South Africa challenges Israel at the International Court of Justice

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This article is written by Michelle Farrell, Professor of International Law in the School of Law and Social Justice and Jasmin Johurun Nessa, Lecturer in International Law at Edge Hill University, and a University Teacher at the University of Liverpool School of Law. 

On 29 December 2023, South Africa filed an application instituting proceedings against Israel before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). South Africa alleges that Israel’s conduct in Gaza violates its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, failing to prevent genocide, and failing to prevent or punish incitement to genocide.

The ICJ and Provisional Measures

The ICJ is the main judicial organ of the United Nations, established to settle disputes between states. The Court can hear contentious cases - disputes between two or more states. South Africa v Israel is such a case. It can also provide advisory opinions, on any international legal question.

On 11 and 12 January, the ICJ held urgent public hearings on South Africa’s application to the Court to indicate provisional measures. Provisional measures are interim measures – for example, suspension of military action - that the applicant state can request, if it considers that  "the rights that form the subject of the application are in immediate danger”. In this case, South Africa requested that “Israel suspend its military operations in and against Gaza” and  desist from the commission of “genocidal acts” “as a matter of extreme urgency” to protect Palestinians in Gaza against “further, severe and irreparable harm”.

To indicate provisional measures, the Court must first determine that it has prima facie jurisdiction. This means the Court must determine that a dispute can be said to exist between the two states under the Genocide Convention. The Court must also then establish that at least some of the acts alleged by South Africa fall within provisions of the Genocide Convention. Are some of the acts alleged plausibly genocidal? Are the measures requested necessary to protect Palestinian rights? Those are the kinds of questions now before the Court. These hearings are a preliminary phase to determine whether provisional measures are warranted.

The Road to the ICJ and the International Reaction

South Africa’s charge of genocide did not come out of the blue. In mid-November, UN experts called on the international community “to act quickly to prevent genocide”. International legal experts also expected a state to apply to the ICJ under the Genocide Convention, a judicial route that could offer some protection.

The complete siege of Gaza - cutting off food, water, fuel - the evacuation orders and the bombardment combined with the language of political and military leaders prompted these fears of an unfolding genocide.

Under the Genocide Convention, states’ obligations are erga omnes, meaning they are owed to the international community as a whole. It was only a matter of time before a state would act upon its obligation to prevent genocide. In reaction, however, Israeli spokesperson, Eylon Levy, decried South Africa’s application as ‘absurd blood libel’. The US, politically and materially supportive of Israel’s war on Gaza, dismissed the application as meritless. The UK’s response was also critical but confused. Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, David Cameron, said he did not think South Africa’s application was “helpful” nor did he agree with it or think it was “right”. Cameron said words like genocide, should not be “bandied” about, as it is for courts not states to define “genocide”.

Numerous states have explicitly welcomed South Africa’s application, including, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Brazil as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

What is genocide?

Genocide constitutes certain ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such’. South Africa accuses Israel of killing Palestinians in Gaza, causing them serious bodily and mental harm, inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction and imposing measures intended to prevent Palestinian births.

South Africa contextualises these acts within the “broader context of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians during its 75-year-long apartheid, its 56-yearlong belligerent occupation of Palestinian territory and its 16-year-long blockade of Gaza”. But the focus of this application is Israel’s specific intent, during the current operation, “to destroy Palestinians in Gaza as a part of the broader Palestinian national, racial and ethnical group”.

Much of the controversy surrounding South Africa’s application stems from the weight of the crime of genocide. The Genocide Convention embodies the promise “never again”, a commitment made as a direct result of the Holocaust. Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, reflected  the controversy of “accusing Israel, a Jewish state, of genocide, given the fact that six million Jews – over half the population of Jews in Europe – were killed”. Genocide, for Varadkar, must be used carefully, when “absolutely convinced”. But this conflicts with the obligation to prevent genocide.

South Africa acknowledged how fraught this “crime of crimes” is, observing, they are “acutely aware of the particular weight of responsibility in initiating proceedings against Israel for violations of the Genocide Convention”.

Law mirrors the sensitivity towards the crime of genocide; states deliberately made genocide an extremely difficult crime to establish. The dolus specialis or specific intent to destroy a group, in whole or in part, requires proving that the perpetrator intended to target individuals precisely because of their group membership. The ICJ has interpreted this requirement rigidly.

What’s next?

The significance of the current proceedings lie in their potential to bring some immediate relief to the Palestinians in Gaza. Given the humanitarian situation, the Court is likely to reach its decision quickly. Germany’s recent announcement that it rejects the genocide accusation and will intervene as a third party in the ICJ proceedings indicates a belief that provisional measures are pending. If that is the case, political pressure will be crucial. Whilst states are legally required to comply with the Court’s decision, non-compliance is common. Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has already indicated non-compliance, in a thread on X.

The ICJ is not yet tasked with determining whether Israel’s conduct in Gaza violates the Genocide Convention. Assuming the case proceeds, Israel may raise preliminary objections challenging the Court’s competence to decide on the jurisdiction and substance of the case. If the case reaches the merits phase – where issues of substance are decided - the Court will conduct public hearings before ultimately determining whether Israel’s actions have violated the Convention. That decision could take years.

Irrespective of what happens at the ICJ in the weeks and years to come, political inaction to prevent further catastrophe in Gaza is unthinkable.