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SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Issam Abdallah’s Death: Why the Government Turned its Back on the ICC

Friday , 31 May 2024
Photo credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today

At a time when international tribunals are focusing on Israel, Lebanon seems in no hurry to seek justice.

More than seven months have passed since Israeli tank fire killed Reuters photojournalist Issam Abdallah — according to Lebanese and several other independent investigations — while he covered clashes on the southern border on Oct. 13. Lebanese cabinet reversed its decision on Tuesday to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged Israeli war crimes on Lebanese territory from Oct. 7, 2023, the date the Gaza war began.

This surprising reversal by the caretaker cabinet came without justification, despite its implications for obtaining justice for the young journalist’s family and holding the Israeli military accountable.

Initially, the idea of resorting to the ICC received almost unanimous approval, as Abdallah’s death provoked a general outcry.

However, since Lebanon (like Israel) is not a State Party to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, Beirut had to accept the Court’s jurisdiction through a formal declaration.

“We initiated an institutional process through the parliamentary administration and Justice Committee, which issued a recommendation for the government to accept the ICC’s jurisdiction for a limited period, per Article 12 of the Rome Statute,” explained Halima Kaakour, MP for Chouf and holder of a doctorate in public international law, who spearheaded the request for a declaration to the ICC.

“All the committee members voted in favor of this recommendation,” she said.

At the end of April, the cabinet instructed caretaker Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdallah Bou Habib to submit the recommendation to the ICC.

Lawyers and activists welcomed the move.

“It was the only way to obtain justice for Issam Abdallah, as other means, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, can only conduct investigations without issuing judgments, which has already been done by several experts,” Nizar Saghiyeh, lawyer and the head of Legal Agenda, told L’Orient-Le Jour.

“This would also have enabled Lebanon to seek justice for other war crimes committed by Israel in the south, such as the use of white phosphorus munitions against civilian infrastructure and targets,” added Kaakour.

Hamas’ fate

But a month later, Lebanon backed down. How could this decision be explained?

Ziad Makari, Minister of Information and spokesman for caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government, expressed his surprise when contacted.

“I was on a trip to Manama and was particularly surprised to see the government retract its request,” Makari said. He stressed that he opposes the decision and intends to follow the case when he returns to Beirut on Friday.

In a statement to Reuters, Makari said he would continue to explore other international tribunals to seek justice despite this reversal.

Minister for Youth and Sport Georges Kallas requested a review of the decision at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. He said that he did not intend to hinder the judicial process.

“On the contrary, I raised questions during the government session to understand why, a month later, the Foreign Minister had made no progress on the case,” he told L’Orient-Le Jour.

“It was during this discussion that the ministers decided to withdraw the request,” added Kallas, without further explanation.

A Lebanese official told Reuters anonymously that the initial cabinet decision had caused “confusion” regarding whether the declaration would allow the Court to investigate various cases as it sees fit.

“Quite simply, Hezbollah is concerned that the procedure could backfire, potentially subjecting its leaders to the same fate as Hamas leaders Yehya Sinwar, Mohammad Deif and Ismail Haniyeh,” a ministerial source told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Lebanon’s reversal closely followed the recent decision by ICC prosecutor Karim Khan to issue warrants for war crimes in Gaza against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and key Hamas leaders.

However, had Lebanon proceeded with its declaration to the ICC, it would have granted the body jurisdiction to investigate all allegations of war crimes, not solely those attributed to Israel.

Consequently, Hezbollah appears apprehensive about potential arrest warrants being issued against its leaders.

“The party may also fear that the Court will be weaponized against it, particularly given the significant pressure being exerted by Israelis and Americans on its judges,” said Saghiyeh.

Additionally, an MP said anonymously “Among the reasons why Lebanon has never joined the ICC is concerns [by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri].”

Berri is known to be Hezbollah’s main ally.

When contacted, a source close to Hezbollah insisted that the party was not responsible for this reversal.

“You have to ask the government,” the source stated. “However, we’ve never had confidence in international tribunals.”

Indeed, in a speech last week, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah praised the ICC prosecutor’s decision regarding Netanyahu.

Hezbollah’s relations with international justice, however, remain thorny.

In March 2022, the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon — which Berri vehemently opposed — found two Hezbollah members guilty on appeal for their involvement in the attack on Feb. 14, 2005, in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Another member of Hezbollah was convicted in the same court case in December 2020.

However, the Lebanese authorities never pursued the three convicts, although they were ostensibly under the obligation to apprehend them.

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