Of war crimes and double standards

From a legal point of view, the apparent inability to take action contrasts very sharply with the international criminal court’s handling of other alleged war crimes committed in other countries

As war and turmoil deepen in Gaza, Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, there is a very real possibility that the ultimate casualty will be the international rule of law.

This week UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon stated unequivocally that the shelling of hospitals and UN-operated schools in Gaza constitute war crimes according to the Geneva Convention. Separately, the UN commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, has said she believes Israel is deliberately defying international law in its military offensive in Gaza, and that world powers should hold it accountable for possible war crimes.

Coming from the administrative leadership of the United Nations, these declarations raise more questions than they answer. The international criminal court is ultimately answerable to the same United Nations that is now calling for an inquiry into war crimes. One of the three possible methods of resorting to the ICC tribunal is, in fact, a referral by the United Nations’ Security Council.

In theory there is nothing stopping the Security Council from enacting this measure in the face of an ongoing defiance (in the UN’s own words) of international law by Israel. Yet in practice, any such proposition is almost certain to be met with a veto.

From a legal point of view, this apparent inability to take action contrasts very sharply with the international criminal court’s handling of other alleged war crimes committed in other countries. Given that war currently rages in large parts of the world – at least 62 countries are currently engulfed in conflict – it seems to defy all reason that the only investigations that have been formally opened since the court was established in 2002 are all related to the African continent: and even here, primarily focusing on sub-Saharan African countries.

This year the African Union even threatened to withdraw its ratification of the Rome Treaty (which established the ICC), in protest at its perceived ‘racist’ and ‘neo-colonialist’ overtones. It is difficult to counter such criticism in view of the facts. Many of the cases against African former heads of state were, in fact, referred to the court by the UN Security Council – the same council that is powerless to intervene in other conflicts.

The overwhelming impression that arises from this discrepancy is that ‘war crimes’ are only treated as ‘war crimes’ by the international community if they were committed by black African governments. Different yardsticks and rules evidently apply to other countries, especially those which enjoy the backing of a seemingly preferential UN Security Council.

Reluctance to take corresponding measures against Israel, even after the shelling of UN safe zones left considerable civilian casualties in its wake, will almost certainly be interpreted as further proof that the international community applies double standards in the dispensation of international justice. This can only further diminish an already ailing public faith in such instruments as the International Criminal Court; which in turn threatens to render such an important institution powerless, to the grave detriment of global peace prospects.

Elsewhere, the ongoing conflict in Libya is also resulting in atrocity and civilian casualties; and this in turn raises parallel questions regarding double standards by the UN. In this case, there is a recent compelling historical precedent which should (theoretically) compel the United Nations to intervene. It was a clear and present threat to civilians that prompted the UN to impose a no-fly zone on Libya in 2011: a time when Gaddafi was openly threatening to exterminate the rebels “like rats”.

The same threat clearly exists in Libya today, yet no corresponding action has been taken to put a stop to the bloodshed. Nor is it just the United Nations that seems to be employing entirely different criteria to the Libyan situation today as opposed to 2011. The ongoing civil war in Libya is being fought with weapons liberally supplied by Western governments for use against the Gaddafi regime, and with no apparent forethought to what they may be used for in future. Yet the same governments which were so keen to arm rebels four years ago have not to date lifted a finger to address today’s equally alarming conflict, even though the consequences of this failure for Libya’s civilian population are just as harrowing as they were in 2011.

Admittedly there is nothing particularly new about this evident hypocrisy in the international community’s appraisal of various conflict scenarios. But we are also living in a time when the effects of these and other injustices are more visible to the man in the street than ever before. The social media have greatly facilitated the transfer of information (and, it must be said, misinformation), and with these advances in communications technology the propensity for global revulsion and anger has also been exacerbated.

At present there is evident danger that the loss of public trust in international institutions such as the UN and the ICC may reach irreversible proportions, with catastrophic consequences for perceptions of global justice. Action must be taken with urgency, especially by the main power brokers in the UN Security Council, to ensure that the rules of international justice apply equally to all countries everywhere.

Otherwise, there will be no justice left at all.

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