Western hypocrisy

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By SAULO J TAKAHASHI*

Gaza will be the tomb of the Western-led world order

No matter how it ends, South Africa's case at the International Court of Justice arguing that Israel violated the Genocide Convention will go down in history. It will be remembered as the first step towards finally holding a pariah state accountable for repeated and long-standing violations of international law; or it will be remembered as the last, dying breath of a dysfunctional Western-led international system.

For the hypocrisy of Western governments (and the Western political elite as a whole) is finally bringing the so-called “rules-based world order” to a point of no return. The all-out Western support for Israel's genocidal attack on Gaza has truly exposed the West's double standards regarding human rights and international law. There is no going back and the West has only its own arrogance to blame.

The litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Israel in Gaza are clear as daylight to anyone with access to a smartphone. Social media is overflowing with videos of hospitals and schools being bombed, parents pulling the lifeless bodies of their children from under destroyed buildings, mothers crying over the bodies of their babies. And yet the reaction of Western governments – in addition to seemingly unlimited military and political support – has been to label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism and to try to outright ban any expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Regardless of this communicative oppression, tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets day after day expressing their repudiation of Israeli atrocities and Western complicity. Desperate to regain some semblance of credibility, Western governments (including the US) have recently begun to marginally criticize the Israeli attacks. It is, however, too little and too late. Western credibility has been irrevocably destroyed.

Of course, Western hypocrisy is nothing new. According to Western governments, the world should be up in arms about Russian aggression, but it should be perfectly happy with Israeli brutality and disregard for international norms. The Ukrainians who throw Molotov cocktails at the Russian occupying forces are heroes and freedom fighters, while the Palestinians (and others) who dare to speak out against the apartheid Israelis are terrorists. White-skinned refugees from Ukraine are more than welcome, while black and brown-skinned refugees from conflicts in the Middle East, Asia and Africa (most of which the West is after) can sink to the bottom of the Mediterranean. The Western attitude has actually been like this: the law is for you, not for me.

The Western position toward China exhibits the same insincerity. China is practically surrounded by American and allied military bases, armed to the limit. However, it is China that is guilty of… what? Unable to point out any concrete infraction, Western governments and media can only accuse China of “greater assertiveness”, that is, of not knowing its place of subjugation in the Western hegemonic order.

International justice has become a sick joke. If the International Criminal Court were to function effectively, Israeli leaders would be brought to justice even as we speak on this issue. And there would be no need for South Africa to approach the International Court of Justice. As it stands, however, the International Criminal Court has only indicted African countries and leaders until 2022; further announced an investigation into the Russian invasion of Ukraine less than a week after it began.

The International Criminal Court issued indictments, including against Russian President Vladimir Putin, in less than a year. On the other hand, the International Criminal Court took more than six years to open an investigation into the situation in Palestine and, even now, years later, no significant measures have yet been taken. As Israel continued its orgy of violence against the people of Gaza, Karim Khan, British chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, visited Israel and emphasized the need for Hamas' crimes to be brought to justice, while at the same time softening Israeli crimes. He is no wonder that many civil society organizations are calling for his resignation.

Of course, Western hypocrisy is nothing new. From the beginning, international legal norms were intended to apply only to so-called “civilized” peoples – read white – not to assorted non-whites. The savages did not count, and the powerful Western states could – and did – do with them whatever they wanted. Natives certainly did not “own” land or natural resources, and colonial powers were free to steal and exploit them as they pleased. Zionism was also founded on racist attitudes – attitudes that remain at the heart of Israeli politics to this day.

These double standards are evident when it comes to the right to national self-determination – the fundamental right of all people to choose their own political system and control their own natural resources. After the First World War, US President Woodrow Wilson insisted that self-determination would be the guiding principle of the new world order – but, of course, this only applies to Europeans. Palestinians and other Arab peoples discovered the hard way that colonialism was alive and well: they were subject to the mandates of the League of Nations, which justified colonial rule for “peoples not yet capable of standing alone.” The Charter of the United Nations also included provisions for trusteeship, essentially along similar lines to the Mandates of the League.

The wars of independence in Asia and Africa put an end to this. The newly independent countries successfully demanded that self-determination be elevated to a right for all. The two international covenants on human rights, adopted in 1966, stipulate the right of all people to self-determination; in its first article, it makes clear that only with political and economic self-determination can any other human right be meaningful.

The discussion on the right to self-determination went further, to the chagrin of Western governments. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly stated that the armed struggle (including that of the Palestinian people) against colonial rule is legitimate. And the 1977 Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war also stated that struggles against colonial and racist regimes are valid. International law has definitely developed in the right direction.

Yet systems for implementing international law remain weak. This is by design and allows powerful countries to act with impunity and protect their allies – as we see with the US and Israel. Even if the ICJ issues a provisional order for Israel to stop its violence, and even if, years later, it finds Israel guilty of genocide without any criminal enforcement, Israel can (and probably will) simply ignore these decisions. This would certainly be the end of the current world order, as any facade of justice would crumble.

The enforcement of international law is in the hands of the UN Security Council, but with its veto rights for the five countries that were on the winning side in 1945, that body has repeatedly proven itself incapable of fulfilling its mandate. The General Assembly does not have any enforcement power. And the UN, the ICC and most other international organizations are perennially underfunded, meaning they rely heavily on voluntary contributions from states. This makes them vulnerable to undue influence from the rich and powerful: in other words, from wealthy Western countries.

On a more fundamental level, these international institutions are not representative. While civil society organizations can contribute to most debates, only governments have a say in the decision-making process – despite the fact that, as we see in the case of Gaza, even governments of ostensible democracies do not necessarily represent the will of its people.

Israeli aggression and colonization must end, and human rights violators in Palestine must be held accountable – including Western leaders who are complicit in genocide. However, we cannot stop here. We must demand a revolutionary reform of international institutions. It is necessary to make them truly democratic and egalitarian. They must reflect the voice of the people, expressed through civil society organizations and other democratic modes of representation – and not through governments that are too often in the pockets of rich and powerful interests.

Creating a world order that guarantees justice and equal rights for all will not be easy. It will require sustained efforts on the part of global citizens, through pressure for change on governments and international organizations. However, it is the only way to ensure that “never again” becomes a reality.

Saul J Takahashi is professor of human rights and peace studies at Osaka Jogakuin University in Osaka, Japan. He was deputy chief of staff for the UN human rights agency in Palestine from 2009 to 2014.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado

Originally published on the Aljazeera network.


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