Philippe Sands: “The idea that Putin today defends the civilians of Gaza makes me sick” | International
Philippe Sands seduced numerous readers with the work East-West Street, an investigation into his family origins in Lviv (Ukraine) that not only allowed him to discover the reprisals that his ancestors suffered as Jews but also to connect his profession, a lawyer specializing in war crimes, with a large-scale dissemination of the human side that is hidden after the major cases being held in international courts. He has worked on cases related to the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Pinochet, Guantánamo or the Iraq war at the EU Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. And, after 25 years dedicated to it, he has been able to transfer that experience to works of a literary solvency and a fluidity far removed from the texts of rulings or legal opinions, although with the same precision. From that position he has become an influential voice on Ukraine at the outbreak of Putin's war. And, in the last days, about Israel.
Sands, born in London in 1960, signed a few days ago in the newspaper Financial Times a letter with Lord Neuberger, former president of the British Supreme Court, and six other colleagues in which, “as lawyers and as Jews,” they appeal to Israel to comply with international legality. “Hamas has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Israel has the right to respond in legitimate defense, but Israel's actions worry us,” he said in that letter and assured EL PAÍS in Barcelona, where this Thursday he participated in a debate organized by the CCCB. International law specifically prohibits the siege of the population, imposing minimal destruction of civilian life and infrastructure. And collective punishment is prohibited, he says. And he reiterates, as they wrote in the published letter: “Jewish history teaches us that we cannot renounce the obligations of international law.”
Ask. What are we seeing in Gaza from a judicial point of view? Are we seeing war crimes, crimes against humanity?
Answer. Let's start with what happened on October 7: that was a massacre of civilians on an enormous scale, like the pogroms we have seen in history, and a war crime or crime against humanity with the impression of genocide. This criminality gives Israel the right to act in legitimate defense. No doubt. But that right is not unlimited, you must act in accordance with the law and the law requires not to harm civilians or at least not to harm them disproportionately.
Sands does not want to risk a premature judgment and refers to the case of the Gaza hospital, for example, to ensure that without independent information it is impossible today to know whether it is an Israeli action or that of a jihadist group. “It's terrible, we don't know who is responsible, but we will know, it will be investigated in due course. What we do know is that there are rules that must be obeyed and that those who do not comply with them must answer to justice. Now we must not rush to judge.”
Sands is collaborating with Volodymyr Zelensky in promoting a specific court to try Russian leaders for the crime of aggression, something that is met with suspicion in some Western countries because of what it may entail in cases such as the Iraq war. In an interview with the Ideas supplement last June, he stated categorically that Russia was committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression.
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Q. Isn't Israel also committing a crime of aggression?
R. No, it is not a crime of aggression, it is self-defense. Israel is within its rights to take measures to protect itself. The question is whether she is doing it within the law. When a country is attacked like Israel was on October 7, it is authorized to use force to defend itself. Russia is not acting in self-defense, but Ukraine is. If there is an analogy here it is between Ukraine and Israel in terms of legitimate use of force, but what we don't know is whether it is within the limits of the law.
The bombings on Gaza that have already caused more than 7,000 deaths in two weeks are, for Sands, difficult to classify even despite the vast suffering we are seeing. “We have to wait and see until there is clarity,” he says, since “international law authorizes targeting military installations and does not prohibit you from incidentally killing civilians while you are attacking them.” But he distinguishes: “My biggest difficulty is seeing the water and electricity cuts. That is not attacking a military objective. “This is very problematic and that is why in our letter we say that it appears that this violates international law.”
In so many years as a war crimes lawyer, he says, if he has learned anything it is that “nothing is just what it seems, there is always complexity and that is what I have tried to cover in my books: complexity.”
Sands puts his finger on the double standard of the international community: this siege of Gaza, this cutoff of water and electricity supplies, is not receiving the international condemnation that the same action received from Russia when it attacked energy infrastructures. in Ukraine: “I was in Lviv when the power was targeted, turned off, and not because it was a military objective, but to make life more difficult for civilians during the winter. “It was stupid on the part of the Russians because that only reinforces the indignation in the attacked community.”
“And where is the condemnation when Israel targets energy in Gaza?” Sands asks. “One of the issues that appears in each of the cases I have worked on is double standards. Everyone, all countries, all families have double standards, let's be honest. Let's take the case of Spain: What right did Spain have to proceed against Pinochet when she did absolutely nothing against the dictatorial regime of her own country? We must make ourselves look at it.”
Q. Talking about double standards. Putin has received representatives of Hamas and advocates the two-state solution, when he does not respect that of Ukraine.
R. This is something very personal for me. I hold Putin personally responsible for the death of a friend, Victoria Amelina, killed in the attack on a civilian restaurant in Donbas. The Prosecutor General of Ukraine, with whom I work closely, confirmed to me that that restaurant was an explicit target. She was a fantastic novelist, she collected stories of women victims of human rights violations, she had a ten-year-old son... so I'll be clear: the idea that Putin is talking to anyone about the need to protect civilians makes me sick, it's disgusting and It should be described as what it is, shamefully awful.
After East-West Street and of Escape route, both in Anagrama, Sands will soon publish what he considers the third installment of a trilogy that runs from Nazism to the Pinochet dictatorship. While waiting for that book about the Chilean dictator that he has been working on for many years, he has just published another one that has nothing to do with it, a gem for those who are interested in small stories that can become big ones. Is about The last colony in which it addresses the struggle of the inhabitants of some islands in the Indian Ocean that were separated from Mauritius by the British Empire in the sixties to fulfill the wishes of the United States, which wanted to install a large base on the island of Diego García. The story of the forcibly deported natives has been the subject of his work in international justice and, now, the argument of this new book, which points to the crimes of his own country, the United Kingdom, in one of its former colonies. With humor, he closes the conversation at the CCCB by pointing out that, unlike books that have the word “Nazi” on the cover, those that have the word “British Empire” do not sell in his country. The stories of Nazism, finally, make the British feel on the good side of history. Not your own.
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