Lebanon reverses granting ICC jurisdiction for war crimes

Rights groups were hoping to refer the killing of Reuters photojournalist Essam Abdullah by Israel to the ICC to be investigated as a war crime. [Getty]

The Lebanese government on Wednesday reversed its decision to give the International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes that occurred on its soil since October – a move that rights activists described as a blow to accountability.

Israel has carried out several attacks in Lebanon that monitors have said should be investigated as potential war crimes since clash-border clashes between Hezbollah and Israel began in October.  

Giving the ICC jurisdiction to investigate these attacks and others could have resulted in criminal prosecution for any other officials responsible for unlawful attacks in Lebanon, Israeli or otherwise.

A month prior, on 26 April, Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet instructed the Lebanese foreign ministry to file a declaration with the ICC accepting the court’s jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute crimes committed in Lebanon since 7 October.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not carry out the cabinet’s decree and never filed the declaration with the ICC. The ministry did not respond to a request for a comment.

On Wednesday, the Lebanese cabinet cancelled the order to grant the ICC jurisdiction entirely. Instead, it amended its order to the MFA to present evidence of war crimes to the UN, rather than the ICC.

The ICC is the only international legal body which can issue arrest warrants for individuals, despite neither Lebanon nor Israel being members of the court.

Ukraine has filed similar declarations to the ICC twice, which gave the court jurisdiction to investigate alleged Russian war crimes within a specific time period.

“The government took a historic decision that may have paved the way for accountability and justice for serious crimes committed on Lebanese territory since 7 October. If they are serious about seeking justice for these crimes, then they should uphold that decision,” Ramzi Kaiss, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Lebanon researcher, told The New Arab.

On 13 October, Israel targeted a group of journalists in southern Lebanon, severely wounding Agence France-Presse journalist Christina Assi and killing Reuters photojournalist Essam Abdullah. Investigations from HRW and Amnesty International said that Israel appears to have deliberately targeted the journalists, a violation of international law.

On 21 November, Israel killed two additional journalists in the south of Lebanon, Farah Omar and Rabie al-Memari, working with the Lebanese outlet al-Mayadeen. 

Other potential violations of international law by Israel recorded by rights groups since October include the targeting of a south Lebanese border town with White Phosphorus, a drone strike which killed a woman and three children, and an airstrike which killed seven paramedics.

“Our hope was to at least put all of the crimes that Israel committed in Lebanon on the international legal track. In Lebanon, you have a solid base to go to the ICC,” Farouk al-Mughrabi, a former advisor to the ministry of human rights who helped draft the initial order giving ICC jurisdiction, told TNA.

Al-Mughrabi added that seeing the ICC issue arrest warrants for Hamas and Israeli officials last week, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gave him hope that there would be accountability for potential war crimes committed in Lebanon.

Despite the cancellation of the granting of ICC jurisdiction in Lebanon, activists said that they would continue exploring other avenues to achieve justice for victims of unlawful attacks such as Essam Abdullah. 

“We don’t consider the road to be closed now. We have the [UN] Human Rights Council where we will keep trying to have an international committee to have an investigation into the [killing of Essam Abdullah] and the UN Security Council,” Elsy Moufarrej, the coordinator for Lebanon’s Alternative Press Syndicate, told TNA.

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