'Shocking': Dutch Lawmaker Describes Probing Israel's Treatment Of International Criminal Court

THE HAGUE, Netherlands ― The government of the Netherlands calls hosting the International Criminal Court “a huge responsibility” rooted in its national constitution. Along with 92 other nations, the country endorsed a statement on Friday calling the court “an essential component of the international peace and security architecture” that should be free from “intimidation” or “political interference and pressure.”

But Dutch authorities have also reportedly known since 2015 about Israeli harassment of court officials and sources trying to inform the ICC’s work. And Israeli espionage targeting the organization is allegedly ongoing.

What has the Netherlands done about it?

That’s what Kati Piri, a prominent member of the country’s House of Representatives, wants to know. On May 29, she sent a formal inquiry to the Dutch government about alleged Israeli meddling with the ICC since 2015, when the court began investigating apparent violations of international law in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once Palestine joined the ICC as a member state.

According to May 28 reports from The Guardian, the Israeli-Palestinian magazine +972 and the Hebrew-language outlet Local Call, Israel is surveilling dozens of officials at the court, as well as other international officials and Palestinian rights activists, and has repeatedly threatened former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Israeli officials allegedly subjected Bensouda to shock encounters ― including a seeming attempt at bribery at her home in The Hague and an “ambush” by Mossad director Yossi Cohen in New York ― and suggested they would harm her family, including by damaging her husband’s career.

Taken together, the alleged gambits constitute what a former high-ranking Israeli intelligence official described to The Guardian as “a war” of Israeli espionage and pressure against the ICC, to undercut its attempts at accountability for potential war crimes by Israelis. Israel’s government and military have firmly denied meddling with the court, accusing journalists of “allegations meant to hurt the state of Israel.”

“I cannot imagine the Dutch government having no information about these practices. Then, of course, the logical question is: What were the political consequences and were there any? If not, how can we as a host country pretend that we are protecting these international institutions?” Piri told HuffPost last week. Like the other 123 state parties to the ICC, the Netherlands is bound by its founding Rome Statute, whose Article 70 criminalizes interfering with the court’s administration of justice.

“Even if they tried everything, they were not able to prevent this harassment from taking place,” Piri said.

Kati Piri is one of three Dutch lawmakers challenging her country's government over whether it protected the International Criminal Court against alleged Israeli espionage.
Kati Piri is one of three Dutch lawmakers challenging her country's government over whether it protected the International Criminal Court against alleged Israeli espionage. Akbar Shahid Ahmed/HuffPost

June 18 was the deadline Piri set for the foreign, justice and interior ministers to send her a response, as they are mandated to do for such requests from lawmakers. Two other Dutch parliamentarians have also sent ministers formalinquiries into the allegations. A Dutch foreign ministry spokesperson told HuffPost she could not predict when the government responses will be issued.

How sincere the Netherlands and other governments are in their commitments to protect the ICC is arguably more significant now than ever before. ICC prosecutor Karim Khan announced on May 20 he is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli officials and leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas for suspected war crimes on Oct. 7, 2023 ― when Hamas launched a brutal assault within Israel ― and since then, as Israel has devastated the Palestinian enclave of Gaza in response to the Hamas-led attack.

Khan’s pursuit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant represents the closest the ICC has ever come to prosecuting officials closely tied to Western democracies like the U.S. and the Netherlands. The fear among Israeli officials of such prosecution for breaking international laws regulating military operations ― which could make it hard for them to travel internationally without facing arrest by governments that are part of the ICC, and could ultimately involve trials and imprisonment ― drove the Israeli push against the court, per the May 28 reports.

The situation as a whole raises questions of how world powers balance their commitments to universal standards with their own national preferences in global affairs. Are high-minded commitments to international law only applicable when it comes to easy opponents, like Russian President Vladimir Putin or war criminals from less influential nations, or are governments willing to hold their allies accountable as well? Will there be accountability for alleged Israeli violations of both the laws of war in Gaza and the statutes of international courts? 

Speaking with Piri offered insight into the thinking of officials grappling with those questions, particularly in the home of the ICC. The Netherlands is no behemoth in terms of territory, but it’s still one of Europe’s wealthiest countries with an outsize influence on the continent’s politics and the self-proclaimed international city of Peace and Justice.

States like the Netherlands are struggling to simultaneously align with both the U.S., their most important ally and Israel’s patron, and their professed values, which their foes like Putin cite to charge them with hypocrisy and undercut their foreign policy efforts, from supporting Ukraine to championing rights internationally. The ICC last year indicted Putin for alleged crimes against humanity during Russia’s vicious full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

Piri argued that given the global political climate, making allowances for Israel is dangerous. 

“We are a small country, which means automatically that international law and especially abiding by international law is very important for protecting our trade, for protecting our values,” she said. Many nations without the military capabilities or historic heft of the U.S. ― in other words, the vast majority of countries ― similarly count on the shaky patchwork of global norms for their sovereignty and stability.

Referring to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Piri continued: “This policy that Netanyahu is doing is not making Israel any safer... and meanwhile the West, including the Americans, we are losing our credibility all over the world for using double standards ― and yes, we are definitely using double standards.”

In Piri’s view, Dutch officials should have shielded the ICC, and demonstrated a commitment to international law in all circumstances, by verifying whether Israeli espionage occurred and then responding firmly. She envisions closed-door reproaches to Israeli counterparts, expelling Israeli spies who were posing as diplomats, or even applying a new Dutch law against cybersurveillance that provides for prison sentences of up to eight years.

Whether from Israel or a country, like China, that Europe formally describes as a rival, “you cannot make a difference” in responding to espionage, Piri said. She noted that the Netherlands has expelled Russians who it said were trying to infiltrate another international body in The Hague, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

“It’s an uncomfortable truth that it’s a friendly nation doing this,” Piri continued. She called the pattern of Israeli behavior reported in the media “shocking, really shocking,” arguing that the alleged secret breach of norms is even more alarming than public condemnations of the ICC from figures like U.S. lawmakers, particularly Republicans.

“The Netherlands, as the host state, enjoys significant financial benefits from hosting the ICC and also has a special duty to protect its independence and integrity,” argued Danya Chaikel, an attorney and the representative to the ICC for the International Federation for Human Rights, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations.

The Netherlands “is legally bound to take effective and adequate action required to ensure the security, safety, and protection of ICC officials, so the Court can function free from interference of any kind,” Chaikel said in an email. “The Dutch government acted decisively against a Russian cyberattack at the OPCW in 2018, and it took a firm stance against US sanctions on the ICC in 2020. In maintaining international law and justice, there should be no double standards. The same decisive action taken in past situations should be applied consistently, including in the current allegations against Israel.”

Piri framed shielding the Court as part of an overall attempt to shore up the global order. She expressed concern about the continued U.S. military backing that President Joe Biden is providing Israel’s offensive, even as the International Court of Justice ― another court based in The Hague that is distinct from the ICC ― has ordered Israel to halt its advance in Gaza, citing the risk to civilians, and is weighing a case brought by South Africa that casts the overall campaign as genocidal. (Israel fiercely disputes that portrayal and asserts it is working to shield civilians amid the fighting.)

“If the U.S. would stop delivering the weapons it is delivering, Israel would not be able to continue this war,” said Piri, who supports an effort by Dutch activists to block her country from sending spare parts to Israel for F-35 fighter jets. A local court ruled in the activists’ favor in February, but the Dutch government is appealing that judgment.

Calling herself a “big fan” of the Biden administration on most matters, Piri added: “In a world where our Western values are so much under threat... the U.S. in the future will need friends and allies and this is not helping it.”

“I’m not expecting it to attack Israel or in any way Israelis, but to distance yourself from the most far-right government in Israel would be a helpful thing to do,” she continued.

Piri believes neither the U.S. nor the European Union is upholding their stated values when it comes to the Gaza war. 

In the EU, “the problem is of course that the biggest and most important member state, which is of course Germany, is unwilling to really stand up for international law,” Piri said, echoing concerns that Palestinians and their advocates have expressed about Germany’s so-called “reason of state” for defending Israel because of its own responsibility for the Holocaust. “I cannot put it in any other way, although the government there is of my sister party.”

Piri is the foreign affairs spokesperson for the Dutch GreenLeft-Labor alliance, which is associated with Germany’s Social Democratic Party.

The West, including the Americans, we are losing our credibility all over the world for using double standards – and yes, we are definitely using double standards.Kati Piri, Dutch member of parliament, on Western reluctance to question Israel

In her own nation, a hard-line right-wing party swept the most recent national elections in November, presaging recent EU-wide voting in which radical-right politicians ― many of them both extremely supportive of Israel and highly critical of Muslims ― triumphed in several countries. Far-right party chief Geert Wilders called Netanyahu to express his support upon news that Netanyahu may face an ICC warrant, and Piri worries the incoming Dutch government will disregard warrants for Israelis if the court does approve them.

“I would like to see the Netherlands using its leverage for the EU to unite and to actually have any impact on what’s happening” in Gaza, she said. For instance, the union could express a tougher position on Israel than that of the U.S., perhaps by leveraging its status as Israel’s biggest trade partner to pressure it to respect international law on allowing humanitarian aid to reach civilians and minimizing collateral damage. But she does not believe a Wilders-dominated Dutch government would take any such steps.

For now, Piri is awaiting answers about developments closer to home: the alleged Israeli violations of international law on Dutch soil. She hopes the answers from her government will show that it respected its global promises by moving to defend the ICC, a response that could help boost faith in rhetoric about international values. Still, she sees no guarantees.

“I’m afraid that they will hide behind the fact that a lot of this is intelligence information and therefore cannot be shared publicly,” she told HuffPost. “I hope that I’m wrong ― that they really do everything behind closed doors to keep people safe and to pressure Israel to stop these practices.”