Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad this week broke the story of ongoing death threats to a human rights activist advocating for justice for grave crimes in Palestine at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Dutch authorities must do more to meet their obligations, as the host state to the ICC, to protect international justice advocates in the Netherlands says civil society.
On 11 August 2016, NRC Handelsblad published two pieces describing the attacks against Nada Kiswanson, the ICC representative of Palestinian NGO Al-Haq. Kiswanson liaises with the ICC Office of the Prosecutor on behalf of several Palestinian organizations, relaying information to inform the ICC prosecutor’s examination in Palestine.
Feature article: Ze dacht dat Nederland veilig was
Unofficial translation: She thought she was safe in The Netherlands
NRC Handelsblad issued two follow-up stories, one including a call from the Coalition’s Convenor, William R. Pace, for greater security for the Coalition’s NGO members, which constantly face threats in ICC situation countries but never before in The Hague.
ICC preliminary examinations are conducted to assess whether there are grounds to open a full investigation. The opening of the Palestine preliminary examination in January 2015 prompted a backlash against the ICC.
The Netherlands must protect ICC advocates
The first known attack on Dutch soil against a human rights lawyer working on ICC issues has prompted scrutiny of the “Headquarters Agreement between the International Criminal Court and the Host State,” which obliges the Netherlands to facilitate the smooth and efficient functioning of the Court.
The agreement includes a separate clause on the host state’s obligation to “take all necessary measures to facilitate the entry into, stay, and employment” of NGO representatives—and their family members—in the Netherlands supporting the fulfillment of the Court’s mandate. According to the agreement, the Netherlands, the Court, and NGOs should consult on creating the conditions to satisfy these obligations.
“Throughout the world, there are increasing attacks against human rights defenders. Those striving to bring justice to all who suffer from genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes are crucial to the defense of human rights. The threats against international justice workers in The Netherlands are threats not only against the ICC but against all international law and justice. Such violent threats against ICC advocates are hate crimes,” said William R. Pace, convenor of the Coalition.
“The Coalition for the International Criminal Court comprises thousands of NGOs, tens of millions of supporters; an attack on any of our members is a threat to all of us,” added Pace. “The Coalition will continue to defend all ICC advocates and it is vital that the Dutch authorities and the ICC continue to protect all who strive for international justice to prevail.”
“It is vital that human rights defenders from all over the world are able to work freely at the world’s criminal court in The Hague. As host of the International Criminal Court, the Netherlands has a special responsibility to maintain their safety, and their freedom from the kind of intimidation that has been regrettably employed to obstruct the court’s work elsewhere in the world,” said Robert O. Varenik, acting executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
“It is essential, not only to secure protection and security of human rights defenders in the territory of The Netherlands, but also to prosecute the authors of serious threats in order to send the right message that this type of action will not be allowed under the Rule of Law,” noted Parliamentarians for Global Action in their statement.
Growing media attention
The Middle East Monitor reports that the threats, which have been ongoing since the beginning of 2016, potentially originated abroad and from a state actor.
“The Dutch authorities are taking the issue very seriously, with the Foreign Affairs and Security and Justice ministries, as well as the National Coordinator for Counter-terrorism all aware of the issue.”
The New York Times noted that the threats have prompted the Netherlands to launch an investigation and to provide Kiswanson and her family with protective measures.
Due to the sophisticated nature of the attacks and the focus of her work on international crimes committed in Palestine, Kiswanson suspects Israeli authorities may be responsible.
“In a telephone interview, Kiswanson said she suspects Israel is behind the campaign because of the nature of the threats and her work, which includes cooperating with the ICC in its preliminary probe into possible crimes in the Palestinian territories,” the New York Times reports.
Kiswanson herself points out the significance of such threats occurring on Dutch soil – a first for human rights defenders cooperating with the ICC.
“They should know that a human rights lawyer is being threatened on Dutch soil. That’s a fact. Whether the Dutch authorities can guarantee our safety is another question,” Kiswanson told NRC.
Civil society calls on states for immediate action
Amnesty International expressed their concern by calling upon the Dutch government to publicly denounce the threats and to designate a national focal point to address the challenges faced by NGO representatives working for international justice.
“Amnesty International is shocked by the fact that Nada Kiswanson and her family were threatened through the hacking of a personal email account of one of Amnesty’s senior staff members in The Netherlands.
“The Dutch government must ensure, as a matter of urgency, that appropriate Human Rights Defenders protection mechanisms are put in place and available in The Netherlands. It’s essential that a focal point is established for employees of non-governmental organisations working on international justice issues.”
Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) joined Amnesty’s call to establish a national focal point for NGO staff working on international justice issues in The Netherlands.
While echoing PGA and Amnesty, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership between the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organisation Against Torture, also released an urgent appeal for all competent authorities in Israel to investigate the situation and to comply with international obligations to create an environment in which human rights defenders can operate freely.
“The authorities in Israel should in particular refrain from making any depreciating comments on human rights defenders and publicly support the important role played by human rights defenders, including those critical of the country’s human rights record.”