Peter Dutton vs. international justice

Dutton’s attack on the ICC is a continuation of his track record of undermining trusted public institutions

There’s disingenuousness, and then there’s Peter Dutton.

In the first category fall the leadership of Israel, the United States and numerous Western countries, along with the Murdoch media. Their reaction to the International Criminal Court’s top prosecutor’s announcement that he is seeking arrest warrants against leaders of Hamas, as well as Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister, follows a script: “there is no equivalence between Hamas and Israel”.

That is absolutely true; one is a terrorist organisation, the other a sovereign nation. It’s also intentionally beside the point. It’s the same argument that’s been on replay since Israel first started confronting allegations that its response to the October 7 Hamas atrocities was exceeding proportionate self-defence and potentially contravening international human rights law (and the laws of war).

The argument is one we learn in childhood: but he hit me first.

It’s not difficult to understand why Israel and its supporters continue to undermine the legitimacy of any voice that seeks to place Israel’s actions under the spotlight of possible consequences, often by brandishing the accusation of antisemitism. It doesn’t matter who they are, from a pro-Palestine student holding a banner to the United Nations General Assembly taking a small step towards recognition of Palestinian statehood. Doing so helps Israel’s cause, if that cause is to continue executing its war aims, because it buys time and space. Ultimately, it fails us all. We have institutions like the ICC specifically because of the Holocaust and the world’s unified desire to never have another. Take it away and we really will be back in the 1930s, like so many people keep claiming with unconscious irony that we already are.

But trust Peter Dutton to go that extra step. His public statement on the ICC’s action included this: “it’s an abomination, the ICC, and it needs to be ceased, this action is antisemitic”. He later said he wouldn’t rule out cutting ties with the ICC altogether.

That’s too incoherently stupid to qualify as disingenuous. Maybe he really thinks the definition of antisemitism is “anything Israel doesn’t like”. Maybe he doesn’t know that Australia is a signatory to the Rome Statute that established and guarantees the jurisdiction of the ICC. I’m guessing the former minister in charge of the Australian Federal Police doesn’t know that it’s an offence under the Commonwealth Criminal Code to intentionally obstruct the course of justice in the ICC.

Maybe Dutton is the Queensland copper he’s often accused of being, who considers courts and laws inconvenient impediments to his simple conception of what an orderly society comprises.

Dutton has form attacking institutions. In 2018, Dutton railed against “the jokes of sentences being handed down” in Victorian courts due to “political correctness that’s taken hold” causing the Law Council to warn that he was eroding confidence in the judiciary and threatening its independence. During the Voice debate he went after the apolitical Australian Electoral Commission, claiming it was being politically partisan by allowing ticks but not crosses on referendum voting papers. He’s been happily denigrating the CSIRO and Australian Energy Market Operator for not buying into his dubious and expensive nuclear plan. He doesn’t hide his feelings about the ABC. All these are institutions maintaining extremely high levels of public trust.

The marker of Dutton’s interventions is reckless disregard for consequences. Contrast DFAT’s statement: “Australia respects the ICC…the decision on whether to issue arrest warrants is a matter for the court in the independent exercise of its functions”. Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition is out there demanding someone (else) storm the barricades and burn the place down.

I think he’s telling the truth. The world in which he’d find comfort is one governed by something other than the rule of law.

Michael Bradley is a writer and managing partner at Marque Lawyers.

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