Israel, ICJ and the movement for a principled and just world order

Israel’s war on Gaza has added fuel to efforts to ensure international law applies equally to everyone.

A man waves a Palestinian flag as people protest on the day of a public hearing held by The International Court of Justice (ICJ) to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion, in The Hague, Netherlands, February 21, 2024. [Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters]

South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is shaking the foundations of the rules-based international order. The increasing number of state and non-state actors voicing their support for this case, and Palestinian liberation in general, is signalling the emergence of a movement for a more principled, fair and just international order.

Indeed, states, regional bodies, international institutions and civil society organisations across the world are taking a stand against Israel’s war on Gaza, and its Western allies’ seemingly unconditional support for it. Demands are focussed on an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and a permanent and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a solution that considers the context of Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory and the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.

In the process, the moral, institutional and legal foundations for a more just and principled rules-based order are being built – one where acts of aggression are not overlooked, and international humanitarian law applies equally to everyone.

The fragility of the current rules-based order was apparent long before the attack on Gaza.

With powerful permanent members routinely vetoing United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions according to their national interests and preferences, the international community has been struggling to take collective action to uphold humanitarian law, protect vulnerable communities and punish rogue actors.

In a system built on asymmetrical and unjust colonial foundations, where financial, political and legal institutions have inherent shortcomings, selective adherence to international law has long caused dispute among nations. The UN itself cited the double standards in the application of certain rights as a threat to global security in its New Agenda for Peace, in July 2023 – months before the beginning of the latest attack on Gaza.

Israel’s war on Gaza, and the world’s response to it, however, have highlighted these existing shortcomings and sped up the system breakdown that was already under way.

The global community’s radically different response to Russia’s international humanitarian law violations in Ukraine and those of Israel in Gaza made it apparent that under the current rules-based order, all human life is not valued equally.

Several Western countries’ swift defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on the basis of unsubstantiated Israeli claims that a handful of agency staff participated in Hamas’s October 7 attack added weight to the growing criticism of the system.

South Africa’s case at the ICJ, which condemns Israel’s war on Gaza as illegal and immoral, and suggests it amounts to genocide, has emerged as a powerful articulation of the Global South’s ever-growing revolt against the hypocrisy and lack of consistency of the current rules-based order.

Meanwhile, steps are also being taken at the intergovernmental level to expose the current inconsistencies in the application of international law, and achieve a new, more just and principled rules-based order. While the US vetoes on UNSC resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza are making collective action at this level impossible, the ICJ is currently considering a UN General Assembly initiative on the legal consequences of Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territory, requested with a majority vote in December 2022. After proceedings began earlier this month, a record 51 countries presented arguments on controversial Israeli policies in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem – with only two of these (the US and Hungary) defending the legality of the occupation. It’s the largest number of parties to participate in any single ICJ case since the UN’s top court was established in 1945. The court’s opinion, which is expected to be delivered before the end of the year, will not be binding on the Security Council or Israel. However, it could apply pressure on Israel and its staunchest ally, the United States, to conform to international law.

Key regional blocs have also strongly condemned current and past Israeli actions and policies as violations of international humanitarian law and are demanding justice and equality for all peoples in the international arena. The 120-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)  has called out Israel’s altering of the physical and demographic landscape of Palestine through settlement expansion and reinstated its commitment to defending its “longstanding, common and principled positions” on Palestine to end colonialism and occupation. The G77 (representing some 80 percent of the world’s population) has stressed the need “to bring an end to the Israeli occupation that began in June 1967 and to address and resolve the root causes of this ongoing injustice, in accordance with international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions”.  The BRICS countries have also condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza and called for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) voiced their support for South Africa’s genocide case against Israel at the ICJ and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has strongly condemned Israeli aggression in Gaza, affirming its solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Civil society across the world has also been making demands and voicing aspirations for a more just and principled rules-based order through protests, boycotts, legal challenges and other nonviolent actions since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza.

In the first three weeks following Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the consequent Israeli assault on Gaza, some 3,700 pro-Palestinian protests took place around the world – in contrast, there were just over 520 pro-Israel protests in the same period. The pro-Palestine protests have continued with increasing force since, with most participants demanding an immediate ceasefire, an end to Israeli occupation and accountability for many Western governments’ unconditional support for Israel’s war on Gaza.

National courts have also become a venue for civil society to expose their government’s complicity in Israel’s war on Gaza, and the double standards that have come to define the global order.

In the US state of California, for example, Palestinian Americans launched a federal case against the Biden administration accusing it of being complicit in the Gaza genocide and demanding that it stop supporting the Israeli military. The court eventually dismissed the case as being outside its jurisdiction but still ruled that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza “plausibly” amounts to genocide, and called on the leaders of the US to examine “the results of their unflagging support of the military siege against the Palestinians in Gaza”.

In the Netherlands, a group of NGOs including Oxfam challenged at a national court the Dutch government’s decision to continue providing military aid to Israel amidst its war on Gaza, and won. The court ordered the government to stop supplying F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel, citing a “clear risk of serious violations of international law”.

These court cases and others like them are serving as a warning to national governments that their disregard for international law can have consequences at home. They also demonstrate civil society’s determination to bring humanitarian values and principles to the forefront of international relations.

In the meantime, the impact of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has also been growing as a form of civil resistance to Israeli occupation. Across the Arab world, and globally, academic associations, unions, churches, local city councils and private investors have begun divesting from and cut ties with Israel in support of the BDS movement’s goals.

The cultural boycott of Israel is also growing, with many global celebrities cancelling scheduled performances in Israel. There is also a push to keep Israel out of international cultural events, such as Eurovision.

As the war on the Palestinian people, described by international law professor Richard Falk as “the most transparent genocide in all of human history”, is televised, a global movement for change is being mobilised – a movement for justice and equal treatment of all peoples under international law.

Tragically for Palestinians, and all of humanity, there is still significant resistance to the clear demands being made by this movement. Against the ICJ’s preliminary orders to prevent genocidal acts, Israel is still conducting airstrikes and blocking the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Ignoring the mounting global support for a ceasefire in Gaza, including from a majority of US voters, the Biden administration is still blocking UNSC resolutions calling for an end to hostilities. Despite the ICJ’s preliminary ruling that Israel is plausibly committing genocide in Gaza, the US and a number of Western states continue to provide military, political and diplomatic support to their ally.

These immense challenges do not mean that the movement for a new, more just and principled rules-based order is not going to succeed. The movement has far-reaching roots and converging long-term goals. Achieving them will likely come through a non-linear but transformative process of social change.

If the trends we are currently observing in courts, on the streets, at the UNGA and elsewhere continue, Israel and its allies will eventually be forced to back down and align their actions with international law. The growing support for the Palestinian cause across the world will bring the two sides on a more equal footing, and pave the way for an inclusive and fair political settlement that could address the root causes of the decades-old conflict and deliver long-term peace. Such an achievement, and precedent, will cement foundations for a more principled and just rules-based order – one that protects the vulnerable from extreme acts of aggression and holds all countries equally accountable to international law.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.