War crimes and crimes against humanity number among the most serious crimes. Responding to the atrocities committed in the course of the second World War, the international community set itself the objective of vigorously combating such crimes. This ambition has found its expression in a number of international treaties, notably under the aegis of the United Nations.
The request for the extradition of Augusto Pinochet and the legal battles that ensued has shown a heightened interest in bringing persons involved in grave crimes to justice. The Pinochet case reaffirmed the principle that human rights atrocities are subject to “universal jurisdiction” and can be prosecuted anywhere in the world. Two rulings by the House of Lords found that Pinochet was not immune from prosecution even though he was head of state at the time the crimes were committed.
The Israeli candidate who seems poised to win election as Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has a personal history that is intertwined with war crimes and crimes against humanity and peace. Cases such as against Yugoslavian former president Slobodan Milosevic, the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, and others, provide compelling precedents for ending the impunity that Ariel Sharon has thus far enjoyed.
In the early 1950s, as commander of the notorious Unit 101, he led secret attacks on Palestinian villages in which women and children were killed. The massacre in the West Bank village of Qibya, on October 14, 1953, was perhaps the most notorious. His troops blew up 45 houses and 69 Palestinian civilians, about half of them women and children, were killed. The U.S. State Department issued a statement on 18 October 1953 expressing the conviction that those responsible “should be brought to account and that effective measures should be taken to prevent such incidents in the future.” This action also led to the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution expressing “the strongest censure of that action” and called upon Israel “to take effective measures to prevent all such actions in the future.”
In 1982, as defense minister, he led Israel’s aggression against Lebanon that killed 20,000 people. Ariel Sharon’s actions and failure to act facilitated the massacre of at least seven hundred to eight hundred, and by some accounts as many as 3,000, Palestinian and Lebanese men, women and children in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut in September 1982.
Eighteen years later, on 28 September 2000, Ariel Sharon, appeared at the Haram as-Sharif in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, surrounded by 1,000 Israeli armed forces, setting off what has come to be known as the (Aqsa) Intifada. The United Nations Security Council, unanimously deplored “the provocation carried out…and the subsequent violence there.” By a vote of 14 to 0 the Security Council made it clear that it was Sharon’s desecration of the Haram al-Sharif, with the support of Israel’s Prime Minister Barak, that is responsible for the start of the current round of bloodshed and warfare in the occupied Palestinian territories. Even the United States did not go against that determination.
Soon after, the United Nations Human Rights Commission sent a Special Rapporteur to investigate the situation that has occurred and later adopted a resolution condemning Israel for violating the Fourth Geneva Convention, its rights as a belligerent occupant, and stating that Israeli policies constitutes “a war crime and a crime against humanity.” On 1 November 2000, Amnesty International said that Israeli troops were using excessive force in battles with Palestinians, and that violations of human rights during recent weeks could constitute war crimes. Amnesty’s Claudio Cordone said: “There is a pattern of gross human rights violations that may well amount to war crimes.”
As Israelis prepare to vote this week, the United States’ newly formed Bush administration signaled it would assume a restrained role in Middle East peacemaking no matter who is elected. In the new administration’s first two weeks, top officials have approached the intractable conflict between Israeli and Palestinian tersely and with reserve.
With this in mind, the European Union now has to show how serious it can be. This concerns not only in assuming a role in the Middle East diplomacy, but also how serious the European Union considers international human rights as core values. The European Union has stated a “commitment to human rights”, referring to the fact that human rights form an essential component of all the Union’s Association Agreements with third parties, including Israel. Codified in article 2, commitment to human rights is an essentyial part of the Union’s agreement with Israel.
Judicial authorities in Israel have never shouldered their legal responsibilities and thoroughly investigated and prosecuted Ariel Sharon for the massacres and other crimes he committed. The failure of the Israeli legal system to act obligates the international community, in particular the European Union since all its member states are High Contracting Parties of the Geneva Conventions to hold Ariel Sharon accountable, irrespective of whether he is a private citizen of Israel, a cabinet minister, or the head of government.
In order to show a real commitment towards the enforcement of human rights, the European Union could impose sanctions against Israel as a means of exerting international influence that is more powerful than diplomatic mediation but lying below the threshold of military intervention. Sanctions are intended, by their coercive pressure, to get those at whom they are directed to alter behaviour that is breaking or endangering the peace. Bound up with this is the desire to bring home to the target state the international community’s disapproval of its behaviour. Finally, the demonstration of international law-enforcement which sanctions constitute is also intended to deter other states from breaches of their duties under international law.
In 1998, the European Union imposed sanctions to punish Yugoslavia for its crackdown on the Albanian majority in Kosovo. The EU sanctions had been imposed separately to embargos brought in by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund, and to a U.N. arms embargo. In October 2000, the EU partially lifted sanctions as the Serbian parliament, a key element of Milosevic’s power base, agreed to hold early elections. The lifting of EU sanctions had previously been linked to Milosevic’s appearance at the U.N. war crimes court in The Hague, to face charges relating to the treatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The EU felt compelled to act, having promised to help the people of Yugoslavia if they ousted Milosevic.
Ironically, Sharon has made it crystal-clear to the world that there is a similarity and perhaps even identity between Milosevic’s attitude toward Kosovo and the attitude of Sharon toward the Palestinians. While former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced his support for the NATO actions in Kosovo, Sharon, Israel’s foreign minister at that time, opposed any action against the Serbs.
In February 2000, the European Union froze bilateral relations with Austria when the far right populist democratically elected Freedom Party, under the leadership of Joerg Haider, was included in Austria’s coalition government. Haider subsequently stood down as leader of the party and after seven months, the EU lifted the sanctions.
The European Union could take similar steps when Sharon becomes the next Israeli prime minister. He was a principal in the first degree to murder, war crimes, grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and crimes against humanity, causing the death and injury of thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians.
The terrible events that take place in Palestine, involving the loss of lives of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children, raise important issues concerning the legal responsibility of the political and military leaders of Israel. Human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. This also applies to peace. Strict adherence, de facto and de jure, to international human rights law and international humanitarian law is the prerequisite for creating trust and strengthening security in the wider sense.
However, until such time as authoritative institutions enforce these rights and the European Union recognises that its morality will be judged on its fulfillment of its legal and moral obligations, morality will continue to be a limitation on state action, difficult to define but impossible to ignore.
The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda).