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We cannot let anyone, whether Israel or Hamas, commit war crimes without facing consequences

Gerry Chidiac

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, numerous efforts were made to define and protect human rights. 1948, the United Nations ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. In 1949, the Geneva Conventions were revised.

Then came the Cold War. Millions perished in senseless wars and genocides in a world dominated by two superpowers. Many questioned if these human rights documents had any real value.

After the Cold War, there was a new period of optimism. People around the world sought ways to enforce international law to avoid new incidents of mass slaughter. In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established to try individuals accused of committing crimes against humanity – unlike the long-established International Court of Justice (ICJ), which focuses on countries.

The international treaty that established the ICC is the Rome Statute. Several countries, including the United States, Israel, Russia, China, and others with questionable human rights records, chose not to sign this treaty. This means that if the ICC charges someone like Vladimir Putin, he can only be arrested if he leaves Russia and visits a country that is a signatory to the Rome Statute. Interestingly, although the United States is not a signatory, it has fully co-operated with the ICC in the Putin case.

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For decades, the ICC was criticized as racist because it only brought Africans to trial. Evidence now suggests this may have been intentional. In a recent interview, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan revealed that an elected official from a powerful country once told him, “This court was built for Africa and for thugs like Putin,” implying that citizens of certain countries were meant to be exempt from prosecution.

When it became clear that the ICC was considering charges against Israeli officials, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan received a letter from 12 U.S. Senate members warning him against pursuing these charges. The letter, led by Senator Tom Cotton, stated, “Target Israel and we will target you,” and threatened to impose severe sanctions on ICC employees and their families, including barring them from entering the United States.

Khan was not intimidated. On May 20, he announced he would apply for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one of his ministers, along with three Hamas officials.

The American and Israeli governments were livid, arguing there is no moral equivalence between the State of Israel and Hamas. If ICC judges approve the arrest warrants, any of these five men can be arrested if they visit any country that is a signatory to the Rome Statute, including Palestine. However, some signatory countries, such as Canada, have not given assurance they will enforce the treaty’s provisions.

The official statement from Hamas is, “Hamas stands ready to appear before the ICC with witnesses and live testimony and bear the burden of any judicial finding against it or its members after a full and fair trial with rules of evidence.”

The American and Israeli governments have responded with anger, claiming the ICC is illegitimate despite the U.S. co-operating in the Putin case. They argue that Israeli officials are highly moral and that only Hamas is at fault. This raises the question: if they believe in the morality of their officials, why wouldn’t they fully support the court?

More than ever, the world needs a robust system to legislate and enforce international law. The Second World War taught us the dire consequences of not clearly defining human rights. The Cold War demonstrated the dangers of ignoring those rights. The period after the Cold War has taught us what happens when we allow citizens of certain nations to act with impunity against these principles.

It makes me wonder: are we all human, or are some considered more human than others?

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages and genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He received an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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