Palestinian President Signs Up to Join International Criminal Court
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, dramatically moved to join the international criminal court on Wednesday, setting Palestinians on a diplomatic collision course with Israel and Washington, and risking imposition of US sanctions.
Abbas signed the Rome statute governing the court and 19 other international agreements, potentially opening the way to Palestinians to pursue Israel for war crimes in the court of last resort based in The Hague.
It followed the rejection by the UN security council of a Jordanian-backed resolution on behalf of Palestine calling for the end to the Israeli occupation by 2017 and the establishment of a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.
Abbas’s move came at the end of 24 hours of diplomatic tension when – under pressure from other members of the Palestinian leadership – he followed through on his long-threatened plan to join the ICC.
In response to Abbas’s signing of the treaty Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, warned that it was Palestinians, not Israel, that should be concerned about the ICC.
“It is the Palestinian Authority – which is in a unity government with Hamas, an avowed terrorist organisation that, like Isis, perpetrates war crimes – that needs to be concerned about the international criminal court in the Hague,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel would take unspecified “retaliatory steps”.
The US also condemned the move which it described as “deeply troubling” with State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke saying it was “an escalatory step that will not achieve any of the outcomes most Palestinians have long hoped to see for their people”.
He added: “Today’s action is entirely counter-productive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state. It badly damages the atmosphere with the very people with whom they ultimately need to make peace. As we’ve said before, the United States continues to strongly oppose actions – by both parties – that undermine trust and create doubts about their commitment to a negotiated peace. Our position has not changed. Such actions only push the parties further apart.”
Acceding to the Rome treaty – the first step in joining the court – had been seen by many as the nuclear option in the recent Palestinian efforts to advance their case for statehood in international forums.
“They attack us and our land every day, to whom are we to complain? The security council let us down – where are we to go?” Abbas told a gathering of Palestinian leaders in remarks broadcast on official television.
“We want to refer to international institutions, and this is one we are referring to, and we’ll complain to these people,” he added, before signing the documents.
Abbas had been under heavy domestic pressure to take action against Israel following months of tension fuelled by the collapse of US-brokered peace talks, a 50-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets and Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to a key Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. Tuesday’s defeat in the UN security council further raised pressure on Abbas to act. There was a palpable sense of fury in the Palestinian leadership over US and Israeli-led efforts that derailed the UN resolution that called for the ending of the Israeli occupation.
The resolution was opposed by the US and Israel and saw both the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, call the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, on the eve of the vote to persuade him to abstain.
“Even half an hour before the vote Nigeria indicated it was committed to voting for the resolution,” one Palestinian source involved in the negotiations commented furiously. “We knew that Rwanda, South Korea and Australia would not back it, but we believed Nigeria was on board.”
Britain, Rwanda, Lithuania and South Korea joined Nigeria in abstaining. Welcoming the UN vote, Netanyahu extended his special thanks to Nigeria and Rwanda. “This is what tipped the scales,” he said.
Signalling that the vote would not mark an end to the campaign to win a security council resolution, Palestinian and French officials indicated they would continue working to find a text to put to the UN, perhaps within weeks.
Before the vote the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians could return again to the security council, which will have five new members starting on Thursday who are viewed as more sympathetic to their cause.
However, despite signalling a sharp defeat to the Arab-supported campaign to get security council backing for a moves towards a Palestinian state, the vote held minimal comfort for Israel, seeing two European countries – France and Luxembourg – support the resolution. The US also made clear it was not voting for the status quo in opposing the resolution.
“We voted against this resolution not because we are comfortable with the status quo. We voted against it because … peace must come from hard compromises that occur at the negotiating table,” the US ambassador Samantha Power said.
She criticised the decision to bring the draft resolution to a vote as a “staged confrontation that will not bring the parties closer”. She added that the resolution was deeply unbalanced and did not take into account Israel’s security concerns.
The ICC can prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed since 1 July 2002, when the Rome statute came into force.
According to the ICC’s official website the Rome treaty has been ratified by 122 states.
The court can pursue an individual only if crimes were committed on the territory of a state party – one that has signed and ratified the Rome statute – or by a citizen of such a state. Israel has signed but not ratified the treaty.