A team of four Hebrew University students finished second in the world in the highly competitive International Criminal Court competition recently.
Along the way, the Israelis beat top competitors such as last year’s defending champions from the Netherlands, New York University and China, before losing to India in the final on May 23.
“Our way wasn’t paved with roses,” said coach Dr. Rotem Giladi, an international law expert associated with the university’s Minerva Center for Human Rights, reflecting on the team’s adversaries.
The team consisted of Sharon Aviram, assistant coach and co-counsel; Ofir Sharon, defense counsel; Ayana Yakobovitc, prosecution counsel; and Yonatan Romm, government counsel.
Forty-nine teams from 35 countries competed in this year’s competition, which was run by ICC Judge Howard Morrison, with the final rounds taking place in the ICC’s main courtroom in The Hague.
At its most stressful point (surviving on tons of chocolates), the team received its final opponents’ arguments at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night before the 1 p.m. final bout on Friday.
The students’ success would be news on its own, but Israel’s participation and success in the competition takes on a whole different meaning in light of the constant headlines about Israel and the ICC, the Foreign Ministry’s involvement in paying the students travel expenses and the direct involvement of Foreign Ministry Chief Legal Adviser Ehud Keinan and of Deputy Attorney- General Roy Schondorf in preparing the students for the competition.
Giladi said that the government considers the competition important and with no other Israeli teams available to practice with, provided Keinan and Schoydorf to judge and advise the competitors in a competition “rehearsal” as well as bringing in former ICC head prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
With all of the top three finishers, India, Israel and China, being countries that have not joined the ICC, Giladi said that ICC competition organizers commented that even non-member states like Israel are taking the ICC seriously.
The Palestinians regularly threaten to file complaints against Israelis with the ICC for war crimes, with a focus on accusations of illegal settlement building.
Until now, Israel has mostly responded by beating the Palestinians in legal battles to keep them out of the ICC, alternating with a campaign of deterrence saying at the Palestinians that if they go after Israelis, Israel will go after them and with a better chance of winning.
Still, Giladi said that Israelis need to “realize that the ICC is a fact of life.”
“It’s out there and this is not the old international law of the old days,” he said, noting that international law, especially regarding alleged war crimes, has become much more serious and that he is “not sure the general public fully appreciates this.”
Giladi quoted Moreno-Ocampo as telling the Israeli competitors at their rehearsal, “You need to solve these issues yourselves, the ICC is not the best place for doing that and we want you to resolve the issues among yourselves since there is no absolute right-wrong here.”
Giladi cautioned, however, that Israel’s position before the ICC could “get worse, if we ignore” the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
For example, he said he understood that Moreno- Ocampo and the current ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda would view the Palestinians as being able to join the ICC as the “State of Palestine.”
While if there were ongoing peace talks, you “probably would not see arrest warrants or significant progress in preliminary investigations” against Israelis, if the peace talks completely failed long-term, such problems could become “more likely,” he said.
Giladi to some extent endorses an idea that has been discussed by Sigall Horovitz, a Rabin Scholar at the Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
The idea is that Israel could join the ICC’s governing Rome Statute under Article 124, which would shield Israelis from investigation for seven years after joining – enough time to perhaps resolve outstanding issues with the Palestinians.
While not viewing joining the ICC as risk-free, Giladi said that observers can now see that the ICC is not “running amok, rushing in on us” and that it has not been overtly politicized as some had feared.
No government officials have come close to taking this position, likely because of the significant risks to Israelis, and continuing concerns that the ICC would become more politicized and that putting a deadline not dependent on progress in negotiations could undermine Israel’s positions.
Regardless, the students’ achievement, in ICC officials’ words, sent a strong message that Israeli arguments about the ICC should be taken seriously.