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What is the International Criminal Court?

Established in 2002 and based in The Hague, the ICC is a criminal court that can bring cases against individuals for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Most recently, on Monday it issued a request for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and three leaders of Hamas, the de facto authorities in Gaza.

The warrants – which must now be formally approved by the ICC’s judges – are related to alleged war crimes stemming from the seven month-long war in Gaza triggered by the Hamas-led attacks in Israel.

Here are five facts about the ICC and how it is helping build a more just world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the General Assembly in September 2023.
UN News

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the General Assembly in September 2023.

1. Trying the gravest crimes

The ICC was created with the “millions of children, women and men” in mind who “have been victims of unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”.

It is the world’s first permanent, treaty-based international criminal court to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide and the crime of aggression.

The court has successfully prosecuted individuals for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, including in Srebrenica, and has resolved cases of significance for international justice, shedding light on the crimes of using child soldiers, the destruction of cultural heritage, sexual violence or attacks of innocent civilians. Through its judgements in exemplary cases, it is gradually building authoritative case law.

The court has investigated some of the world’s most violent conflicts, including in Darfur, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Gaza, Georgia and Ukraine. It currently holds public hearings, with 31 cases on its docket, and its warrant list includes Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as individuals in Libya.

However, issuing a warrant and apprehending suspects is challenging. The court has no police to enforce its warrants and depends on its member States to implement its orders. Most of the individuals indicted by the court have been from African countries.

A child with severe acute malnutrition and dehydration is treated at a field hospital in southern Gaza in April 2024.
© WHO

A child with severe acute malnutrition and dehydration is treated at a field hospital in southern Gaza in April 2024.

2. Involving victims

On any given day, if you watch ICC proceedings, you’ll likely hear witness testimonies or hear a lawyer representing victims’ views in court. Their accounts are essential to the judicial process.

The court does not only try and punish those responsible for the most serious crimes, but also ensures that the voices of the victims are heard. Victims are those who have suffered harm as a result of the commission of any crime within the court’s jurisdiction.

Victims participate in all stages of ICC judicial proceedings. More than 10,000 victims of atrocities have participated in proceedings, and the court maintains direct contact with communities affected by crimes within its jurisdiction through outreach programmes.

The court also seeks to protect the safety and physical and psychological integrity of victims and witnesses. Although victims cannot bring cases, they can bring information to the Prosecutor, including to decide whether to open an investigation.

The ICC Trust Fund for Victims is currently making the Court’s first orders on reparations a reality, including with demands for reparations to victims and their families in the DRC. Through its assistance programmes, the Trust Fund has also provided physical, psychological and socioeconomic support to more than 450,000 victims.

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan visits the landfill site in Tarhunah, Libya, where a number of mass graves had been identified. (file)
ICC

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan visits the landfill site in Tarhunah, Libya, where a number of mass graves had been identified. (file)

3. Ensuring fair trials

All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt before the ICC. Each defendant is entitled to public and impartial proceedings.

At the ICC, suspects and accused persons have critical rights, including: to be informed of the charges; to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence; to be tried without undue delay; to freely choose a lawyer; and to receive exculpatory evidence from the Prosecutor.

Among these rights is the right to follow the proceedings in a language the accused fully understands. This has led to the court hiring specialised interpreters and translators in more than 40 languages, sometimes using, simultaneously, four languages during the same hearing.

In its first 20 years, participants were faced with a diversity of new substantive and procedural challenges, miles away from the crime scenes. In addition, the crimes prosecuted by the ICC are of a specific nature and often mass crimes requiring important amount of evidence and a lot of efforts to ensure the safety of the witnesses. The proceedings are complex, and there are many matters that need to be resolved behind the scenes over the course of a case.

Dorika, a survivor of rape in North Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (file)
Finbarr O’Reilly

Dorika, a survivor of rape in North Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (file)

4. Complementing national courts

The court does not replace national courts. It is a court of last resort. States have the primary responsibility to investigate, try and punish the perpetrators of the most serious crimes.

The court will only step in if the State in which serious crimes under the court’s jurisdiction have been committed is unwilling or unable to genuinely address those. 

Serious violence is escalating rapidly around the world. The court’s resources remain limited, and it can only deal with a small number of cases at the same time. The court also works hand in hand with national and international tribunals.

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, addresses the General Assembly in 2015.
UN Photo/Cia Pak

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, addresses the General Assembly in 2015.

5. Building more support for justice

With the support of more than 120 States Parties, from all continents, the ICC has established itself as a permanent and independent judicial institution.

But, unlike national judicial systems, the court does not have its own police. It depends on the cooperation of States, including to implement its arrest warrants or summonses.

Nor does the court have territory to relocate witnesses who are at risk. The ICC thus depends, to a large extent, on the support and cooperation of States.

How is the ICJ different from the ICC?

There is frequent confusion between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Here’s an overview at how they differ:

A gavel in a courtroom.
UNODC

  • The simplest way to explain the difference is that ICJ cases involve countries, and the ICC is a criminal court, which brings cases against individuals for war crimes or crimes against humanity. 
  • While the ICJ is an organ of the United Nations, the ICC is legally independent of the UN, although it is endorsed by the General Assembly.
  • While not all 193 UN Member States are parties to the ICC, it can launch investigations and open cases related to alleged crimes committed on the territory or by a national of a State party to the ICC or of a State that has accepted its jurisdiction.
  • Learn more about the ICJ in our explainer.

Israel refutes South Africa’s accusations at UN world court

Linked to South Africa’s ongoing case accusing Israel of violating its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), the new request, filed on 10 May, asked the ICJ to order Israel to “immediately withdraw and cease its military operations in the Rafah governate”.

Gilad Noam presents Israel’s arguments at the ICJ.

An ‘obscene exploitation’

Appearing before the Court, Gilad Noam, co-agent of Israel, refuted South Africa’s claims, terming it an “obscene exploitation” of the “most sacred” Genocide Convention.

“South Africa presents the Court yet again for the fourth time within the scope of less than five months, with a picture that is completely divorced from the facts and circumstances.”

He stated that Israel is engaged in a “difficult and tragic” armed conflict, a fact essential to “comprehend the situation” but one that is ignored by South Africa.

“It makes a mockery of the heinous charge of genocide … facts matter and truth should matter. Words must retain their meaning. Calling something a genocide again and again does not make it genocide,” he added.

Israel did not start the war

Mr. Noam further stated that it was not Israel that started the war, recalling the “horrific onslaught” on 7 October 2023 by Hamas and other Palestinian groups targeting Israeli civilians and communities, killing over 1,200 and taking 254 women, men and children hostage.

He added that Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza continue to attack Israel, displacing communities and destroying homes and infrastructure. Moreover, Hamas continues to use Palestinian civilians as human shields.

“Rafah, in particular, is a focal point for the ongoing terrorist activity,” he said, accusing Hamas of having “intricate underground tunnel infrastructure” with command-and-control rooms, military equipment, and potentially for smuggling Israeli hostages out of Gaza.

He also noted that even though the ICJ called for the immediate release of the hostages, they remain under captivity.

Co-agent of Israel, Gilad Noam, at the public hearings in the case South Africa v. Israel at the ICJ.
© ICJ/Wendy van Bree

Co-agent of Israel, Gilad Noam, at the public hearings in the case South Africa v. Israel at the ICJ.

Not a large-scale operation

“The reality is that any State put in Israel’s difficult position would do the same. The right of defence against the brutality of the Hamas terrorist organization cannot be in doubt. It is an inherent right afforded to Israel, as it is to any State,” Mr. Noam said.

The Israeli representative stated his country’s commitment to protecting itself, “in accordance with the law, which is why it has worked diligently to enable the protection of civilians, even as Hamas seeks deliberately to endanger them.”

“That is why there has not been a large-scale assault on Rafah, but rather specific, limited and localized operations prefaced with evacuation efforts and support for humanitarian activities,” he added.

Fully and sincerely engaged

Concluding his statement, Mr. Noam cited the Court’s rejection of South Africa’s earlier requests for similar provisional measures, and added that it would be “wholly inappropriate” to grant a provisional measure under such terms.

“South Africa has not given sufficient reason why the Court should now deviate from or essentially duplicate its earlier decisions,” he said, noting that Israel is “engaged fully and sincerely” in the proceedings, “despite the outrageous and libelous claims levelled against it.”

“[Israel] has made clear time and again its unwavering commitment to its obligations under its international law. It has done this while the fighting continues and its citizens are still under attack,” he said.

Crimes against nature: UN agency puts environmental legislation under scrutiny

“Stronger legislation can help deter potential and repeat offenders and expand the range of investigative tools and resources for law enforcement to stop crimes that affect the environment,” said Angela Me, Chief of Research and Analysis at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), presenting the report.

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Launched in Vienna, ‘The Landscape of Criminalization’ is Part One of the first-ever Global Analysis of Crimes that Affect the Environment report. UNODC examines how all 193 UN Member States define crimes against nature and the punishments they set for violating environmental laws.

Serious violations

The study covering nine areas of nature-related offenses – deforestation and logging, noise pollution, fishing, waste management, wildlife protection, and pollution of air, soil, and waste – established that no less than 85 per cent of UN Member States criminalize offenses against wildlife.

At least 45 per cent of countries impose penalties of four or more years in prison for some environmental offenses, categorizing them as “serious” crimes under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), a universally recognized standard.

“Our review shows progress globally in advancing environmental protection laws,” said Angela Me. However, she noted that legislation and enforcement remain uneven, creating “opportunities for criminal groups to exploit gaps in responses.”

Wildlife and waste are the areas where most countries (164 and 160, respectively) include at least one related criminal offense in their national legislation. In contrast, soil and noise pollution (99 and 97, respectively) are the areas where the fewest countries have criminal provisions.

Regional variations

The level of criminalization and penalties varies by country and region. For example, in Oceania, 43 per cent of countries regard illegal fishing as a serious crime (resulting in four or more years in prison), whereas in Europe, only two per cent of countries classify it as such. Meanwhile, 12 out of 18 countries in Eastern Africa consider wildlife offenses to be serious crimes.

A man fishes on the banks of the Mithi River in western India that has become an open dump for sludge oil and hazardous chemicals.
© UNICEF/Magray

A man fishes on the banks of the Mithi River in western India that has become an open dump for sludge oil and hazardous chemicals.

Africa and Asia have the highest average percentage of Member States with penalties meeting the serious crime definition, indicating that the legislation is not necessarily weak but that there is a lack of enforcement.

Wildlife crime

Of the nine areas surveyed, offenses against wildlife are most frequently covered by criminal legislation, with 164 Member States maintaining such provisions. 

Many countries’ national legislation even exceeds the requirements of CITES, the international convention regulating the transboundary trade in endangered species.

Globally, wildlife crime penalties span from a few days to life in prison, while fines can range from a few US dollars to three million.

Next to wildlife, crimes related to waste are highly criminalized, with 160 countries considering improper waste dumping a crime and including at least one related criminal offense in their legislation.

In contrast, soil and noise pollution are the least protected, with only 99 and 97 countries, respectively, considering these violations serious.

Legislative gaps

The report highlights discrepancies in how laws are applied to individuals versus enterprises, with businesses often getting away with fines, while individuals may face imprisonment. 

The authors suggest that countries could improve legislation to allow for the confiscation of means used to commit environmental crimes or proceeds from these offenses. The current lack of such provisions often leads to the prosecution of minor offenders rather than the large economic players committing environmental crimes.

According to the UNODC experts, there are several areas for improvement in environmental legislation and penalties. Member States could consider increasing penalties and expanding the use of international cooperation tools such as extradition or mutual legal assistance.

There is also a need for more data collection on these crimes, better enforcement of legislation, and more research on the penalties administered and their effectiveness, they said, adding that such information will help in understanding which extents of criminalization are most effective in preventing environmental crimes.

ICC Prosecutor outlines roadmap to complete Libya war crimes probe

That “roadmap”, Prosecutor Karim Khan explained, details a focused set of activities over the next 18 months and beyond “to significantly expand the impact of our action” in Libya.

Once the investigative phase is complete, the focus will shift to judicial proceedings, including tracking and arresting fugitives and conducting trials, as well as strengthening engagement with Libyan authorities and international partners.

Mr. Khan emphasized that the roadmap provides tangible and meaningful steps towards justice for Libyan victims, rather than mere rhetoric.

“Crucially, the roadmap is something that the victims in Libya can look to not as ‘hot air’ or a ‘spin’, but something impactful and meaningful to advance their right to justice.”

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan briefing the Security Council.

For the Libyan people

He added that it would also represent an opportunity to “meaningfully deliver” on Security Council resolution 1970 (2011), which referred the situation in Libya to the ICC.

Mr. Khan also stressed the necessity of sustained and enhanced cooperation from Libyan authorities and the international community.

“We need to work shoulder to shoulder together, not for our own individual interests or the interests of the ICC or for a government, but for the interests of humanity and the people of Libya.”

Towards that end, he highlighted “positive news”, including the issuance of multiple entry visas for ICC officials as well as the arrival of forensic experts in the country.

Not driven by political interests

ICC Prosecutor Khan concluded by urging the international community to seize this moment to renew commitment to international criminal justice.

He emphasized that the ICC’s work is not driven by political interests but by a dedication to uphold the principle of equality before the law, and to protect the vulnerable.

“When one looks at Libya, when one looks at other situations in the world – whether it is Ukraine or whether it is Palestine, or whether it is the Rohingya, or whether it is any other place one wishes to look at – we see issues.”

He underscored that the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions, customary international law and the UN Charter “are part of the tapestry of civilization” and that “every human life matters equally”, rule of law must apply in every situation – be it Libya or other crises.

‘Untold harm to nature’ from wildlife trafficking, warns UN crime agency

“Wildlife crime inflicts untold harm upon nature and it also jeopardizes livelihoods, public health, good governance and our planet’s ability to fight climate change,” said Ghada Waly, UNODC Executive Director.

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The agency’s World Wildlife Crime Report takes stock of the efforts to counter poaching worldwide. Although there are positive signs that trafficking of some iconic species has decreased, including elephants and rhinoceroses – thanks to the dismantling of large trafficking networks and the suppression of demand in key markets – the overall picture is still gloomy for thousands of protected plants and animals. 

Scope and harm 

Wildlife crime has a profound global impact whose ramifications aren’t always clearly understood, UNODC insists. 

Latest data on seized trafficked species from 2015 to 2021 across 162 countries and territories indicates that illegal trade affects roughly 4,000 plant and animal species with approximately 3,250 listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Over the reporting period, law enforcement bodies confiscated 13 million items totalling more than 16,000 tonnes.  

Despite its significant role in driving the extinction of numerous rare species such as orchids, succulents, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals, wildlife trafficking often goes unnoticed by the public, according to UN experts in wildlife crime prevention.

For example, illegal collection for trade is believed to have led to the recent extinction of several succulent plant species in South Africa. It has also caused substantial depletion of rare orchids, with newly discovered species quickly targeted by poachers and buyers.

Harm to the environment and climate inflicted by illicit trafficking in wildlife species.
UNODC/ World Wildlife Crime Report

Harm to the environment and climate inflicted by illicit trafficking in wildlife species.

In addition to directly threatening species populations, wildlife trafficking can disrupt delicate ecosystems and their functions, particularly undermining their ability to mitigate climate change.

Furthermore, experts in human and animal health have consistently raised concerns about the disease risks associated with wildlife trade in recent decades. These concerns encompass the direct transmission of diseases to humans from live animals, plants and wildlife products including bushmeat, as well as broader threats to wildlife populations, ecosystems and food production systems.

A powerful enemy

The analysis of over 140,000 wildlife species traffic seizures from 2015 to 2021 reveals the intricate involvement of powerful organized crime groups in exploiting fragile ecosystems worldwide, from the Amazon to the Golden Triangle (broadly encompassing northeastern Myanmar, northwestern Thailand and northern Laos). Transnational criminal networks engage in various stages of the trade chain, including export, import, brokering, storage, breeding and selling to customers.

A mother rhino and her calf are sleeping in the shade at the Ziwa Rhine and Wildlife Ranch in Uganda.
© UNDP/Gregoire Dubois

Traffickers continuously adapt their methods and routes to evade detection and prosecution, exploiting regulatory loopholes and enforcement weaknesses, UNODC said. Corruption further exacerbates the plight of plants and animals, with officials often turning a blind eye to violations. Despite this, wildlife crime cases are rarely prosecuted under corruption charges, allowing perpetrators to escape punishment. 

“To address this crime, we must match the adaptability and agility of the illegal wildlife trade. This demands strong, targeted interventions at both the demand and the supply side of the trafficking chain, efforts to reduce criminal incentives and profits, and greater investment in data, analysis, and monitoring capacities,” UNODC’s Ghada Waly said.

There’s hope

Recent analyses of illegal trafficking in elephants and rhinoceroses have demonstrated that a comprehensive strategy which addresses both demand and supply has yielded good results. But this approach must also be combined with a heightened policy focus, stricter market regulations and targeted law enforcement actions against major traffickers. There have been significant decreases in poaching, seizures, and market prices for these species over the past decade, UNODC noted.

Trafficking in the Sahel: Cracking down on illicit drugs

In this feature, part of a series exploring trafficking in the Sahel, UN News focuses on the illicit drug trade.

According to a new report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), drug trafficking in the Sahel continues to hinder security, economic development and the rule of law while jeopardising public health.

“Drug trafficking is well-established in the Sahel region – with detrimental consequences both locally and globally,” said Amado Philip de Andres, who heads the agency’s West and Central Africa regional office.

“Increased drug flows to West Africa and the Sahel undermine peace and stability in the region,” he said. “This is not only a security issue as armed groups are deriving revenue to finance their operations, it is also a public health issue as criminal groups tap into population growth to expand illicit drug markets.”

Cannabis seized in a drug sting. (file)
UNODC

Cannabis seized in a drug sting. (file)

Large-scale trafficking

In some Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – cannabis resin remains the internationally trafficked drug most commonly seized, followed by cocaine and pharmaceutical opioids.

Indeed, seizures of cocaine skyrocketed in the Sahel in 2022, from an average of 13 kg per year seized between 2015 and 2020 to 1,466 kg in 2022. UNODC assessments said this suggests the presence of large-scale cocaine trafficking through the region.

Although annual estimates were not available for 2023, by mid-year, 2.3 tons of cocaine had already been seized in Mauritania, according to the agency.

The region’s geographical location makes it a “natural stopover point” for the increasing amount of cocaine produced in South America en route to Europe, which has seen a similar rise in demand for the drug, the new report found.

Experts examine cocaine in Guinea-Bissau. (file)
UN News/Alexandre Soares

Experts examine cocaine in Guinea-Bissau. (file)

‘Vicious cycle’ links trafficking and instability

The drug economy and instability in the Sahel are linked through a “vicious cycle”, the report noted, in which the weak rule of law is facilitating the expansion of the drug economy. That can, in turn, provide financial resources for maintaining or expanding conflicts, which then continue to weaken the rule of law.

The new report found that drug trafficking continues to provide financial resources to armed groups in the region, including Plateforme des mouvements du 14 juin 2014 d’Alger (Plateforme) in Algeria and Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) in Mali, enabling them to sustain their involvement in conflict, notably through the purchase of weapons.

Meanwhile, traffickers are using money-laundering to disguise their illicit proceeds in a growing number of sectors, from gold to real estate. That makes financial transactions more difficult to track while giving traffickers greater economic leverage and “a veneer of legitimacy”, the report found.

Port control units established under the framework of a UNODC-support container control programme seized 260 tonnes of cocaine in 2023.
UNODC

Port control units established under the framework of a UNODC-support container control programme seized 260 tonnes of cocaine in 2023.

Corruption enables traffickers

Corruption and money laundering are “major enablers” of drug trafficking, according to the report.

Recent seizures, arrests, and detentions in the Sahel region reveal how drug trafficking is facilitated by a wide range of individuals, which can include members of the political elite, community leaders and heads of armed groups.

Traffickers have used their income to penetrate different layers of the State, allowing them to effectively avoid prosecution, according to UNODC.

The report also highlighted overwhelming evidence of the continued involvement of armed groups in drug trafficking in the region, and found that terrorist organisation affiliates are likely to benefit indirectly through exacting zakat, a form of wealth tax, from traffickers and taxing convoys that cross areas under their control.

Terrorist groups and organised crime

Combatting terrorist groups operating in the Sahel was in the spotlight at the recent High-Level African Counter-Terrorism Meeting, held in Abuja, Nigeria, in late April. Among concerns raised by Heads of State across the region were the increasing links between terrorism and organised crime.

Speaking at the meeting, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed described the situation in Africa, particularly in the Sahel, as dire, noting that the region now accounts for almost half of all deaths from terrorism globally.

“A major factor that has fuelled the rise in insurgency in the Sahel is organised crime, particularly the proliferation and smuggling of firearms across our porous borders,” she said. “The availability of weapons empowers terrorist groups, often better equipped with the latest technology.”

Children play in front of a police station in Gao that was attacked by terrorists.
UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Children play in front of a police station in Gao that was attacked by terrorists.

Da’esh, Al-Qaida heading south

At the gathering, UN counter-terrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov warned that Da’esh, Al-Qaida and their affiliates have made some significant gains in the Sahel and are moving southward to the Gulf of Guinea.

“We recognise that no single actor can resolve today’s threats to peace and security alone,” he said. “Instead, we need multiple actors working together, with solutions grounded in strong national ownership and supported by funding partners.”

A “step change” in commitments to address those complex challenges came with the launch of the UN Joint Appeal for Counter-Terrorism in Africa, he said, bringing together 16 UN entities in support of 10 new multipartner initiatives across the continent to tackle such critical areas as border management and countering terrorism travel on the continent and the nexus between terrorism and organised crime.

A detention centre in Bamako, Mali. (file)
© MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

A detention centre in Bamako, Mali. (file)

Wake-up call

Meanwhile, local and regional actors continue to join forces to combat the illegal drug trade in the Sahel, according to UNODC.

The agency’s new report should serve as a “wake-up call”, said Leonardo Santos Simão, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel.

“States in the Sahel region – along with the international community – must take urgent, coordinated and comprehensive action to dismantle drug trafficking networks and give the people in these countries the future they deserve,” he said.

Pillay: Israel is helped by ‘powerful States’ in violation of Palestinians’ rights

When tensions erupted in East Jerusalem in April 2021 at the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, daily clashes involving Palestinians, Israeli settlers and Israeli forces led to spiraling violence and death. In response, the Human Rights Council set up a top panel of independent rights experts to investigate reports of violations of international law.

Today, more than ever amid the ongoing war in Gaza, this independent commission of inquiry has its work cut out. We took a closer look at its role, speaking to its chair, former UN Human Rights Commissioner and judge Navi Pillay, who provided fresh insight into the developing situation and what’s happening in the field of international law.

“Every country and every member of the United Nations is equal in terms of their obligations to observe international law,” she told UN News.

An injured man is helped by rescue workers in Ramallah, in the West Bank, in May 2021. (file)
© UNOCHA/Tanya Habjouqa

An injured man is helped by rescue workers in Ramallah, in the West Bank, in May 2021. (file)

Background to the ‘Day of Rage’

In 2021, the imminent threat of forced eviction of Palestinian families from their homes – initiated by Israeli settler organisations – provoked unrest in and around the Old City of Jerusalem.

This later extended to the wider occupied West Bank, culminating in a “Day of Rage” on 14 May 2021, when Israeli forces killed 10 Palestinians, the highest number recorded at that time by the UN in a single day.

These tragic events led the Human Rights Council to “urgently establish an ongoing, independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, all alleged violations of international humanitarian law and abuses of international human rights law leading up and since 13 April 2021”.

A tower block lies in ruins in Gaza City following an Israeli air strike in May 2021. (file)
© UNRWA/Mohamed Hinnawi

A tower block lies in ruins in Gaza City following an Israeli air strike in May 2021. (file)

Expanded complicity probe

Three years on, the Commission’s mandate has become broader, particularly since Hamas-led terror attacks on southern Israel on 7 October, which killed some 1,200 people and left more than 250 taken hostage prompting the intense bombardment of Gaza by Israeli Defense Forces.

To date, more than 34,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and over 77,700 Palestinians injured, according to the enclave’s health authorities, while deadly clashes have resumed in the occupied West Bank.

The Commission’s mandate now includes additional issues, including reporting on States that transfer military and other weapons to Israel, raising questions about potential complicity in violations of international law.

Its chair brings years of experience. Ms. Pillay previously served as the first non-white woman judge of the High Court of South Africa, as a judge on the International Criminal Court and President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Machetes and bullets in Gisenyi, Rwanda, 26 July 1994.
UN Photo/John Isaac

Machetes and bullets in Gisenyi, Rwanda, 26 July 1994.

Rwanda recall

Ms. Pillay said a unique aspect of the current situation in the Middle East is that evidence of war crimes is being gathered in real time, meaning that the world is conscious of the events unfolding.

“I have experience of apartheid era crimes in my own country,” she said. “I served as a judge and president of the Rwanda Tribunal. The Rwandan genocide occurred over 100 days and the world didn’t even know that it was happening. So, in the courtroom, we had to rely very much on recollections of what had happened.”

She said that’s not the case with the ongoing situation in Gaza.

“Here, things are very different, and that’s why it’s so much more shocking,” she insisted.

Navi Pillay, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
UN News/Daniel Johnson

Navi Pillay, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

First to call for a ceasefire

Nobody could have predicted what happened on 7 October and what has followed, the rights expert continued, noting that the Commission was “the first” on 10 October to issue a statement calling for a cessation of hostilities.

This was “long before other organs of the UN spoke up”, she said, “long before the political organs of the UN reacted. Even now, we have the Security Council resolution, the last one calling for a ceasefire, and yet the United States representative feels that resolution does not have any validity.”

It’s disturbing, she continued, when one country continues to violate international law with the help of powerful States who say they support human rights.

“It’s very disturbing if one country gets away with that.”

Suggested caption: Large parts of Gaza, following seven months of Israeli bombardment, stand in ruins in May 2024.

Large parts of Gaza, following seven months of Israeli bombardment, stand in ruins in May 2024.
© UNOCHA/Ismael Abu Dayyah

Large parts of Gaza, following seven months of Israeli bombardment, stand in ruins in May 2024.

Growing need for the rule of law

The veteran human rights expert believes that there is a resurgence of – and a growing need for – the rule of law, a trend highlighted by an unprecedented number of applications before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) since its creation in 1945.

She said South Africa’s recent petition to the ICJ alleging that Israel’s actions in Gaza violate the Genocide Convention signals a significant development in the application of universal jurisdiction. It also marks the first time that a third country has brought an application to the ICJ, she noted.

“How come it’s only now that the occupation itself is being challenged, that the ICJ had not been asked to give legal advice on the lawfulness of the occupation itself and [on] the responsibilities of States towards an unlawful endeavour?” Ms. Pillay asked.

Destruction in northern Gaza in March 2024. (file)
© UNRWA

Destruction in northern Gaza in March 2024. (file)

Surge of genocide allegations

“The call to rely on the rule of law has been there a long time,” she said. “I see now that we have a surge of this – countries bringing genocide allegations against other countries because of their military support. We have not seen this before and questioning the lawfulness of the occupation [is] also new, and I hope that that trend spreads.”

Earlier this month, Nicaragua brought a case to the UN’s top court to stop German military and other aid to Israel, alleging that it was enabling acts of genocide and violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza. The court ultimately rejected the request.

“Israel would not have been able to continue with this level of actions against Palestinians [and] violations of Palestinian rights had they not had the help of other States in terms of military aid,” Ms. Pillay said.

Above all, she highlighted, is the obligation incumbent on all nations to uphold international law.

Gaza protests: UN rights chief flags ‘disproportionate’ police action on US campuses

In recent days, demonstrations unfolding through tented encampments on school grounds – sparked by students at New York’s prestigious Columbia University who are demanding authorities divest from Israel due to its occupation and military assault on Gaza – have spread nationwide.

University authorities from the west to east coast have taken different approaches, ranging from Columbia’s initial response to authorise police to clear protests by force to continuing negotiations and allowing the encampments to remain.

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Columbia protests intensify

Columbia’s protesters ignored an ultimatum from the university to leave the camp or risk suspension on Monday. Early on Tuesday morning, students took over historic Hamilton Hall on campus, barricading themselves inside.

The building was one of those occupied in civil rights and Viet Nam war protests by students in 1968.

The university president announced earlier on Monday that dialogue with protesters had failed, and the institution would not bow to demands to divest from Israel.

Universities should ‘properly manage’ protest response: Guterres

Speaking to reporters in New York on the Gaza crisis, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was asked about the US protests.

“First of all I think it is essential in all circumstances to guarantee the freedom of expression and the freedom of peaceful demonstration but at the same time it is obvious that hate speech is unacceptable”, he said.

It should be left up to university authorities themselves to “properly manage” the situation and decide on the appropriate response to the protests, he added. 

Right to protest is ‘fundamental’

In his statement on Tuesday, UN rights chief Volker Türk said that freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly were “fundamental to society”, particularly when there is sharp disagreement on major issues as there is in relation to the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.

He noted that in recent weeks, thousands of university students in the US have been protesting the war, and many demonstrations have taken place without incident.

But, there have also been hundreds of arrests following interventions on some campuses by security forces. Many have subsequently been released while others still face charges or academic sanctions.

Action taken by authorities and law enforcement officials to restrict such expression needs to be carefully scrutinised to ensure they do not go beyond what is demonstrably necessary to protect the rights and freedoms of others or for another legitimate aim, such as the maintenance of public health or order, Mr. Türk said.

Incitement to violence ‘must be strongly repudiated’

I am concerned that some of law enforcement actions across a series of universities appear disproportionate in their impacts,” he stressed.

The rights chief emphasised that any clearly anti-Semitic conduct and speech was totally unacceptable and deeply disturbing. Anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian conduct and speech are equally reprehensible, he said.

Incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints – whether real or assumed – must be strongly repudiated,” he continued. “We have already seen such dangerous rhetoric can quickly lead to real violence.”

He said any violent conduct should be addressed on a case-by-case basis rather than through sweeping measures “that impute to all members of a protest the unacceptable viewpoints of a few”.

A message of thanks to students around the world protesting events in Gaza is displayed on a tent in the south of the enclave.
UN News/Ziad Taleb

A message of thanks to students around the world protesting events in Gaza is displayed on a tent in the south of the enclave.

Human rights law

“Here, as elsewhere, responses by universities and law enforcement need to be guided by human rights law, allowing vibrant debate and protecting safe spaces for all.”

The High Commissioner emphasised that any restrictions to fundamental freedoms of expression must be guided by “legality, necessity and proportionality” and applied without discrimination.

“US universities have a strong, historic tradition of student activism, strident debate and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Mr. Türk said.

“It must be clear that legitimate exercises of the freedom of expression cannot be conflated with incitement to violence and hatred.”

Protesters demonstrate outside the Columbia University campus in New York City.
UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Protesters demonstrate outside the Columbia University campus in New York City.

First Person: ‘Our tears are dry, we are exhausted’ – Youth voices in Haiti

Duval Dormeus is part of a group supported by the UN Peacebuilding Fund and was first interviewed by UN News back in July 2022.

The security situation has worsened in the Caribbean country since then. In the first three months of 2024, over 2,500 people have been killed or injured due to gang violence, according to the United Nations mission in the country, BINUH.

Mr. Dormeus told UN News how he has managed to get by over the past two years.

“I am looking at the bad state of my country. I am looking at the lives of people whose lives are burdened with violence and misery. I’m watching how people have become resigned to poverty.

There are more bandits, and I’m watching how they are turning Haitians into refugees in their own country.

Duval Dormeus
© Duval Dormeus

Duval Dormeus

Banditry, prostitution and kidnapping are the big businesses here.

I am looking at the insecurity that does not spare anyone – entrepreneurs, artists, students, traders, we are all affected.

I’m looking at a dead-end country. I’m looking at how 14-year-old children are forced into prostitution by adults.

In this country, the preferred food for dogs and pigs is the fresh bodies they find on the streets of the city.

Misery, death, squalor and unemployment are all on the rise. We can hear the sound of gunfire, and there are deaths every day.

Many young men no longer believe in hard work and patience.

Fires burn on streets in the Cité Soleil area of Port-au-Prince.
© UNOCHA/Giles Clarke

Fires burn on streets in the Cité Soleil area of Port-au-Prince.

A place of war

I still live in the Cité Soleil neighbourhood, a place of war, a place of misery, even though as a country Haiti is barely habitable. But, despite everything, we are resilient. This is how we survive.

Everything that is happening in front of me makes me tired. I want to find refuge somewhere, but I cannot hide as I need to resist.

My breath is exhausted, and our tears, the tears of young people, are dry.

I’ve seen too much for someone of my age. My head is spinning, but my brain will not stop thinking, so I continue to fight.

Motivating young people

I have continued to work in a community organisation [Comité Consultatif de Jeunes] which supports young people. We are working hard in areas which are affected by gang violence to reduce juvenile delinquency.

We do this through group activities, getting young people together from neighbourhoods which are controlled by different gangs to discuss the challenges they face and their hopes for the future.

I am paid for these group activities, and this is how I survive.

Despite the many problems, I feel as though I have grown in the last two years due to my work in the community. I am always available to motivate and support other young people.

I would like to get to know youth from other countries to exchange ideas and to understand how they deal with the problems they face, including climate change, technology and sustainable development.

When I first spoke to UN News, my identity was protected for security reasons. I was anonymous.

Even though the situation is now more dangerous, I want to show my face and demonstrate the sort of person I am.

I know there are risks but, in this way, I think my family, my friends and the community will be better protected.

Comité Consultatif des Jeunes is part of a programme called Semans Lapè (seeds of peace) which is managed by the non-governmental organisation Concern Worldwide. It has been funded by the UN Peacebuilding Fund in line with the UN’s youth, peace and security agenda, which calls for the full participation of young people in issues of peace and security in their communities.

Guterres welcomes creation of transitional council in Haiti to choose new leaders

In a statement issued on Saturday by his Spokesman, the UN chief welcomed the publication on Friday, 12 April of a decree formally establishing the Transitional Presidential Council, which is tasked with choosing Haiti’s next prime minister and Cabinet.

“[He] urges all Haitian stakeholders to continue making progress in putting in place transitional governance arrangements, including the timely appointment of an interim Prime Minister and government, and the nomination of the members of the Provisional Electoral Council,” said the statement.

Further, the statement said Mr. Guterres takes note of the functions of the Transitional Presidential Council, including working with all members of the international community to accelerate the deployment of the Multinational Security Support (MSS) mission authorized last year by the UN Security Council.

“He reiterates his call on all Member States to contribute to the MSS,” the statement concluded.

Amid a political vacuum, Haiti’s powerful and well-armed gangs have launched coordinated attacks on various targets since February, including police stations, prisons, airports, and seaports, resulting in the resignation in March of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

Even as the capital, Port-au-Prince, and much of the surrounding area remains in the grip of rampaging gangs, UN humanitarians are continuing to offer emergency aid to those impacted.

Recently, the World Food Programme (WFP) provided 19,000 meals to displaced civilians in Port-au-Prince, and school lunches to 200,000 children in other provinces.

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