On 29 January 2020, the District Court of The Hague dismissed the claim of a Palestinian-Dutch Citizen against the Chief of General Staff and Air Force Chief of the Israeli Army. The popular press has reported that one of the two Israeli generals was Benny Gantz, a recent contender to Benyamin Netanyahou in Israel politics.
The plaintiff was claiming compensation for the consequences of an air strike occurred on 20 July 2014 in the context of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, Operation Protective Edge. He claimed that the air strike targeted family homes, including one where six of his family members died.
Immunity from Jurisdiction
Unsurprisingly, the State of Israel asserted immunity from jurisdiction for the defendants with regards to acts performed in their official capacity. The existence of the functional immunity of foreign officials was not disputed. The only issue was whether an exception existed for international crimes. After noting that the concept of international crime was not well defined, the court explained that it would only assume their existence for the sake of the argument and for assessing whether this would limit the immunity of the defendants.
The Hague Court first noted that both the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) had ruled that States could not be deprived from immunity for serious violations of international human rights law. It further noted that none of the parties had been able to produce either an international or a national case ruling otherwise since then.
The court then rejected the argument of the plaintiff according to which an exception could exist for claims directed against individuals, as opposed to States. The reason was that such developments are limited to prosecutions before international tribunals and do not apply to proceedings before national courts. The court held:
In short, individual responsibility and dual attribution only apply to international courts, which take a fundamentally different position than national courts. Unlike international courts, national courts function in the horizontal relationship between States when prosecuting subjects of foreign States, to which the customary international-law principle of equality of States applies. Unlike for international courts, functional immunity from jurisdiction is the starting point for national courts.
Finally, the court explored whether there might be a limitation of functional immunity from jurisdiction in criminal proceedings before national courts under customary international law.
For that purpose, it assessed whether there was a general State practice and general acceptance that such practice was law. It found that this was not the case. Contrary to courts in other European states (and indeed the ECtHR) which relied on international conventions which are not in force and on explanatory reports which had not even made it into actual provisions of such conventions, the court noted the progressive work on the International Law Commission which introduced such limitations, but found that they were not adopted by consensus, and that it could thus not be said that this work had codified, or was representative of, customary international law.
The court then turned to Dutch opinion and cited a number of declarations of the Dutch government stating that it considered the limitation to exist. The court concluded, however:
The court will not delve deeper into the opinion of the Dutch court and the discussion on the Dutch criminal law practice as alleged by [claimant], as these do not reflect the current status of customary international law. As has been stated above, a limitation to functional immunity from jurisdiction is not accepted under customary international law in the prosecution of international crimes by national courts. The court must apply customary international law and is not bound by the opinion of the Dutch government.
Right to a Fair Trial
The court then moved to confront this outcome with the guarantees under Art 6 ECHR and the right of access to court. The Strasbourg court has ruled that the right of access to court is not absolute, and can be restricted for a legitimate purpose and with measures proportionate to that purpose.
The ECtHR has held repeatedly that sovereign immunities have a legitimate purpose. With respect to proportionality, the Strasbourg court has refused to check on states following customary international law and ruled that the proportionality test is met where the rule comports with customary international law.
It was then easy for the Dutch court to rule that, after finding that the alleged limitation to the functional immunity of jurisdiction is not accepted by customary international law, the result was necessarily compliant with the right of access to court.
The only assessment a court must carry out in examining the proportionality requirement is whether or not the functional immunity from jurisdiction for [defendant I] and [defendant II] is in agreement with customary international law. The court has established previously that this is the case. The proportionality requirement has therefore been met.
Finally, the plaintiff had argued that it was impossible for him to bring proceedings in Israel, as “Israeli law, as applied by the Israeli courts, raises all sorts of legal and practical obstacles to Palestians from the Gaza Strip”. He claimed, therefore, that he had no alternative forum to bring his claim, and that the existence of a forum necessitatis was mandated by European human rights law.
The Hague court dismissed the argument by distinguishing the judgment of the ECtHR in Naït-Liman and by ruling that the existence of an alternative forum was only relevant in the context of the immunity of international organisations, and not in the context of State immunity. The cases where the ECtHR insisted on the existence of an alternative forum were indeed all concerned with the immunity of international organisations (the UN, in particular, in Stichting).
An English version of the judgment can be found here.