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Column: Hypocrisy and the ‘rules-based order’

Mounting deaths ... Israel was ordered to prevent its troops from committing genocide in Gaza.

Israel’s Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, dismissed the ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague on the accusation that Israel is committing genocide in the Gaza Strip with the words “Hague Schmague”. United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken was equally dismissive, saying that the case brought before the ICJ by South Africa was “meritless”.

On the other hand, the South African government hailed the ruling as a “decisive victory” for the international rule of law. It’s the same ruling, but two radically different interpretations of what it means. Which one is right?

The ICJ split the difference, because neither a simple “yes” nor a definite “no” would properly answer the question. It did not say that Israel is committing a genocide or order it to accept an immediate ceasefire.

It did, however, reject Israel’s demand that it just throw the case out, and confirmed that Israel’s troops in the Gaza Strip are at risk of committing genocide. So the president of the court hearing the case, Judge Joan Donoghue (a former senior official of the US State Department), issued a number of provisional orders that Israel obey.

The key four orders say that Israel must prevent its troops from committing genocide, prevent and punish public incitement to genocide, provide humanitarian aid to Gaza and preserve evidence of any possible violations of the Genocide Convention.  Israel must report back to the court on its compliance within a month.

Most Israelis will be insulted by these demands, since they will think it is outrageous even to suggest that its soldiers need to be given such orders. However, all they have to do is report in a month that the court’s provisional orders have been obeyed.

The ICJ has no ability to supervise what is actually happening in Gaza and a ruling on the original accusation of genocide will take literally years to emerge from the court.

Why then does anybody even bother to send their lawyers to the ICJ? Because it is the frail, tender shoot of what might one day, with a lot of luck, grow into an international court that really could compel countries to obey international law. In other words, “fake it till you make it” on a global scale.

The nationalists and the populists hate the very idea of a “rules-based order”, because it limits their ability to act any way they wish. Most people these days recognise that even powerful countries need the protection of international law because they are all vulnerable to massive violence, but even in the wisest of them that recognition is permanently at war with older notions of unlimited sovereignty.

The consequence is perpetual hypocrisy at every level from the personal to the international. Bronwen Maddox, director of the Chatham House think-tank in London, summed up the dilemma of double standards nicely last week, at least so far as the Western countries are concerned.

“The West cares about democracy, but not when it wants to install leaders it likes in other countries. It respects sovereignty except when it does not, as in Iraq. It argues for self-determination in Taiwan, but not in Catalonia. It supports human rights, but not in countries from which it needs oil. It defends human rights except when it gets too difficult, as in Afghanistan.”

Similar accusations are true, and in some cases even truer, for non-Western countries. It is a universal problem and it requires a universal solution, but that is still a long way off.

Many countries do not even aspire to a solution. Some reject it because they have not seen the cataclysmic destruction of modern total war and do not understand that it is inextricably linked with total independence. Others are simply dictatorships that cannot tolerate the rule of law even internationally.

Nevertheless, the effort to build the international rule of law must continue, and even hypocrisy is better than brazen rejoicing in lawlessness and evil.

In the meantime, what are we to make of the accusations against Israel?

It is not yet committing a genocide in the commonly understood meaning of the word, because the intention “to destroy a people as a whole or in part” is not there. The wish to destroy the Palestinian people may lurk in the hearts of many Israelis, but they lack the means to do such a thing and it is not their government’s policy.

Where the Israelis are on thin ice is in the crime of “public incitement to genocide”, for there are senior members of the current Israeli government who engage in that on an almost daily basis. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does not do so himself, but he does not silence or disclaim them.

He dares not, because his coalition would collapse if he did.

  • Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.

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