Lebanon reverses move to grant ICC jurisdiction to investigate alleged war crimes

Lebanese official says backtrack due to concerns it would ‘open the door for the court to investigate whatever it wanted’; Human Rights Watch laments loss of ‘historic opportunity’

This picture taken from northern Israel shows smoke billowing during Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon on May 25, 2024. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)
This picture taken from northern Israel shows smoke billowing during Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon on May 25, 2024. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

BEIRUT — Lebanon has reversed a move to authorize the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged war crimes on its soil, with at least one official saying Beirut was concerned over the potential implications of such an application.

Lebanon has accused Israel of repeatedly violating international law since October, when the IDF and the Hezbollah terror group began near-daily cross-border fire in parallel with the ongoing war in Gaza.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 14 IDF soldiers and reservists. Hezbollah has named 322 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 62 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and around 80 civilians have been killed.

Neither Lebanon nor Israel are members of the ICC, so a formal declaration to the court would be required from either to give it jurisdiction to launch probes into a particular period.

In April, Lebanon’s caretaker cabinet voted to instruct its foreign ministry to file a declaration with the ICC authorizing it to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes on Lebanese territory since October 7, when Hamas launched its deadly assault on southern Israel, sparking the ongoing war in Gaza.

Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib never filed the requested declaration, and on Tuesday the cabinet published an amended decision that omitted mention of the ICC, saying Lebanon would file complaints to the United Nations instead.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib arrives to attend an Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, October 11, 2023. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Lebanon has regularly lodged complaints with the UN Security Council about Israeli bombing over the past seven months, but they have yielded no binding UN decisions.

Habib did not respond to a Reuters question on why he did not file the requested declaration.

A Lebanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the initial cabinet decision raised “confusion” over whether a declaration would “open the door for the court to investigate whatever it wanted across different files.”

The official said the request to revisit the decision came from George Kallas, a cabinet minister close to parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who heads the Shiite Muslim Amal movement that is allied with the politically powerful Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and Amal have both fired rockets into Israel over the past eight months, which have killed civilians and soldiers as well as displaced tens of thousands of Israelis from towns near the border.

Contacted by Reuters, Kallas confirmed that he requested a review of cabinet’s initial decision, but denied that it was out of fear Hezbollah or Amal could become subject to ICC arrest warrants.

Lebanese lawmakers cast their vote to elect a president at the parliament building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, September 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Human Rights Watch condemned the cabinet’s reversal.

“The Lebanese government had a historic opportunity to ensure there was justice and accountability for war crimes in Lebanon. It’s shameful that they are forgoing this opportunity,” said HRW’s Lebanon researcher Ramzi Kaiss. “Rescinding this decision shows that Lebanon’s calls for accountability ring hollow.”

Information Minister Ziad Makary, the government spokesman, said that he had backed the initial decision and would “continue to explore other international tribunals to render justice” despite the reversal.

The initial push to file an ICC declaration came from MP Halima Kaakour, who holds a PhD in public international law. She recommended the measure to parliament’s justice committee, which unanimously endorsed it, and the cabinet approved it in late April.

“The political parties that backed this initiative at first seem to have changed their mind. But they never explained the reason to us or the Lebanese people,” Kaakour told Reuters.

“Lebanon’s complaints to the UN Security Council don’t get anywhere. We had an opportunity to give the ICC a period of time to look at it, we have the documentation — if we can use these international mechanisms, why not?”

Last week, the ICC’s top prosecutor, Karim Khan, announced he was seeking arrest warrants for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Deif over alleged war crimes.

Israel is not a member of the ICC, although the state of Palestine was granted membership in 2015. Hamas reacted with anger to the inclusion of its leaders in the ICC request, saying the move “equates the victim with the executioner.”

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