In November 2012, 138 out of 193 member countries voted to upgrade Palestine’s United Nations status to that of “non-member observer state”. It was a way of symbolically supporting the Palestinian cause and right to statehood, as well as giving Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas a boost, as rival faction Hamas – condemned by the international community as a terrorist organisation – gained support.
Some countries, such as Britain and Australia, abstained from the vote. Others, like the United States, Canada, and – of course – Israel, voted against it. In total, these countries numbered just nine. Canada in particular took up the cause of opposing the bid with gusto, in keeping with the country’s staunchly pro-Israel stance under conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird personally travelled to the UN to cast his “no” vote. After the bid passed, he took the unusual step of temporarily recalling Canadian diplomats from Palestine and Israel, to “see how we can effectively respond to what could be a new reality”. There was also speculation that Canada would not renew its aid commitment of $300m over five years to the Palestinian Authority. Back in December, Baird batted off these claims, saying that he had no intention of ending relations with the Palestinian Authority: “Sometimes you have to work with people that you disagree with,” he said. “That’s the nature of diplomacy and the nature of my job.”
But is that about to change? On Sunday, Baird appeared at the annual conference of powerful pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), in Washington. Asked how Canada would respond if Palestine used its new UN status to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Baird responded that such an action “will not go unnoticed and will have certainly consequences in the conduct of our relations with the Palestinian Authority.” The federal government is currently considering whether to renew its aid to Palestine when it expires at the end of this month. When approached by journalists, other government representatives were non-committal about whether the programme will be ended. Baird also said he was “deeply, deeply concerned” that Abbas did not display “generosity” or “extend an olive branch” to Israel in his UN speech accepting the bid.
That Palestine may have recourse to the ICC was one of the key concerns cited by those countries that opposed its UN bid. While membership of the court is neither automatic nor guaranteed, it is at least made possible by Palestine’s new status. Representatives have indicated that it will seek action in the court. “Those who don’t want to appear before international tribunals must stop their crimes and it is time for them to become accountable,” the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told reporters at the time of the UN bid. It certainly has grounds to. The court has jurisdiction that retrospectively stretches back to 2002, when the Rome Statute came into force. Palestine could therefore seek to prosecute Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 2008/9 siege of Gaza, as well as in the most recent conflict in Gaza. The policy of settlement building on the occupied West Bank is also a breach of international law. It was reported last year that Binyamin Netanyahu had privately expressed concern that Palestine could accuse members of his government of forced displacement of populations, another crime against humanity.
Despite Israeli rhetoric, there is no question that settlements are illegal. Back in 1967, Theodor Meron, then legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, stated: “My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” An UN report in January warned that Israel could face action at the ICC if it went ahead with the building of further settlements. At the time, Israel dismissed the report as “unproductive”. Yet it is difficult to see attempts to prevent the Palestinians from seeking justice through legal means as anything but a significant step in the right direction. Attempts to prevent Palestine from accessing the ICC, while simultaneously condemning Hamas and its militant approach, are hypocritical in the extreme. If laws are being broken, surely the answer is to stop breaking laws, rather than prevent the crimes from being prosecuted.
As he issued his veiled warning, Baird told AIPAC: “We hope that they [the Palestinian Authority] will honour the commitments that they made that they would not do that [go to the ICC].” But why? If given the choice between a violent intifada on the streets that causes significant suffering and loss of life, and a legal intifada fought through international courts, it is clear which side the global community should be on.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.