DANIEL HANNAN: I find it deeply alarming that a group of lawyers can recommend the arrest of a democratically elected prime minister

What are we to make of a group of human rights lawyers recommending that an arrest warrant be issued for Israel’s elected prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Yes, the International Criminal Court has done the same for various Hamas leaders, but these men were already hunted terrorists. An ICC warrant would make little difference to them.

Israel, by contrast, is a sovereign democracy. A flawed one, to be sure, but nonetheless a functioning state with independent institutions and a robust judiciary. In presuming to leapfrog Israel’s own legal system, the ICC prosecutor is engaging in calculated lawfare.

We must distinguish general principles from particular cases. I am open to a wide range of views about Israel. You can take the view that it is a beleaguered democracy defending itself against genocidal maniacs, or you can take the view that it is an illegitimate occupier carrying out atrocities. My own view is that Israel is broadly a force for good, but that Netanyahu has become a menace to civilisation.

Wherever you come down, though, you are expressing a political rather than a legal opinion. And that does not somehow cease to be true simply because you have a law degree.

In issuing a warrant for Israel’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, the ICC has crossed a line, writes Daniel Hannan 

In formulating his position, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, appointed a panel of six experts. While they have impressive legal experience, they also have their prejudices and assumptions, just like the rest of us.

One of them, the American-Israeli judge Theodor Meron, has argued consistently that there should be no Israeli presence in the territories conquered during the 1967 war.

Another, Danny Friedman KC, published an open letter on November 18 arguing that ‘Israel’s response to the attack on its territory has involved catastrophic mass fatality and untold human suffering of Palestinians’, and that ‘these are also grave war crimes’.

Now you can agree or disagree. Fine. But let’s not pretend that either man is coming disinterestedly to the subject. Indeed, in my view human rights lawyers as a group tend to be well to the Left of the general population. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we believed them to be unemotional androids.

Consider a third panellist, the Labour peer Helena Kennedy, KC. Now I happen to admire Baroness Kennedy immensely. She is clever, witty and eloquent, and has an unfeigned zeal for raising up the poor and disadvantaged. You can’t spend five minutes in her company without liking her. But she is just as much a party politician as I am.

The difference is that, while you will find plenty of human rights lawyers who share her Labour views, in my experience you will find almost none who support the Tories. Hence the suspicion that human rights law, at both national and supranational level, is being used to advance an agenda that would be rejected at the ballot box.

It is stunning to see how far and how fast we have moved. Twenty-five years ago, the human rights industry did not exist, and neither did the ICC. A multi-million-pound sector has grown up in an astonishingly short time, driven partly by the intimidating moral fervour of its practitioners and partly by grubbier calculations involving mortgages and school fees.

Outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands

Outside the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands

Keir Starmer and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy - who welcomed the ICC ruling - outside Berlin's Reichstag

Keir Starmer and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy – who welcomed the ICC ruling – outside Berlin’s Reichstag 

International law used to have a narrow scope, covering the immunity of ambassadors and the rules of engagement on the high seas. When the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864, establishing the Red Cross, it was a voluntary intergovernmental accord. The idea that it might have direct force within its signatory states would have been met by bewilderment. Even the 1945 Nuremberg trials, often cited by advocates of international law as an example of how the international community must sometimes step in to deal with the breakdown of legal norms in a nation, were nothing of the kind.

The Allies were clear that they were exercising their power as the legal occupiers of Germany, and thus its acting government. They turned down a German request for judges from neutral countries for precisely this reason.

No, the sight of supranational tribunals sitting in judgment over elected governments is a new one. What was until a generation ago the stuff of conspiracy theories is now happening. Except that there is nothing conspiratorial about it. Those involved could hardly seem more proud of themselves.

I would argue that when a country accepts a new human rights code or convention, it is not ‘giving’ people extra rights. It is simply empanelling a different set of officials to arbitrate those rights.

Those officials, whether national, European or international lawyers, would no doubt protest furiously that they are impartial, that they leave their personal opinions at the courtroom door. But notice how their rulings always seem to come from the same direction.

For example, we have come to expect courts to strike down both individual deportation orders and broader attempts to crack down on clandestine entry. But when did you ever hear of a judge stepping in to order an illegal immigrant to be removed?

If judges are as concerned about the rights of victims as they are about the rights of scoundrels, they keep very quiet about it.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Labour should be keener on these various codes than the Tories. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, in welcoming the ICC ruling, adopted a deliberately partisan tone, condemning the Conservatives for refusing to go along with it. We can expect much more of this if Sir Keir Starmer, a product and exemplar of the human rights industry, becomes PM.

Again, the lawyers involved will insist that they are simply interpreting conventions and commitments freely entered into by governments. And, in most cases, they will believe it. But it strikes me as incontestable that they are now making rulings that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

The case against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, for example, would until very recently have been deemed inadmissible, on grounds that, as the 1689 Bill of Rights puts it with admirable clarity, ‘proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court’.

Likewise the idea that courts should rule on a bilateral treaty between two states, such as the deportation agreement between Rwanda and the UK.

Likewise, come to that, the extraordinary notion that the climate change policy of the Swiss government, partly determined by Swiss voters in referendums, might be struck down by European human rights lawyers.

To repeat, you can agree or disagree with any of these decisions. But they are all fundamentally political. If the judges involved wanted to change policy, they should have stepped down, contested an election and introduced appropriate legislation as politicians.

This latest move by the ICC shows that, 22 years after its establishment, it too now sees itself as a geopolitical player, ready to legislate from the bench. And that is the most alarming thing of all. If a court with a mission is a menace, an international court with a mission is a tyranny.

Lord Hannan is International Secretary of the Conservative Party and serves on the Board of Trade.

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