Legal mobilization to end impunity for international crimes by Jeff Handmaker

In 2014, on the 20th of July, the Israeli military targeted and bombed a home in a refugee camp in Gaza, killing several family members of Saad Ziada, including his mother and three brothers. Since this day, Mr. Ziada, a Dutch citizen and resident of the Netherlands, has persistently been seeking justice through legal mobilization. Ziada’s search for justice reveals the immense challenges faced by individuals and organizations seeking to hold individuals accountable for international crimes through different forms of legal mobilization.

It hasn’t been an easy journey. Ziada’s family were some of the 2000 killed, overwhelmingly civilians, during this large-scale Israeli military operation, which was extensively documented by United Nations investigators as well as representatives of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations. Numerous reports, including extensive dossiers that have been submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as part of a preliminary examination, allege that international crimes were committed during Israel’s 2014 military operation.

Holding individuals accountable who were allegedly responsible in either Gaza or Israel has been a non-starter. The Israeli government has not even acknowledged that crimes took place, let alone pursued investigations against the alleged individuals responsible for those crimes. Ziada has therefore been compelled to seek justice elsewhere.

The most common response to any crime committed by an individual is prosecution in the country where the crimes took place. Obviously, this is an unrealistic prospect in a country that is led by a government unwilling to even acknowledge that such crimes took place. But international crimes have a special character.

International crimes are described in the preamble of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court as “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”. Accordingly, multiple alternatives to prosecute international crimes have gradually emerged on the basis of what is described as “universal jurisdiction”. These alternatives include prosecution by the International Criminal Court or other specialized tribunal and prosecution in a “third country” that may have little to no association with the crime committed or the nationality of the alleged perpetrator.

The person who is prosecuted for international crimes doesn’t even need to have committed the alleged crimes themselves. For example, the Netherlands prosecuted the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven in relation to his complicity in war crimes committed in Liberia. In 2017, the Dutch Court of Appeal found Kouwenhoven to be criminally liable for his complicity in these crimes.

Alongside criminal jurisdiction, there is the possibility to sue an individual who is alleged to have committed an international crime for damages in a civil court. This is currently the basis of the case that has been brought to the Dutch District Court in The Hague by Ziada. The case is being brought against two Israeli military commanders who were believed to have ordered the bombing, including the former General Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Benny Gantz, who has been campaigning to become president of Israel.

Universal jurisdiction received significant attention in our 2019 book Mobilising International Law for ‘Global Justice’, particularly in a chapter by Aisling O’ Sullivan. O’Sullivan argued how the struggle for ending impunity for international crimes is locked in a struggle between two competing approaches: on the one hand, there is a desire to hold individuals accountable for the most heinous of crimes; on the other, there is a desire to maintain order between nations which can be disrupted by these kinds of criminal trials. What further complicates matters are the different power positions between states and the tendency to give “deference to the interests of powerful states” (p. 180).

Universal jurisdiction was also the topic of a seminar that I co-organized in 2010 with Professor Liesbeth Zegveld, the outcome of which was contained in an ISS Working Paper. One of the key observations at this seminar was that “while some governments show a willingness to prosecute these crimes, others see this as a ‘problem’ and even advising their nationals / soldiers not to travel abroad” (p. 14).

What we observed then as a “relatively new area of the law” (p. 15) is now gaining currency, particularly in the courts of the Netherlands. Zegveld, who is also a prominent human rights lawyer, has represented several individuals and groups who have been seeking justice for international crimes committed against them and their loved ones. This includes the family of three men, including Rizo Mustafic, an electrician, who were killed during a massacre in the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovnia by Serbian military forces in 1995. A Dutch military contingent was part of a United Nations military force stationed in Srebrenica at the time and was said to have mostly stood by while the massacre took place. In September 2013, the Dutch Supreme Court confirmed that the Dutch military commanders were partly responsible for not taking sufficient action to try and prevent the massacre.

Apart from the obvious political sensitivities involved in holding individuals accountable for international crimes, these kinds of cases are incredibly complex, not least the challenges of gathering evidence to prove what happened. There are also various cultural and other challenges associated with international criminal justice, particularly through international criminal tribunals, which I have discussed in other academic work.

Zegveld represents Ziada in the case that will be heard on 17th September, 2019. Will the outcome of this particular case of legal mobilization further advance the struggle against impunity for international crimes? There can be little doubt that international lawyers, human rights groups and concerned individuals around the world will be awaiting the outcome of this hearing with great anticipation.

Image Credit: Palestine Justice Campaign

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here. 



Learning from the crisis in international criminal justice by Jeff Handmaker

A new book on the pedagogy of crises was launched in January 2019 at the ISS, edited by Karim Knio and Bob Jessop. In one of its chapters that focuses on the legitimacy crisis in the system of international criminal justice, Jeff Handmaker argues that the politics of international law must be taken seriously in order to address not only the legal legitimacy problems attached to the functioning of international criminal tribunals, but also the external political challenges it faces. 

Law is impartial, neutral, objective, certain, and predictable … most political scientists would shake their heads in dismay at such a statement. However, it accurately reflects values that are strongly held by international lawyers. This includes legal professionals who are involved in referring, investigating, prosecuting, adjudicating, and defending international crimes.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) came into being in 2002. It was not an easy journey, beginning hundreds of years ago when states started exercising jurisdiction over piracy in the high seas, defining it as a violation of the Law of Nations. Following the gruesome aftermath of the Second World War onwards, the Nuremburg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals were established as ad hoc international institutions, creating a solid institutional precedent and jurisprudence.

The ICC exists alongside other ad hoc international and ‘hybrid’ institutions, such as the Special Court of Sierra Leone, the Cambodia Tribunal, the Lebanon Tribunal, and the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals that preceded them. While nations have long had jurisdiction over crimes committed in their own territories, the ability to prosecute international crimes, irrespective of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victims or where the crimes took place, with the exception of piracy, is still a relatively recent phenomenon.

Since its creation, the ICC has been plagued with technical and resource capacity issues as well as significant management problems, including challenges in hiring qualified staff members. The ICC has also faced political challenges to its legitimacy. The USA, primarily through the bombastic statements of John Bolton, who has served in diplomatic functions for both the Bush and Trump administrations, has actively sought to delegitimise the ICC. Meanwhile, following a string of indictments, particularly against leaders of both the Sudanese and Kenyan governments, the Africa Group of Assembly of State Parties to ICC have accused the ICC prosecutor of Africa bias.

But these are surface-level problems, what Jessop refers to as ‘accidental’ crises that can be somewhat predictably resolved. Indeed, giving either of these surface-level problems credence glosses over a deeper crisis of legitimacy faced by the ICC, which I discuss in my own contribution to the book by Jessop and Knio, namely:

the crude and culturally essentialist way in which the ICC prosecutor, and the NGOs that support the Court, regard themselves, the perpetrators, and the victims/survivors of international crimes … fail(ure) to consider the complex social, cultural and political contexts in which these crimes took place.

This crisis of legitimacy is born largely out of the dominant, liberal underpinnings of international law, which tend to fetishise supposedly Western values. Accordingly, the values of individual elites have held sway over general societal values, and individuals whose human rights have been violated have been expected to make claims themselves against the source of those violations, rather than expect the state to provide a remedy. As a result, there is an innate tendency to regard violators of international crimes as coming from the global South rather than the global North, and committed by individuals rather than by corporations.

The ICC, with its broad and independent mandate and direct jurisdiction over individual violators of international crimes, represents a significant, potential challenge to these values and to chart a new path in securing global justice. This requires the court to not only withstand, but actively confront the external pressures it faces.

Like any institution, the ICC is managed and staffed by individuals who more than often  possess a liberal understanding of international law. This is clearly reflected in the practice of the ICC. Drawing on his conceptualisation of the so-called SVS Metaphor, Kenyan legal scholar Makau Mutua has observed that key actors in international justice efforts have been subject to an intense reductionism. Hence, their approach to complex human rights problems is characterised by simplistic and racialised categories of saviours (from the Global North) pitted against savages (culturally speaking, from the Global South) in order to protect interests of ‘helpless’ victims (also from the Global South).

This untenable situation should trigger some serious and critical reflection by the many legal professionals engaged in the work of international criminal justice. First and foremost, decisions by international prosecutors over who, when and how to prosecute international crimes always have a context that is rarely appreciated, let alone openly acknowledged and engaged with. Second, while the complementarity principle of the ICC Rome Statute ought to compel a much greater commitment to build capacity for prosecuting international crimes at the national level, to date this has not been adequately prioritised by the ICC and its member states. Rather than seeking to preserve elusive legal values, a critically reflexive approach to international criminal justice would likely avoid what Martti Koskenniemmi has termed techno-managerial solutions to complex social and political problems and enable a more transparent engagement with the volatile political environment in which the ICC operates.

 These reflections are also reflected in another, recent volume that I have co-edited with ISS colleague Karin Arts on Mobilising International Law for ‘Global Justice’ (Cambridge 2018), notably regarding the system of international criminal justice.

In short, the politics of international law must be taken seriously in order to address the political, and not just the legal legitimacy problems attached to international criminal justice. It is also essential to cultivate a contextualised understanding among legal experts of how international criminal justice functions, entailing a socio-legal approach to both legal practice and analysis. Finally, it is crucial to develop a strategic approach to international criminal justice that transparently engages with these matters and sidesteps simplistic and often self-serving critiques that dominate discussions on international criminal justice generally and the ICC in particular.

Image Credit: Mark L. Taylor/

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here.