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Is the UN system still relevant?

By Maren Mantovani
April 26, 2024

We are failing every day to force a ceasefire and stop the genocide. But failure is not an option. We must refocus this moment.

Two months after its first order of provisional measures to halt Israel’s genocide in Gaza, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued additional orders, recognizing that Israel violated the first ruling and that, meanwhile, famine and starvation have effectively spread in Gaza. According to the experts cited in the ruling, an immediate ceasefire is the only way to stop the famine.On January 26, the ICJ had already issued a binding order for Israel to prevent and stop all genocidal acts with immediate effect, allow unrestricted access to humanitarian aid, and stop incitement to genocide. Today, the genocide is worse than ever. Food supply dropped 50 percent in February. Over 30 people, most of them children, have already died of malnutrition and dehydration. Thirty-one percent of children under two years of age in the northern Gaza Strip suffer acute malnutrition. UN Secretary-General António Guterres underlinedthat “this is the highest number of people facing catastrophic hunger ever recorded by the Integrated Food Security Classification system—anywhere, anytime.” Additionally, Israeli military attacks are still killing the Palestinian population in Gaza, including those trying to distribute or access the little food there is.

There was great enthusiasm when the court issued its January 26 ruling. Rightly so. The recognition that Israel is plausibly committing genocide and has to stop with immediate effect was, and will remain, a landmark ruling.

Still, it was predictable that Israel would defy the orders, just as it ignored the 2004 ICJ advisory opinion on the illegality of the apartheid wall built in the occupied West Bank and rebuffed the UN General Assembly resolutions and now the March 25 UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire. Israel clearly doesn’t feel bound by the additional provisional measures.

The seemingly unshaken backing Israel receives from the US and Western colonial powers enables this settler-colonial apartheid regime to continue its genocide and its 75-year-long policy of ethnic cleansing, dispossession, and myriad other crimes.

Yet something is changing within the system: like never before, Israel, the US, and a couple of other undeterred genocide promoters, including Germany, are isolated in front of the entire international community. With each ruling and resolution piling up, it becomes more obvious that defending Israel’s genocide inevitably compels these countries to dismantle the United Nations system and the rule of international law in their entirety.

While this is a tall order even for Western powers, they are seemingly ready to accept the challenge. But the rest of the world community—can they survive it? As Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, early on in the genocide, said: “Gaza is only the first experiment for considering us all expendable.” We have to save international law and the UN, no matter how deficient they are.

The 2004 ICJ ruling on Israel’s apartheid wall taught us that even though the ICJ will not implement its verdicts on its own, nor will it bring justice to the Palestinian people, there can still be power to its words.

Israel had already announced it was ignoring the court, and states were not going to ensure compliance. Yet the ruling’s emphasis on international responsibility in front of Israel’s violations of international law triggered the formation of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, launched on July 9, 2005, the first anniversary of the verdict. In the face of state and corporate complicity, people took action.

The BDS call remains a watershed moment.

BDS has put the spotlight on Israeli impunity and the need to end global complicity with not only Israel’s military occupation but the entire system of settler-colonial apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Solidarity today means building accountability for Israeli crimes and those complicit or complacent with them.

This global anti-apartheid movement has forced multinational giants, from Veoliato Microsoft, G4S, and many others, to end their dirty deals with Israel. It has inspired artists, academics, and politicians to rescind ties of complicity and brought down military deals. It has remained an unbroken consensus among and a continuous sliver of hope for Palestinians. It is central to the Palestinian efforts to demand the UN investigate and dismantle Israel’s 75-year-old regime of apartheid. But before this could happen, Israel started the crime of crimes—the genocide in Gaza.

We have not acted in time. The world failed to prevent the genocide. We are failing every day to force a ceasefire and stop the genocide. But failure is not an option. We must refocus this moment.

Beyond a massive growth in consumer boycotts—felt powerfully by the likes of McDonald’s—as well as academic and cultural boycotts, the sheer atrocities Israel commits in Gaza every day have spurred many governments to act. Some countries have cut or reduced diplomaticties. Malaysia decided to ban Israeli ships and Israel-bound ships from its ports. Norway’s sovereign fund, the world’s largest, divested the entirety of its almost half billion dollars’ worth of Israel bonds.

Yet the ICJ binding order gave new power to popular pressure. Across all continents, governments started cutting military ties with Israel. Governments are legally bound to “employ all means reasonably available to them” to finally to stop the genocide and avoid complicity, while corporations risk legal liability.

The order tipped the balance in Japan, where trading giant Itochu heeded the calls to cut cooperation with Israel’s biggest military company, Elbit Systems. Belgium announced a ban on military exports to Israel. A Dutch court orderedthe government to block all exports of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel. Canadadecided on a ban of arms exports to Israel. Spain and Italy claim they stopped arms sales to Israel after October 7. Colombia has suspended all imports of Israeli weapons. Court cases against USand German government officials are challenging complicity in genocide.

At the same time, UN human rights experts have warned that arms exports to Israel are prohibited and demand sanctions on trade, finance, travel, technology, and cooperation. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese, in her latest reportto the General Assembly, calls for sanctions, including a military embargo, to enforce a ceasefire and end the genocide. She calls on the General Assembly to “develop a plan to end the unlawful and unsustainable status quo constituting the root cause of the latest escalation, which ultimately culminated in the Gaza genocide, including through the reconstitution of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid.”

During the South African struggle, the Non-Aligned Movement was crucial in building the necessary global support to defeat apartheid, based on its foundational principles of anticolonialism, disarmament, antiracism, and self-determination. Today, as people across the world, we have to push states to take action individually and rebuild an alliance that can, at the very least, uphold the mission of the Genocide Convention to defend “the most elementary principles of morality,” prevent and end crimes against humanity, and salvage the UN and international law.

We have to push states, especially across the global South, to redouble and lead effective and coordinated political action, including sanctions, to stop the genocide, and, eventually, dismantle Israeli apartheid.

As a BDS movement worldwide, we have to cut academic, cultural, corporate, and state complicity at its core. From now on, the colors of Palestine have to become the colors of humanity. Double standards, complacency, and “whataboutism” in front of Israel’s crimes are complicity.

Israel’s genocide in Gaza shall not be a breaking point for humanity but for Israel’s crimes against humanity.

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