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What the International Criminal Court’s anticipated arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Hamas leaders mean for Canada

What the International Criminal Court’s anticipated arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Hamas leaders mean for Canada

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What the International Criminal Court’s anticipated arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Hamas leaders mean for Canada

On May 20, Karim Khan, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced that he has applied for . These include Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant. This dramatic development marks the first time leaders of a western allied state have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the ICC.

Along with an  that independently reviewed the evidence supporting the application, Khan concluded there are reasonable grounds to believe Netanyahu and Gallant are criminally responsible for starvation, murder, intentional attacks against civilians, extermination and persecution, among other crimes.

People look at a pile of rubble from a destroyed building.
Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike on a residential building in Nuseirat Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, on May 19. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Khan alleges these acts are part of a common plan “to use starvation as a method of war and other acts of violence,” both to achieve Israel’s war aims and to collectively punish the civilian population of Gaza. Under international law, , but also other objects indispensable to human survival including water, medicine and fuel.

The crimes alleged against Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh include hostage taking, murder, torture, extermination and sexual violence committed while in the context of captivity, among others.

Canada does not recognize Palestine as a state, . Because , it has jurisdiction over crimes committed by Palestinians on any territory, as well as those committed on Palestinian territory, including by nationals of non-member states like Israel.

A man with thinning grey hair and a grey beard in a blue jacket and collared shirt.
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in Beiruit, Lebanon, in June 2021. He’s among the Hamas officials accused by the ICC of planning and instigating eight war crimes and crimes against humanity, among them extermination, murder, taking hostages, rape and torture. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

State responses

While many ICC member states, like Ի, have reacted positively to the application, others have been more cryptic. , the Ի have all joined the Ի — who are not members of the ICC — in some version of the argument that issuing the warrants creates a .

Canadian officials refused to say whether Canada would support the ICC’s work with respect to the case against Israeli leaders. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said whether Canada would agree to execute any eventual arrest warrants should Netanyahu or Gallant visit 

While Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said that “” of the ICC, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the request indicates a “troubling… sense of equivalency between the democratically elected leaders of Israel and the bloodthirsty terrorists that lead up Hamas.”

Like all ICC member states, Canada is under a general  with ICC investigations and prosecutions in accordance with the , which is the basis of the ICC’s authority.

This doesn’t mean all member states must agree with every decision taken by the prosecutor in the exercise of his discretion, but it does imply that they refrain from actions that would frustrate the proper functioning of the ICC or deliberately contest its legitimacy.

The ICC has made clear member states don’t have discretion to “.”

Obligation of co-operation

While we are certain to see challenges to the ICC’s jurisdiction and admissibility brought by Israel, it is not for other members of the ICC to question the authority of its decisions. In the event that Canada were faced, for example, with a request to arrest Netanyahu, it would be obliged to co-operate.

Unlike , Khan has chosen to go public with his request for warrants before they were issued by the ICC. He has done so to encourage both Israeli and Hamas leaders to change course in this conflict, and to reinforce “that the lives of all human beings” — both Israeli and Palestinian — “have equal value.”

A blue sign reads International Criminal Court in front of a modern building. Someone is walking towards the building to the right of the sign.
The exterior view of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2021. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

This was a risky decision because it opened the door for political criticism that will not be as readily available once the ICC has decided there are reasonable grounds to issue warrants. While the harsh responses of the U.S. and Israel were entirely predictable, that so many ICC member states have followed the same line of attack is worrisome.

If and when arrest warrants are eventually issued, it would be wholly inappropriate for leaders of member states like Trudeau and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to continue to characterize the warrants as “unhelpful.” To do so would undermine the findings of the ICC, and would be inconsistent with states parties’ general obligation of co-operation.

Canadian response

Now — before the ICC decides on arrest warrants — is the time for the Canadian government to decide whether it will continue to support the work of the ICC as it promised to do in the .

Trudeau and Joly’s statements are inflammatory insofar as they rely on the . Their statements also encourage the position that crimes committed by a democratically elected government are less severe or blameworthy than crimes committed by non-state actors.

From the  through  and the so-called “,” history shows us that this simply isn’t true.

Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2015, Canada was the only member state to oppose Palestine joining the ICC because “.”

Notwithstanding  at the General Assembly on the question of Palestinian membership in the UN, it is now an open question whether Canada will oppose the ICC’s jurisdiction over the alleged crimes on the same basis. Given that the Court has already found that it has jurisdiction over territory occupied by Israel since 1967 for the purposes of the prosecutor’s investigation, , such a challenge is unlikely to be successful.

Crucially, were Canada to contest the ICC’s jurisdiction after it issues arrest warrants, it wouldn’t be on the basis that reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli or Hamas leaders have committed international crimes were lacking. Instead, such a policy decision would rely on the premise that Palestinian lives are less worthy of protection than the lives of the nationals of other ICC member states.