A new petition demands that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau honour Canada’s legal obligations in regards to war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by Israel in the besieged Gaza Strip and other occupied territories.

Making reference to Canada’s position as a signatory of the Rome Statute and other international conventions, the petition demands that Canada call for an immediate ceasefire, withdraw military and financial aid to Israel, condemn all Israeli violations of international law, and investigate and prosecute any Canadian citizen who has participated in suspected war crimes or crimes against humanity under applicable domestic laws.

The petition was organized by Brenna Bhandar, associate professor of law at the University of British Columbia, Saranga Ugalmugle, a graduate student in the Faculty of Law at the University of Windsor, and Sujith Xavier, an associate professor of law at the University of Windsor. 

The petition, which received over 1,100 signatures, has the support of the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, Independent Jewish Voices - Canada, other civil society organizations, and a number of academics and concerned citizens.

In an interview with The Maple, Xavier said the petition seeks to make Canadians aware of “Canada’s legal obligations under international law, and in particular, international criminal law and Canada’s domestic legal obligations as well.”

Xavier explained that Canada’s domestic legal obligations include “prohibiting the commission of international crimes, which includes genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of apartheid, which is built into crimes against humanity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly Gaza.”

The petition argues that Israel could be committing genocide against the Palestinian people. Both Canada and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are bound by the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which in this case would require Canada to oppose and denounce genocidal acts committed by Israel.

Since October 7, Israel has killed more than 13,300 people, including at least 5,600 children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Israel launched its bombardment of Gaza following a deadly surprise attack led by Hamas. Prior to launching the revenge attack, Israeli officials used dehumanizing language about Palestinians that some observers argued amounted to an expression of genocidal intent and indicated plans to inflict collective punishment against all Palestinians.

On November 16, the UN warned: “Grave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians in the aftermath of 7 October, particularly in Gaza, point to a genocide in the making.”

Canada Has Obligations

If Israel is found to be committing crimes against humanity or war crimes, the petitioners argue that Canada has legal obligations to investigate and prosecute those who are responsible.

That would include Canadian nationals who volunteer with the Israeli military.

“I can make the argument that if a Palestinian Canadian were to join Hamas, I am 110 percent sure that they will be prosecuted under this statute,” said Xavier.

“I suspect that Canada will be more willing to prosecute a Canadian who joins Hamas than a Canadian Israeli who goes to fight with the IDF. And that is because Canada is itself a settler-colonial state that engages in racist practices.”

Xavier said he specifically wanted to address the conduct of Israel and Canada in the context of colonialism and racism.

“There is a racially coded way in which international crimes are prosecuted,” said Xavier. “One of the huge criticisms that has been levelled against the International Criminal Court is that it’s only interested in prosecuting racialized people, and in particular Black people.”

“That same dynamic that we have theorized is now embedded in the Canadian prosecution of war criminals.”

While Canada and the OPT are both state parties of the ICC, Israel is not, and Canada does not recognize Palestine’s statehood and therefore does not recognize its accession to international treaties, including the Rome Statute of the ICC.

Both Israel and Hamas are currently being investigated by the ICC for alleged war crimes committed in the OPT since 2014. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly condemned the ICC’s investigation and refuses to recognize its authority.

On November 8, three Palestinian human rights groups filed a lawsuit with the ICC, demanding it investigate Israel for the crimes of genocide and apartheid. They also requested that the ICC issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

The Canadian petitioners argue that, since its founding in 1948, Israel has had as its primary objective the domination of “land and resources for the benefit of Jewish Israelis” and “establishing and preserving a Jewish demographic majority.”

The petition further argues this objective expanded to include the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. According to the petition, Israel has legal obligations — per the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907 — towards the people living in the territories that it occupies.

This includes providing hospitals with medical equipment and supplies, food, maintaining public hygiene and health, prohibitions on destroying private property of the occupied population, and most importantly, maintaining the dignity of Palestinian civilians.

Israel is accused of violating all of these requirements.

Canada’s UN Votes

Canada voted against a UN resolution on November 9 calling for an end to illegal Israeli colonization of territories seized by its military in contravention of international law, and two other resolutions supporting the rights of Palestinian refugees.

Canada was among just seven countries to vote against the settlements resolution, while 185 voted in favour, including nearly all of Canada’s NATO and G7 allies (the United States also voted against the resolution).

The Maple contacted Global Affairs Canada (GAC) seeking an explanation for the votes. In an emailed statement, GAC spokesperson Geneviève Tremblay said:

“When it comes to votes at the UN, Canada reiterates the importance of a fair-minded approach. We will continue to vote no on resolutions that do not address the complexities of the issues or address the actions of all parties. We also remain opposed to the disproportionate singling out of Israel for criticism.”

In the same email, Tremblay continued:

“Canada does not recognize permanent Israeli control over territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip). The Fourth Geneva Convention applies in the occupied territories and establishes Israel's obligations as an occupying power, in particular with respect to the humane treatment of the inhabitants of the occupied territories. As referred to in UN Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlements also constitute a serious obstacle to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.”

The Maple asked GAC to explain what it meant by “complexities of the issues” or how it felt the settlements resolution, which was adopted by many of Canada’s allies, was “disproportionately singling out Israel.” The ministry said they would provide no further comment.

‘Our Government Must Hold Them Accountable’

“Canada is a leader in terms of advocating for the prohibition of genocide,” said Xavier, “And it’s seen as a leader in advocating for the protection of human rights. But that only goes so far in this context, because Canada is not willing to prosecute Canadian nationals who may have committed international crimes.”

Xavier explained that in preparing the petition, it became clear that there was little public understanding of what Israel and Canada’s responsibilities are under international law.

“Israel is the occupying force and has been the occupying force since at least 1967,” said Xavier. “It has an international obligation as an occupier to ensure the protection of civilians. That includes water, food, and medical supplies. If you actively target civilians, if you actively bomb hospitals, you are committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and if you’re targeting a particular group in whole or in part with the intent to destroy them, you’re engaging in genocide.”

“For Israel to frame this as an act of self-defence because of what Hamas did on October 7 I think is a flagrant mischaracterization of the law. Because an occupier does not have the right of self-defence. They are in occupation, and have a legal obligation to the civilians.”

Xavier said Canada has an obligation to denounce these crimes, and cannot maintain double standards in denouncing some countries that engage in human rights violations while giving a virtual free pass to those committed by allies.

He added that there is “clear evidence” of Canadians going to Israel to join the military to participate in hostilities.

In the past, the government of Canada has indicated that it does not keep track of Canadians who have volunteered to serve in the Israeli military. GAC did not respond to a request for information about this from The Maple.

“Of course, what Hamas did was terrible,” reiterated Xavier. “And they should be prosecuted and the hostages should be released. We need to talk about the violence in that context as well. But that said, if Canadian citizens volunteer to fight in a foreign war – be it for Hamas or the Israeli military – and they are found to have participated in war crimes or crimes against humanity, our government must hold them accountable.”

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montreal.