Skip to content

The ICJ’s Ruling Could Set a World Precedent

Developments in South Africa’s case continue to spark conversation

On December 29, South Africa submitted an application against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging that the state had violated the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide through its treatment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The subsequent public hearings for the case commenced on January 11 and concluded on January 12. Since it began, the global implications of the case have ignited public debates, garnering both support and criticism from nations worldwide.

South Africa’s application asserts that Israel’s actions in Gaza “are genocidal in character, as they are committed with the requisite intent” to destroy a substantial part of the Palestinian national, racial, and ethnic group. The claim argues that Israel, via its government and agents, is breaching its obligations under the Genocide Convention and has committed genocidal acts against the Palestinian people. South Africa has invoked Article 41 of the ICJ Statute to seek provisional measures aimed at protecting the rights of Palestinians and ensuring Israel’s compliance with its obligations.

During the public hearings, Mr. Vusimuzi Madonsela, representing South Africa, contextualized Israel’s actions within a broader historical framework, encompassing Israel’s 75-year apartheid, 56-year occupation, and 16-year siege on Gaza. South Africa contends that Israel’s deliberate imposition of unlivable conditions on Gaza qualifies as a genocidal act. Emphasizing the targeting of civilians and the destruction of essential infrastructure and healthcare, South Africa’s application describes Israel as “a silent killer of people.”

In response, Israel vehemently denies these allegations, characterizing South Africa’s case as a “profoundly distorted factual and legal picture.” Mr. Tal Becker, Israel’s lawyer, highlighted the civilian suffering in the conflict, attributing it to Hamas’s alleged strategy of “seeking to maximize civilian harm to both Israelis and Palestinians, even as Israel seeks to minimize it.” Israel argues that its actions throughout the conflict have been legal, self-defence responses to attacks by Hamas. Further, Israel accuses South Africa of curating a manipulated narrative, taking advantage of the term “genocide.” To counter the claims of genocide, Israel utilized the UN Charter to illustrate their right and responsibility as a state to, when attacked, “legitimately” respond in “a forceful and proportional manner.”

As the ICJ case is ongoing, global opinions vary. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has dismissed the genocide allegation as “meritless,” citing concerns about Hamas’s status as a terrorist organization. Both Germany and the United Kingdom, among many other countries, have also rejected the genocide case, with UK Prime Minster Rishi Sunak calling the case “completely unjustified and wrong” and the government of Germany expressing its belief that the “accusation has no basis whatsoever.” Conversely, countries including Namibia and Bangladesh have issued statements supporting the ICJ case. Namibian President Hage Geingoh took to X to express his rejection of Germany’s stance, stating that “no peace-loving human being can ignore the carnage waged against Palestinians in Gaza.” He also reminded the world that “The German Government is yet to fully atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil.” With countries around the world coming forward with their positions, Canada’s stance has remained quite ambiguous.

Canada refrained from announcing its stance on the case until both South Africa and Israel had made their arguments before the court, and even then, its position was vague. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement was that although Canada “wholehearted[ly]” supports the ICJ, it “does not mean we support the premise of the case brought forward by South Africa.” These statements have led to public confusion and criticism, with various groups expressing their outrage and discontent with Canada’s lack of a clear position. This includes Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, who made a statement declaring their “outrage” at Canada’s refusal to support South Africa.

In its interim judgement delivered on January 26, the ICJ ordered that Israel must immediately “take all measures within its power” to prevent any acts that fall within the genocide convention. While this interim ruling is not the final ruling from the court on whether Israel’s actions constitute genocide, it does point to a belief among the judges that Israel’s actions may be in violation of the genocide convention. The court asserted that “the civilian population in the Gaza Strip remains extremely vulnerable” when calling for immediate action by Israel. For these provisional measures to be ordered, the court does not need proof of genocidal conduct; however, it means that at least some of the state’s actions could be considered acts of genocide.

As the ICJ case continues, the international community will be watching closely, recognizing the broader implications for global politics. The case highlights the shifting dynamics in global politics with perceptions of justice and accountability at the forefront. Many nations, specifically in the Global South, have come forward and condemned the decisions and actions of Western nations, suggesting that in addition to Israel, the Global North is on trial for its “hypocrisy” in applying international law. Raising questions on the issues of precedent cases, the trial will be a defining moment in international law, prompting South Africa’s representative Blinne ní Ghrálaigh’s assertion that “the very reputation of international law hangs in the balance.”