In 2014, Ismail Ziada lost his mother, three brothers, sisters-in-law and a nephew after their home in the Gaza refugee camp was razed to the ground. “Operation Protective Edge”, was what the Israeli army called it. It claimed the lives of more than two thousand Palestinians. At the time, a United Nations enquiry described the operation as an ‘unprecedented level of destruction of civilian targets’.
‘Despite worldwide criticism, victims were never given the opportunity to seek justice in Israeli or Palestinian courts,’ says Helen Duffy, lawyer and professor of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.
‘Ziada brought a civil case against former Israeli commanders Benny Gantz and Amir Eshel before the Dutch courts, but they decided that the commanders had immunity from civil proceedings in foreign courts.’ Unjustly, Duffy argues. ‘There is no such thing as immunity for individuals in relation to war crimes. That is why we are bringing an action against the Dutch courts before the European Court of Human Rights.’
Duffy not only teaches at the Grotius Centre in Leiden, but she also runs her own international practice called ‘Human Rights in Practice’. She assists clients in cases against countries that do not adhere to international human rights. ‘I handle all kinds of matters, but lately, I’ve been mostly concerned with Israel and Gaza.’
‘Attacking civilians, razing houses and refugee camps to the ground; these things still happen,’ Duffy states. ‘How relevant are human rights when they are constantly being violated? I can well understand why people are starting to wonder about that.’
Nonetheless, Duffy sees how important it is - especially now - that human rights exist. ‘Although their relevance is being challenged at the moment, we also see that they can be used to take matters to court. The law can protect the most vulnerable and even hold the most powerful accountable. The current situation of impunity in Gaza is not due to the laws themselves, but to the inability to respect them and take them seriously.’
She does not want to underestimate her own role as an academic either. ‘As academics we must fulfil our role too, being rigorous but not afraid to use the power of law to discuss and address difficult realities,’ she writes in her blog. She also believes it is important to meet students’ desire to engage in discussions on controversial legal issues. For example, she took part in a panel discussion with students on the role of courts in Gaza.
The fact that the Netherlands is not participating in the vote for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza has certainly not escaped Duffy’s notice. ‘The court is supposed to be independent of political considerations, so the ruling of the Dutch court in my client’s case should have nothing to do with the representation of the state of Israel or the policies of the Dutch government. The court must abide by laws and protect access to justice. Political considerations have no place in that.’
The international lawyer does not want to speculate on why the Netherlands is refraining from voting. ‘It does raise some interesting questions. What responsibility does the Netherlands have to ensure that we do not support war crimes? Surely we must ensure that human rights are respected, but there seems to be reluctance to deal with these kinds of issues.’
In view of the current situation in Gaza, Duffy considers this case to be all the more important. ‘War crimes are being committed once again, with increasing intensity. This is not just about justice for Mr Ziada and his family. It’s also about improving access to justice for victims of war crimes. The cycle in which international human rights in Gaza are constantly being violated with impunity must be broken.’