When, in armed conflict, civilians are killed on a large scale, when schools are attacked and children are orphaned, charges of genocide are often not far behind. In discussions about Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military attack on Gaza earlier this year, accusations of genocide have therefore played an important role.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, recently accused Israel of carrying out a “war of genocide”. The National Lawyers Guild of America raised the charge of genocide in a letter to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requesting that the matter be investigated. Genocide was also investigated in a special session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which resulted, a few weeks ago, in one of the most detailed assessments of Operation Protective Edge to date. It is a crime for which the international authorities can impose a sentence of life imprisonment (as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda did on several occasions following the 1994 atrocities in that country).
The Russell Tribunal was originally set up by Bertrand Russell in the 1960s to investigate allegations of US crimes in Vietnam. It is not a court of law, but its jury contains prominent legal minds (including Prof John Dugard, Prof Richard Falk and Michael Mansfield QC), as well as people who have made their mark in other fields of life (including the film director Ken Loach, the writer Paul Laverty and the author and activist Christiane Hessel).
What matters to international courts is the mindset behind the action […] the perpetrator must have the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”.
I was invited to address the tribunal on the legal elements of genocide (but was not involved in the drafting of its findings). For some, it may have been a somewhat surprising presentation. Lawyers have traditionally given genocide a very restrictive interpretation – and a good part of my talk thus dealt with the reason why applying it to the situation in Gaza is not straightforward. To my mind, “genocide” is simply not the correct term for the Israeli offensive.
In common speech, genocide tends to describe atrocities which result in very large victim numbers. Yet that is not how the law has approached the concept. What matters to international courts is the mindset behind the action. In the words of Article II of the Genocide Convention, the perpetrator must have the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”.
That causes difficulties from the outset. In Operation Protective Edge, a main target of the Israeli forces was Hamas – clearly a political group, and thus outside the protection of the convention. The Palestinians do qualify as an “ethnic” (perhaps even as a “national”) group. But proving that they had been targeted “as such” is a tall order.