Week in Review: Israeli impunity and Gambian perseverance

Week in Review: Israeli impunity and Gambian perseverance©MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
Demonstrators fleeing Israeli army bullets
2 min 44Approximate reading time

This week was marked by the events in Gaza and the possibility that those responsible in Israel might be brought before a court. The violence on May 14, which saw nearly 60 people killed by the Israeli army, has drawn anger and concern abroad. It coincided with the controversial inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem. Israel is accused of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity”, while the United States moved in the Security Council to block an “independent inquiry”, which the UN and numerous leaders have called for.  

The Palestinian Authority is trying to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court for “war crimes”. This is a “potential key development for the case opened by the Court in 2015”, writes our correspondent, adding that “ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda will have the possibility to open an investigation without a green light from the judges”.

“Any person who incites or engages in acts of violence including by ordering, requesting, encouraging or contributing in any other manner to the commission of crimes within ICC's jurisdiction is liable to prosecution before the Court,” she had already warned in a statement on April 8. But she was careful to add that this would happen “with full respect for the principle of complementarity”, under which States have primacy over the ICC. This could allow Israel to escape the ICC once again by opening a few procedures within its national jurisdiction. According to Lior Reuven Amihai, director of Israeli NGO Yesh Din, judicial independence is under threat in Israel. “The right-wing parties, politicians and ultra-nationalists have for years been waging harsh campaigns against the courts, which they see as an obstacle to their political objectives,” he says. “These campaigns undermine the human rights of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, Israeli citizens opposed to government policy and refugees from Africa.” 

Lebanon tribunal’s independence in question

Nothing better illustrates international justice’s difficulties in establishing credibility than the accusations of Swiss judge Robert Roth against the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL – set up to try the perpetrators of the 2005 assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri). Roth says he was forced to resign from the STL because his wife is Jewish. He also denounces “multiple pressures on the STL to carry out quick trials in absentia, even at the expense of defence rights and the quality of international justice”. 

The events that led the Swiss judge to resign highlight the tribunal’s lack of independence. Lebanese media “revealed” that members of the court including Roth had Jewish wives. “STL president David Baragwanath of New Zealand did not know how to defuse the problem, since the STL has always been accused by Hezbollah and others of being the legal arm of their political adversaries, including Israel,” writes JusticeInfo.net. The STL did not support its staff, and Robert Roth believes he was clearly the victim of “discrimination” because of labels attached to his wife. “And so, under the guise of guaranteeing the Tribunal’s impartiality, a clear message was sent, primarily to the Lebanese authorities, that no major figure in this Tribunal should have any links with Judaism,” he writes.

The Gambian example

Victims of Gambian ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh also tried this week to get their voices heard from Ghana. JusticeInfo’s special envoy to Accra explains: “More than 50 West African migrants were hacked to death with machetes and axes or simply shot dead in July 2005 in Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia. Thirteen years later, several human rights organizations are convinced that the slaughter was carried out on the orders of former dictator Jammeh, who has always denied any involvement of himself or his regime. This new fact could influence the fate of Gambia’s former strongman, currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea.” Many of these victims were Ghanaian, and human rights organizations are calling for Jammeh to be tried in Accra. This is a “more realistic option”, says Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, who thinks the situation in Gambia is not yet conducive to a fair trial. 

Finally to Tunisia, where civil society showed it remains attached to the transitional justice process. “Opposed since April 17 to the premature end of the Truth Commission’s work, 30 Tunisian and international NGOs continue to fight this new offensive by the authorities against transitional justice,” writes our Tunisia correspondent. “Civil society does not look ready to relax pressure on the authorities.”