23 May 2024

'Amal Clooney is nowhere to be found': How the famous lawyer silenced her critics on her Gaza stance

1:00 pm on 23 May 2024

By Rebecca Armitage and Lucia Stein

FILE - Amal Clooney, left, and George Clooney arrive at a screening of "The Tender Bar," Oct. 3, 2021, at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. Amal Clooney is one of the legal experts who recommended that the world's top war crimes court seek arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders of the militant Hamas group, Clooney announced Monday, May 20, 2024. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Amal Clooney, left, and George Clooney. Photo: AP

Amal Clooney is arguably one of the most famous faces of human rights law and for months she has faced scrutiny for her silence on the Israel-Gaza war.

Since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on 7 October and the country's subsequent invasion of Gaza, the international lawyer has been the target of online criticism over her decision not to speak out on the conflict.

As people speculated about the cause of her silence, the Lebanese-born barrister's foundation continued to tweet about press freedom and legal issues in Venezuela, Thailand and the United Kingdom while keeping quiet on the military action in the Middle East.

Now internet users have an answer. Clooney was busy working with the International Criminal Court's (ICC) eight-member expert panel on an investigation involving some of the biggest players in the war.

Those names include the leaders of Hamas - Yahya Sinwar, Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed Diab Ibrahim Al-Masri - as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Yolav Gallant.

Both Israel and Hamas have previously dismissed allegations of war crimes.

Clooney is no stranger to high-profile cases, having previously represented countries, including Armenia in a genocide case, as well as individuals such as Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.

She is also familiar with the legal complexities of international conflicts, serving as a member of the Working Group on Compensation for Damage Cause to Ukraine, a group of international legal experts appointed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and as counsel to victims of crimes against humanity in Darfur, Sudan.

Despite a busy caseload, Clooney agreed to sign on when she was asked by the ICC prosecutor to assist with "evaluating evidence of suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity in Israel and Gaza".

"As a human rights lawyer, I will never accept that one child's life has less value than another's," Clooney said in a statement on Monday.

"I do not accept that any conflict should be beyond the reach of the law, nor that any perpetrator should be above the law."

But while the reasons for her silence have now been laid bare, the revelation comes amid increasing scrutiny of high-profile figures and their responses to the war in the Middle East.

As online users demanded more speed and action from their role models on social issues, Clooney quietly put her efforts into the "wheels of justice".

After four months of detailed work, she and a panel of experts believe they have delivered a "milestone in the history of international criminal law".

But critics argue the ICC has a long history of failing to bring the powerful to account and of approaching cases with Western-tinted glasses.

Amal Clooney's long history in human rights law

While Amal Alamuddin burst into the public consciousness in 2014 when she became engaged to Hollywood actor George Clooney, within legal circles, she was already a much admired human rights barrister.

Born in Beirut in 1978, she and her family fled the civil war for England while she was still a baby.

"I am a refugee," she said in 2018.

"If I had not had a hand extended to me by the UK government when my family was escaping the war in Lebanon, I wouldn't have been able to grow up in a safe environment, get the education I have, or do any of the things that I have done."

She won a scholarship to study law at Oxford University and then went to the US to do her master's at New York University.

Once she became a barrister for London law firm Doughty Street Chambers, she swiftly built a reputation for herself as one of the world's most renowned international human rights lawyers.

She has represented everyone from former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to Yazidi women - a religious minority subjected to genocide and sexual violence at the hands of the Islamic State group (IS).

Her marriage to Clooney catapulted her to international stardom, and she suddenly appeared on as many red carpets as she did in courtrooms.

"Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was selected for a UN three-person commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip," Tina Fey said during her hosting duties at the 2015 Golden Globes.

"So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award."

Alongside her husband, she co-founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which gives free legal support to victims of human rights abuses.

As a sought-after lawyer, Clooney now has the power to pick and choose which clients she represents.

"When I choose a case, I think carefully about the ripple effect," she told TIME magazine in 2022.

"I'm guided by what I'm really outraged about and what I think I can actually try to influence. And it may be that I can only influence things one case at a time, but ultimately, the plan is always to try and improve the system."

But as a social media storm brewed this year around the role of celebrities in voicing their opinion on Israel's war in Gaza, Clooney had good reason to remain quiet.

Celebrities have faced criticism for their silence on social issues

As student movements and protesters have raised banners and built encampments to protest against Israel's campaign in Gaza, the silence of some of the world's biggest stars - including Taylor Swift and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter - has drawn condemnation.

The simmering online campaign boiled over into organised action shortly after the Met Gala on May 6, when an influencer dressed in an elaborate costume befitting 18th-century French queen Marie Antoinette declared, "Let them eat cake," in a TikTok video.

Outraged netizens established a "digitine" or digital guillotine, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the execution apparatus used during the French Revolution.

Individuals taking part in #Blockout2024 blocked the social media accounts of celebrities they believed had not done enough to tackle social issues, such as the Israel-Gaza war.

"When the images of celebrities dressed in fashion gowns started to hit social media, a lot of people started to have a fair bit of discontent with the tone-deaf reality of what was actually happening in contrast to more important things that should be spoken about ...," says Kelly Lewis, a digital specialist and research fellow at Monash University.

"The connection [with the "Let Them Eat Cake" video from the Met Gala] here is really how it triggered in the backdrop of the starvation crisis that we're seeing with famine taking place in Gaza - and of course insecure food and reparations that have not been accessible to the population for months - and so that obviously sparked a huge amount of protest to that."

Clooney had drawn scrutiny for a number of reasons, partly because she is of Arab descent and also due to her work in international law and her public advocacy on other human rights issues around the world.

In December, one TikTok user posted a video accusing the British barrister of being "deplorable" for remaining silent on the conflict.

"Amal Clooney is nowhere to be found," the woman said in a video.

However, she was quiet because she was, in fact, busy working on matters related to the war.

She explained in her statement that her approach is "not to provide a running commentary of my work but to let the work speak for itself".

In a joint op-ed for the Financial Times, Clooney and the other members of the panel also provided further explanation about why they took part, describing the conflict as perhaps "unprecedented in the extent to which it has given rise to misunderstandings about the ICC's role and jurisdiction".

"It is against this backdrop that, as lawyers specialised in international law hailing from diverse personal backgrounds, we felt we had a duty to accept the invitation to provide an impartial and independent legal opinion based on evidence."

It is their hope that others will follow their lead and engage with the judicial process.

The role of the ICC

The ICC was established in 2002 and seeks to hold to account those guilty of some of the worst crimes in the world.

It has jurisdiction over four categories of crimes under international law, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.

Investigations are only opened if a prosecutor finds the alleged crimes are of "sufficient gravity", according to the Council of Foreign Relations.

Since its inception, the court's judges have issued 46 arrest warrants and, with the cooperation of nation-states, 21 people have been detained in the organisation's detention centre.

Supporters say the world's first permanent international war crimes court serves to deter criminals and deliver justice on behalf of victims.

However, the ICC's critics accuse it of being irrelevant, failing to hold major powers to account and of only "hunting Africans".

While its 124 member states are obliged to immediately arrest a wanted person if they step foot on their territory, the court has no means to enforce arrest warrants.

The ICC claims to have jurisdiction over Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem after Palestinian leaders agreed to be bound by the court's ruling in 2015. Israel is not a member of the court.

Clooney said the panel had agreed unanimously there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that both the Hamas and Israeli leaders had committed war crimes.

The group of experts believed the steps taken this week were a "milestone in the history of international criminal law".

Now the decision on whether the proceedings can move forward rests with three pre-trial judges.

A path to justice?

Last year, the ICC made an unprecedented decision when it issued for the first time a warrant against the leader of Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Russian President and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2024.

Russia President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP

While President Vladimir Putin remains at large, the move was hailed by Ukrainians as a sign the "wheels of justice were turning".

Legal processes are complex, detailed and, above all, slow.

In the 24/7 world of social media, the international court system can appear as if it moves at a snail's pace.

But its decisions can have very real impacts on individuals responsible for decision-making and the nation-states at the centre of a conflict.

Amal Clooney, as the wife of a movie star, was expected to take a stance to satisfy the demands of an angry online audience.

But as an experienced lawyer, she chose the path she believed would achieve a more lasting outcome.


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