the rule of law are fundamental elements of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy’.”
On March 3, the ICC opened a formal investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories. The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) said the investigations would cover crimes within the jurisdiction of the court that were alleged to have been committed in the situation since June 13, 2014, the date to which reference was made in the referral to the office.
The OTP also sent a letter to Israel and Palestine clarifying the scope of the investigations. The parties were notified to respond to the letter within 30 days.
On April 8, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that the ICC had no powers to initiate an investigation against Israel. He stated that his government would not cooperate with the court.
The response was issued after Netanyahu met with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
In February, Pre-Trial Chamber 1 ruled, by majority, that the ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories. Israel rejected the decision, while the Palestinian officials praised it.
In March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed America’s opposition to the Prosecutor’s decision to open a full war crimes probe against Israel. In a press statement, Blinken said Israel had not consented to the court’s jurisdiction.
“The United States firmly opposed an investigation into the Palestine situation. We will continue to uphold our strong commitment to Israel and its security, including by opposing actions that seek to target Israel unfairly.”
President Joe Biden recently lifted the sanctions his predecessor, Donald Trump, had imposed on ICC staff investigating American officials or officials of American allies, including Israel.