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Should the Palestinians Seek Justice NOW at the International Criminal Court?

23 Feb

Should the Palestinians Seek Justice NOW at the International Criminal Court?

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a modified version of an opinion piece published by Middle East Eye on February 20, 2017. It calls particular attention to the punitive treatment of recourse to international law tribunals to address perceived grievances that is meant to discourage Palestinians from seeking relief at the International Criminal Court. On one level this form of lawfare underscores the weakness and vulnerability of Israel when the conflict is shifted from the battlefield to the courtroom. On another level it is meant to deny the Palestinian people, and their representatives, all legitimate amd moderate options by which to pursue their claims and address their grievances. It signals that the ‘enforcers’ of world order repudiate their own accountability with regard to the rule of law, while purporting to hold others to account, for instance, by criminalizing all forms of violent resistance to prolonged and abusive occupation as ‘terrorism.’]

 

 

Weakening the Two-State Consensus

 There is little doubt that the mid-February Netanyahu/Trump love fest at the White House further dampened already dim Palestinian hopes for a sustainable peace based on a political compromise. The biggest blow was Trump’s casual abandonment of the two-state solution coupled with an endorsement of a one-state outcome provided the parties agree to such an outcome, which as so expressed is a result almost impossible to suppose ever happening in the real world. Israel would never agree to a secular one-state that effectively abandons the Zionist insistence on a Jewish state with deep historical roots and biblical validation. The Palestinians would never agree to live in such a Jewish one-state that essentially abandoned their long struggle to achieve national self-determination, thereby gaining liberation from the last major remnant of the colonial era.

 

With geopolitical bravado suitable for the real estate magnate that he remains, despite the presidential trappings of his formal role, Trump also vaguely promised to negotiate a grand deal for the region that evidently reached beyond the contested territory of Palestine so long locked in conflict, and thus encompassed neighboring countries or possibly the whole region. It is easy to speculate that such murmurings by Trump were not welcomed in either Jordan or Egypt, long favored by rightest Israelis as dumping grounds for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Such added ‘political space’ is attractive from an Israeli perspective, both to ensure that Israel maintains a comfortable Jewish majority if the one-state solution were ever forcibly implemented by Israel. At the same time the prospect of population transfer would allow Israel to achieve a higher degree of racial purity, a feature of the dominant Zionist imaginary long before Israel became internationally recognized as a state.

 

An inflammatory part of this new political environment is the accelerated expansion of the existing network of unlawful Israeli settlements located in occupied Palestine. Although near unanimously condemned in Security Council Resolution 2334 last December, Israel responded by defiantly announcing approval of thousands more settlement units, endorsing plans for an entirely new settlement, and by way of a Knesset initiative provocatively legalized settlement ‘outposts,’ 50 of which are distributed throughout the West Bank in direct violation of even Israeli law. It is possible that the Israeli Supreme Court will heed anticipated judicial challenges to this latest move, and eventually void this Knesset law, but even if this happens, the passage of such a law sends a clear message of iron resolve by the political forces currently steering Israeli policy never to permit the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

 

In these circumstances, it becomes incumbent upon the Palestinian Authority to show the world that it is still alive, and it currently has few ways of doing this. Given these realities it would seem a no brainer for the PA to light up the skies of public awareness of the Palestinian plight by vigorously demanding justice at the International Criminal Court (ICC). After all there is a wide consensus on the global stage that all the settlements, and not just the outposts, are in violation of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention. These settlements have for decades served as a major obstacle in the search for a satisfactory diplomatic solution of the conflict. Of course, it would be naïve to expect Israel to comply with an adverse judgment of the ICC, or to participate in such a proceeding in ways other than by challenging the competence of the tribunal, but a favorable outcome would still be of great value for the Palestinians. It would cast Israel in an unfavorable light in relation to the UN, international law, and world public opinion, and undoubtedly encourage the further development of the already robust global solidarity movement.

 

Yet, despite these circumstances that makes the ICC seem such an attractive option, a PA decision to take this path is far from obvious. The former Foreign Minister of the PA and member of Fatah’s Central Committee, Nasser al-Kidwa, effectively dismissed the ICC option by calling it ‘complicated’ without any further explanation, leaving the impression that the costs of taking such a step were too high. However, the issue is not yet settled as mixed signals are emanating from Palestinian leadership circles. For instance, the PLO Secretary General, Saeb Erekat, in contrast to Kidwa, minced no words in his insistence that the ICC investigate “the colonial settlement regime.”

 

It seems useful to speculate on why there should be this ambivalence among Palestinian leaders. After all, international law, international public opinion, and even most European governments are all supportive of Palestinian claims with regard to the settlements. Israel remains more defiant than ever, and shows every sign of further expansion, possibly with an eye toward soon unilaterally declaring an end to the conflict, a move that Washington might find temporarily awkward, but in the end, acceptable. At the core of this debate about recourse to the ICC is the tricky question as to whether deference to the muscular vagaries of geopolitics serves Palestinian interests at this time.

 

Recourse to the ICC: Pros and Cons

 

The argument favoring recourse to the ICC is almost too obvious to put forward. It would back Israel into a corner. The Netanyahu government is certain to react with anger and concrete expressions of hostility to any such move by the PA. Such a reaction would be widely seen as a convincing confirmation of Israel’s vulnerability to any impartial test as to whether its settlement policies meet the minimum requirements of international law. And most importantly for the PA it would demonstrate that despite recent political disappointments the Ramallah leadership was prepared to embark upon a controversial course of action that displayed political courage, including a willingness to endure expected vindictive acts of retaliation. Recourse to the ICC would play well with the Palestinian people, especially those living under occupation. They experience daily tensions with violent settler groups and see no future for themselves absent confrontation with Israel. If the PA chooses such a course, it would help restore support for the flagging claims of the PA to serve as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people at the global level. This is turn could lead finally to durable arrangements of unity as between Hamas and Fatah, which would raise confidence levels that the Palestinians were prepared for this latest, difficult stage of their national movement.

 

The arguments against going to the ICC are somewhat more elusive. There is no doubt that Palestine, recognized by the UN as a state now enjoys the jurisdictional qualifications to participate in ICC proceedings. What is less clear is whether the ICC would be responsive, and able to circumvent technical obstacles, such as finding suitable Israeli defendants. During its 15 years of operation the ICC has been very reluctant to be pro-active except in Africa, and even there it has been recently stung by an intense pushback by African governments and the African Union. The ICC has been reluctant to stir up political opposition in the West, which would certainly occur as soon as the ICC launched a full investigation of Palestinian criminal grievances against Israel.

 

There is also the reverse problem of ICC action that might disappoint the PA. To appear balanced, the ICC would probably extend its investigation to include allegations relating to indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza. It could then decide that a strong case of probable criminal responsibility attributable to Hamas existed, while allegations against Israel failed because of the inability to establish criminal intent. Although a setback for the PA, such an outcome at the ICC would be internationally criticized as contrary to reasonable interpretations of international law, and be widely regarded as a reflection of political pressures exerted by Washington.

 

Likely, the PA is most inhibited by the ‘lawfare’ campaign being waged by Israel and the United States. Already during the Obama presidency there was Congressional legislation terminating financial assistance to the PA in the event of any recourse to the ICC. Since Trump these warnings have escalated, including the total suspension of financial aid, the closing of the PLO offices in Washington, and threats to put the PLO and Fatah back on the US list of terrorist organizations. It is evident that the PA is taking these unseemly threats seriously.

 

There are also PA fears that any ICC initiative would induce Israel to move more quickly toward closure with respect to the underlying conflict, annexing most or all of the West Bank. Such a reaction would both be in keeping with Israel’s tendency to respond disproportionately to any formal action directed at the legality of its policies and practices. Israel is particularly sensitive about war crimes charges, and vows extraordinary measures should any of its citizens be so charged. Now that Netanyahu can count on unconditional support in the White House and the US Congress it would not be surprising to see him use the occasion of an ICC initiative to proclaim Israeli sovereignty over the whole of historic Palestine.

 

Conclusion

 

In light of the above, it seems almost certain that the PA will not act take advantage of the ICC option any time soon. The PA is likely to adopt a posture of neither/nor, that is, neither explicitly ruling out recourse to the ICC, nor activating the option. This reflects the reality that the PA is caught between the rock of US/Israel bullying tactics and the hard place of an increasingly restive Palestinian population, being acutely reminded of its ordeal by the grim realization that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation.

 

The United States posture, although somewhat more belligerently pro-Israel as a result of the Trump presidency, is really nothing new except in style. Even during the Obama presidency the US opposed every attempt by the PA to rely on international law or the UN to advance its national struggle. Instead of welcoming the use of law rather than weapons, the US Government castigated efforts of Palestine to gain membership in the UN System or to seek even symbolic relief for its grievances in international venues. This turn against international law, as well as against the UN, is clearly a signature issue for the Trump presidency, and not just in relation to Palestine, and this is not good news for the world.

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‘Lawfare’ and Liberation

23 Feb

Positive and Negative Forms of ‘Lawfare’

 

Issues of law and ‘lawfare’ are recurrent features of foreign policy debates in the United States. On the side, are efforts by peace activists and others to condition the behavior of all states, and especially the United States, by reference to authoritative limits on national discretion as encoded in the UN Charter, a binding treaty. In opposition to a law-oriented foreign policy for the United States are a variety of arguments that rely either directly or indirectly on a version of ‘American exceptionalism.’ Such arguments do not repudiate international law, but condition its applicability to American behavior and that of American allies, and insist on the implementation of international law in relation to the alleged unlawful conduct of adversaries (e.g. Russia involvement in eastern Ukraine)

 

On the other side of this discourse is the various forms of ‘lawfare’ as an instrumental use of law to achieve valued ends, positive or negative. In these roles international law can mobilize public opinion and government policy to support or oppose particular undertakings. In this limited sense it is appropriate to conceive of ‘lawfare’ as ‘soft power goepolitics’ or as a form of ‘asymmetric warfare’ waged by political actors deficient in hard power.

 

It was during the presidency of George W. Bush that the neocons decided that recourse to international law was a weapon of the weak that interfered with the grand strategy of the United States, especially in the Middle East. The terminology of lawfare was adopted by both advocates of reliance on international law as constraints on American (and Israeli) policy and by those who sought to denigrate invocations of international law as obstructive tactics that interfered with the protection of security in a post-9/11 world. In reaction to the Goldstone Report (2009) there was launched a notorious ‘Lawfare Project’ that viewed reliance on international law within the UN setting in a manner highly critical of Israel was a new form of ‘asymmetric warfare’ that needed to be countered to avoid the delegitimizing of Israel as a democratic sovereign state. This kind of interpretation dominated a conference at Columbia Law School, featuring the participation of the Dean, David Schizer, that denounced the Goldstone Report and human rights NGOs and was organized by a coalition of pro-Israeli organizations.

 

I regard lawfare as the use of the rules and procedures of law more neutrally, as instrumental uses of law to achieve or block policy outcomes. My focus is on international law, but the same dynamics apply to internal uses of law. The website, ‘LAWFARE,’ affiliated with the Washington think tank, The Brookings Institution, and bolstered by the active participation of some Harvard Law School conservative faculty, uses lawfare in this neutral, instrumental way, although its government oriented biases dominates its commentary.

 

There is a problematic side to international law that reflects its crafting and evolution over the centuries. International law definitely was developed to rationalize the interests and projects of the dominant political actors in the West. International law proved useful in giving a legal cover to colonial rule, unequal and imposed treaties, and to stabilize the expropriation of the natural resources of countries in the global South. At the same time, counter-hegemonic efforts were made to give international law quite different impacts, especially in Latin American settings. The effort was to put forward international law doctrines to strengthen the sovereign rights of weaker countries, especially in the context of economic relations.

 

Beyond the law on the books, there are the ambiguities created by state practice, especially with regard to peace and security, given the absence of any central governing authority or legislative institution on a global level to pronounce upon disputes about interpretation or to agree upon changes in governing rules. As a result, many ‘violations’ of international law serve as ‘precedents’ for the establishment of new norms; power generates law, and its interpretation, whether or not it serves the cause of justice. Further, with the veto in the UN Security Council giving the permanent members, and also indirectly their friends, a ‘legal’ right of exception with respect to compliance with international law. Such an interface between power and law offers an additional reason to be skeptical about any present claims of a global rule of law.

Against this background, I find it clarifying to distinguish between positive and negative uses of lawfare. I identify positive uses to be efforts to insist that international law be upheld to the extent that it serves values of peace, justice, and human dignity, and that its guidelines and conceptions of right, be generally treated as authoritative in diplomatic arenas concerned with the peaceful resolution of conflicts or initiatives designed to implement international criminal law, including making use of procedures to impose accountability on leaders of sovereign states. In these positive uses, there is an overall compatibility between lawfare and the pursuit of justice, although to express this conclusion inevitably reflects subjective perceptions and outlook. Other commentators on international law can and do have different views on such matters.

 

I identify negative uses of lawfare to be efforts to denigrate reliance on the procedures and norms of international law in seeking to pursue rights or hold individuals accountable for violations of international criminal law. The neocons were clear about their refusal to bind the pursuit of American foreign policy goals by shows of respect for international law. Their visions of American grand strategy regarded it as naïve and unhelpful to introduce international law dimensions into policy debates about the use of force. In this vein, thinking mainly about uses of force in defiance of the UN Charter and international law, several prominent neocons, including Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, showed their contempt of international law as nothing more than ‘a weapon of the weak’ that should not be allowed to alter the behavior of the strong, and in effect, justify the disregard of such legal objections to hegemonic policies as mere tactics of the outgunned side in an asymmetric war.

 

By way of illustration, the exclusion of international law from the Oslo Framework for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict was clearly an effective instance of negative lawfare, denying for many years the Palestinians the benefit of claiming their rights by reference to international law. An example along the same lines were the punitive responses made by Israel and the United States to initiatives of the Palestinian Authority to seek statehood within the UN System and then on that basis to become a party to international treaties, including most controversially the Rome Treaty, which facilitates access to the International Criminal Court. The essence of this important example of negative lawfare centers on blocking, retaliating against, and denigrating attempts by political actors to make use of available procedures and legal norms to uphold their rights against those who rely on hard power to sustain oppressive structures. .

 

Lawfare can operate negatively or positively on any level of social interaction. When activists seek to encourage divestment of holding in companies doing business associated with seeking commercial gain from transactions or projects with unlawful Israeli settlements this is positive lawfare, with unlawfulness serving as an indicator of illegitimate behavior. When such initiatives are blocked by a legal technicality to frustrate efforts to encourage or demand divestment, invoking law becomes negative lawfare. This happened recently at the University of California at Davis. Interestingly, as in this divestment context, what is being called ‘law’ are organizational rules operative with a university setting, and not associated with legal rules generated by governmental institutions.

 

There is no way to simplify or generalize the role of law in human affairs. Its proper assessment depends on taking into account the structural circumstances (for instance, law as administered by Israel as the occupying power in the West Bank imposes unjust and coercive policies and practices) and on context (for instance, Palestinian reliance on their claims of right based on international law with respect to the right of return of Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlements, status of Jerusalem, control of water). Legal discourse disputes these rights in a variety of ways. Palestinians invoke the authority of the UN General Assembly to vindicate their claims, while Israel claims the authority to put forward its own ideas about insisting that occupied Palestine is a territory of ‘disputed sovereignty’ and as such outside the domain of international humanitarian law.

 

As long as complex societies exist and actors have their own agendas and priorities, rules and procedures will be manipulated for the benefit of one or

another actor. This inheres in social process. What has happened recently calls for further reflection. Law has been used as an instrument to seek justice and law has been used as a means to gain and secure positions of strategic advantage. ‘Lawfare’ merely makes this tug of war between those that want to invoke international law and those that believes it unduly burdens statecraft

a more systematic reality.