West's support for ICJ rulings creates awkward position in backing Israel's Gaza campaign

UK has been a steadfast supporter of previous genocide cases brought before the International Court of Justice

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The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Israel’s actions in Gaza "appear to be capable of falling within the Genocide Convention” leaves its supporters in the West in a problematic position.

Reacting to the verdict Bob Seely, a senior Conservative MP, told The National that while the Hamas attack on October 7 on Israel was “despicable” that “doesn't excuse killing innocent people”. He acknowledged the weight of the ruling would have a bearing on the UK's policies.

“All life should be equal. Israel has absolutely right to defend itself but at the same time, it's clear that if you're not proportionate in your response, then there are significant moral issues, and Israel’s friends around the world have a right to be worried about that,” he said.

The UK and US have previously been steadfast supporters of ICJ rulings. While the court stopped short of ordering an immediate ceasefire, the top UN court's decision is a blow for Israel and raises questions for its backers.

The ICJ said Israel must prevent genocidal acts in Gaza and facilitate "urgently needed" humanitarian aid into the besieged territory.

Only five months ago, the UK's Attorney General, Victoria Prentis MP, was steadfast in her support of The Hague court's ruling against Russia in Ukraine.

“The Genocide Convention is an important treaty that obliges states to prevent and punish genocide,” she affirmed. “As such, it stands as a bulwark against mass atrocity.”

Britain, along with 31 other states, demonstrated its commitment to the convention by “intervening in this case”.

Two months later, Britain joined Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands in “exercising their right to intervene” in the Myanmar genocide carried out by the ruling military junta against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

They said it was their duty to “prevent the crime of genocide and hold those responsible to account”.

The British government also stressed the ICJ’s “vital role in the peaceful settlement of disputes as the principal judicial organ of the United Nations”.

That global pedestal as a pillar of justice will now come under scrutiny with the ICJ’s pronouncement on Israel.

What will be the UK’s position now that its Middle Eastern ally faces the grim accusations, after it has stood four-square behind previous ICJ judgments?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been largely unfaltering in his support for Israel’s actions in Gaza, where more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed, according the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Britain, alongside America, has refused to call for a unilateral Israeli ceasefire. Will that change with the ICJ’s decision?

The government’s international judicial standing has been weakened in the past year over its Rwanda deportation plan, in which it proposes to disregard international law by potentially not recognising appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

Former Conservative Party chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, used X, formerly Twitter, to call for a change in the UK's relations with Israel while the current leadership is in power. "It’s time now for the UK to rethink its relationship with the current Israeli government which MUST include no more arms sales," she said. "The current Israeli government made up of extremists must now go – they are not a partner for peace and do not represent our values.

"This judgment is a terrible moment for the State of Israel and the people of Israel need to decide the kind of nation they want to be."

While Mr Sunak will come under political pressure, he is unlikely to change direction but more stress will now be put on the Labour opposition leader, Keir Starmer, a lawyer, to change his stance on an immediate ceasefire, something demanded by the majority of his Muslim MPs.

However, because the ICJ settles disputes between UN member states, Britain and others might argue that Hamas is not a state and will question whether the court can order a unilateral ceasefire without enforcing the same on the extremists.

The ICJ also has no power to enforce its judgments and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that the war will continue, stating: “No one will stop us, not even The Hague.”

US President Joe Biden’s administration could also face difficulties with the “Leahy law” that prevents it from giving military assistance to armies responsible for abusing human rights.

The ruling could well induce some US Democrats to invoke the law, although it is unlikely to receive widespread support.

The ICJ decision will prove highly troubling for western powers but it may well influence them in pressuring Israel to change tactics in Gaza and hence lessen the grim scale of civilian casualties.

Updated: January 26, 2024, 6:01 PM