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EU leaders condemn attacks on ICC probe into Israeli war crimes

More than 50 leaders, including several former prime ministers, warn that not allowing the international court to do its job 'would have grave consequences'
International Criminal Court's prosecutor Fatou Bensouda shakes hands in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, The Netherlands, on 8 July 2019 (AFP/File photo)

More than 50 high-level officials from across Europe, including former prime ministers and foreign ministers, have signed an open letter condemning political interference in the International Criminal Court's (ICC) probe into alleged war crimes in Palestine.

The letter, published by the Guardian on Monday, is seen as a rebuke on world leaders such as former US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who have openly criticised the court's efforts to hold Israel accountable for suspected war crimes.

"We witnessed with serious concern the executive order issued in the United States by the former president Donald Trump and the sanctions designated against the court’s staff and their family members," the letter says.

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"Deeply worrying is now the unwarranted public criticism of the court regarding its investigation of alleged crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territory, including unfounded accusations of antisemitism."

"It is well established and recognised that accountability for serious rights violations by all sides to a conflict is essential for achieving a sustainable and lasting peace," it continues. 

While Trump's move to sanction court officials last year was immediately reversed by the Biden administration, Johnson has remained openly critical. 

Last month, when referring to Israel, Johnson said the ICC investigation gave "the impression of being a partial and prejudicial attack on a friend and ally of the UK’s". 

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had also criticised the court's pending probe into possible war crimes committed by Israel and the Hamas movement, saying the ICC "has no jurisdiction" because Palestine is not an internationally recognised state and Israel is not a signatory of the court.   

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused the ICC of being antisemitic.

'Grave consequences'

ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced in March that the court had launched an investigation into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories, following a years-long preliminary probe looking into issues such as the question of jurisdiction. 

"In a time of increasing challenges to the multilateral order and an independent judiciary in many corners of the world and within Europe itself, preserving the ICC’s legitimacy and mandate becomes an imperative," Monday's letter says. 

Signed by the former prime ministers of France, Italy, Ireland and Sweden, the letter says that "attempts to discredit the court and obstruct its work cannot be tolerated if we are serious about promoting and upholding justice globally".

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"We understand fears of politically motivated complaints and investigations. Yet we strongly believe that the Rome statute guarantees the highest criteria of justice and provides a crucial avenue to address impunity for the world’s most serious crimes. Failure to act would have grave consequences," it continues. 

Established by the Rome Statute in 1998, the ICC is a court of last resort to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide when a country is unable or unwilling to do so. The court prosecutes individuals, not countries. 

Palestine has signed the Rome Statute. The Israeli government also signed, but then decided it did not wish to be a state party, and denies the ICC has any right to investigate alleged crimes it has committed.

Last month, the ICC warned that escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians that erupted in early May could amount to war crimes.

"I note with great concern the escalation of violence in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as in and around Gaza, and the possible commission of crimes under the Rome Statute," prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said at the time. 

The current probe into war crimes in Israel and the Palestinian territories is looking at crimes committed since 13 June 2014, just before Israel launched "Operation Protective Edge" against the Gaza Strip, which lasted seven weeks and killed more than 2,000 Palestinians.