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Not Israel but South Africa is Testing the West’s Claim to Moral Superiority

The significance of the fact that the country bringing the case is South Africa – an icon of the ravages of colonialism, settlement, and apartheid – cannot be lost on anyone

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Israeli legal counselor Tal Becker, lawyer Malcolm Shaw, and Deputy Attorney-General for International Affairs Gilad Noam attend a hearing against Israel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Jan. 11.

Nesrine Malik of The Guardian rightly pointed out that it’s not only Israel on trial. South Africa is testing the West’s claim to moral superiority. The world, she writes, has failed Gaza in the ‘live-streamed genocide,’ South Africa’s delegation says at ICJ. This is not the only challenge to an international order that has made Palestinian claims so difficult to validate. The ICJ case shows how Western logic is wearing thin and its persuasive power waning in a multipolar world.

The significance of the fact that the country bringing the case is South Africa – an icon of the ravages of colonialism, settlement, and apartheid – cannot be lost on anyone. It symbolizes a vast racial injustice, too raw and recent to be dismissed as ancient history. In the figure of Nelson Mandela, there lies an evocative example of moral clarity undimmed by persecution.

COUNTRIES FROM THE GLOBAL SOUTH SUPPORT SOUTH AFRICA

It is no surprise that the support expressed for South Africa is entirely from countries in the Global South. While the world should have no qualms in supporting Nesrine Malik’s assertion on the argument presented by South Africa, the leader of the African continent, one still gropes for a definitive answer to the question of what constitutes genocide.

SCHOLARS DEBATE ON THE DEFINITION OF GENOCIDE

A somewhat quest can be found in the book of Martin Shaw, a professor of International Relations and Politics at the University of Sussex, where he tries to present his definition as follows: “a form of violent social conflict or war between armed power organizations that aim to destroy civilian social groups and those groups and other actors who resist this destruction.”

Referring to the adoption of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Maggie Eastwood assesses the worthiness of Martin Shaw’s definition of genocide. She writes, while Shaw’s definition is worthy of consideration, it can never be used in a legal context. A definition so broadly framed is too loose; it applies to almost all civilian social groups. Shaw should have kept to the narrower definition of “group” given in the Genocide Convention. Resisting the perpetrator’s intention, he offers genocide acts as “action in which armed power organizations treat civilian social groups as enemies and aim to destroy their real or putative social power, using killing, violence, and coercion against individuals whom they regard as members of the group.”

Shaw’s book provides a conceptual understanding of the many conflicting opinions surrounding the legal definition of genocide within the Genocide Convention. It raises the reader’s awareness of the possibility of studying genocide in a sociological context. For that reason, it makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing genocide debate. What Shaw does not do is provide a definitive answer to the question he intended to answer: What is genocide?

WHAT IS GENOCIDE?

The word “genocide” owes its existence to Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who fled the Nazi occupation of Poland and arrived in the United States in 1941. As a boy, Lemkin had been horrified when he learned of the Turkish massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I. Lemkin later set out to come up with a term to describe Nazi crimes against European Jews during World War II and to enter that term into the world of international law in the hopes of preventing and punishing such horrific crimes against innocent people.

In 1944, he coined the term “genocide” by combining genos, the Greek word for race or tribe, with the Latin suffix cide (“to kill”). In 1945, thanks in no small part to Lemkin’s efforts, “genocide” was included in the charter of the International Military Tribunal set up by the victorious Allied powers in Nuremberg, Germany. The tribunal indicted and tried top Nazi officials for “crimes against humanity,” which included persecution on racial, religious, or political grounds as well as inhumane acts committed against civilians (including genocide).

After the Nuremberg trials revealed the horrible extent of Nazi crimes, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution in 1946 making the crime of genocide punishable under international law. In 1948, the United Nations approved its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), which defined genocide as any of several acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” This included killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, inflicting conditions of life intended to bring about the group’s demise, imposing measures intended to prevent births (i.e., forced sterilization) or forcibly removing the group’s children.

Genocide’s “intent to destroy” separates it from other crimes of humanity such as ethnic cleansing, which aims at forcibly expelling a group from a geographic area (by killing, forced deportation, and other methods). The convention entered into force in 1951 and has since been ratified by more than 130 countries. Though the United States was one of the convention’s original signatories, the U.S. Senate did not ratify it until 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed it over strong opposition by those who felt it would limit U.S. sovereignty.

INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR GENOCIDE

The International Criminal Court (ICC), an international statute signed in Rome in 1998 expanded the CPPG’s definition of genocide and applied it to times of both war and peace. The statute also established the International Criminal Court (ICC), which began sitting in 2002 at The Hague (without the participation of the U.S., China, or Russia). The genocide has been condemned by numerous international officials (including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell) as genocide. Debate continues over the ICC’s rightful jurisdiction, as well as its ability to determine what exactly constitutes genocidal actions. Despite debates, the establishment of the ICC at the dawn of the 21st century reflected a growing international consensus behind efforts to prevent and punish the horrors of genocide.

Regardless of the debate by scholars and experts on the definition of genocide, the allegations raised by South Africa, the jewel in the crown, against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and highlighted by The Guardian should be taken seriously by the world already attacked by problems of growth and inequity, particularly by the developing countries in Asia and Africa. What these countries need are initiatives like the Chinese BRI, which, despite Western warnings of China’s Debt Trap, are welcomed by the vast majority of developing countries. Both The Guardian and Nasrin Malik should be congratulated for highlighting the Israeli genocide being committed in Gaza and occupied Palestine.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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