Israel will no doubt continue to pour scorn on the international court of justice (ICJ) in The Hague in the days and weeks to come. “Hague Shmague” was the first response from the security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir. But the provisional measures ordered by the world court today are historic, by any measure.
The requirement that Israel must take steps to prevent genocidal acts, prevent and punish incitement to genocide, and report back on its actions within a month, will all have rippling implications – not just in the weeks but in the years to come.
The court has few powers of enforcement, as Russia and others have made clear. In its provisional measures on a case brought by Ukraine in 2022, the court called on Russia to immediately suspend military operations, presumably with little hope of being heard. Russia responded by demanding that the court throw out the “hopelessly flawed” case (spoiler: it didn’t). But that lack of enforcement doesn’t lessen the political discomfort for Israel – or for those who have seemed so ready to protect Israel from any and all criticism.
Until recently, the ICJ has toiled in the shadows. Other legal institutions in The Hague, like the Balkan war crimes tribunal which prosecuted Serb leader Slobodan Milošević and the international criminal court (ICC), which indicted Vladimir Putin, have enjoyed the spotlight. Until now, however, even when the world court addressed issues such as genocide in Bosnia or the legality of the Israeli “separation barrier”, its rulings barely made the headlines.
That has now changed, perhaps for ever. The rulings, all passed by either 16-1 or 15-2 – even the appointed Israeli judge, Aharon Barak, sided twice with the majority – are devastating for Israel, though a final judgment is still a long way off. Meanwhile, those governments which argued that South Africa’s case was empty and illegitimate now need to dig themselves out of the hole of their own creation.
Especially compelling was the evidence of incitement to genocide, a core element of the 1948 convention. A former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry and others had talked, even before the South African submission, of “extensive and blatant incitement to genocide and expulsion and ethnic cleansing”. But it was notable how many governments were reluctant to confront that self-evident truth. [Continue reading…]