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Leader: International law

26 June 2015

IT APPEARS that Tony Blair's tendency to exclude history from his decisions has been adopted by David Cameron. The European Convention on Human Rights, from which the UK Government is at present trying to extricate itself, has its roots in British history and was framed, at least in part, by British architects. The UK Parliament was one of the first to ratify the Convention in 1951, and the ability of UK citizens to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights dates back to 1966. Mr Cameron argues that the British courts are perfectly capable of protecting the rights of its citizens without interference from Europe, but that is not the point. What is at issue is the fundamental concept of international law. If a country such as Britain is seen to reject an agreement that places national determinism above the rights of an individual - let us say, a victim - then a fundamental principle is undermined. In the same way, the persistent resistance of the United States to the authority of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has weakened that institution, and given less scrupulous governments an excuse to ignore it.

It is in this context that the United Nations' Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 violence in Gaza must be viewed. An estimated 2324 people were killed and 12,831 were injured. More than half a million people were displaced. The mandate for the United Nations Commission was enshrined in international human-rights law. They saw their remit as representing the victims and determining, as best they were able, whether any criminal acts were involved in the conflict. Its brief was limited. There is no law against killing enemy soldiers (although other laws come into play if the definition of "enemy" is not clear). The Commission concerned itself with the allegation that those directing the fighting in Gaza - the Israeli Defence Force and Hamas - had little or no regard for civilian casualties during their conduct of the war. On the evidence that the Commission was able to gather (280 interviews with victims and witnesses; more than 500 written submissions), it concludes that both the IDF and Hamas have a case to answer.

The difficulty is that neither the Israeli government nor Hamas was willing to co-operate with the UN Commission. The Israelis blocked the commissioners' access to the Occupied Territories; neither body responded to the commissioners' list of questions; both have repudiated the commissioners' findings. This matters, and not only because the victims of the war are unacknowledged and uncompensated. Many are bereaved and homeless. The greatest casualty, though, is the concept that governments can be held accountable for their actions by their peers. As sabres rattle over Ukraine, the UK Government's stance is therefore supremely unhelpful. In order to hold others to account, one must make oneself accountable.

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