Jakarta – South Africa’s bid at The Hague to compel Israel to stop its Gaza campaign in a landmark genocide case has found support across the developing world from Latin America to Southeast Asia.
Israel has reacted angrily to the case, calling it “absurd”, but the South African lawyers sent to argue it have been celebrated at home and online by supporters of the Palestinian cause.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is expected to hand down a ruling Friday on whether to impose emergency orders on Israel, though a decision on the genocide claims at the heart of the case will likely take years.
“The ICJ must see the frustration of the international community,” said Hikmahanto Juwana, international law professor at the University of Indonesia.
“There should be a response.”
Experts say South Africa’s emergency case alleging a breach of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention in Gaza has laid bare a growing rift between Israel and its Western allies, and nations in the Global South.
International justice “has long been perceived by the Global South as selective justice”, said Johann Soufi, an international lawyer and former legal office chief at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza.
“The countries of the ‘South’ are increasingly rejecting this view, which they consider neocolonial.”
The war in Gaza was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented attacks on October 7, which left about 1,140 people dead in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally.
Israel vowed to annihilate the Islamist movement in response, launching a punishing offensive in Gaza that the Palestinian territory’s Hamas-run health ministry says has killed at least 25,900 people, about 70 percent of them women and children.
Tal Becker, a top lawyer representing Israel at the ICJ, said South Africa had put forward “a profoundly distorted” picture, and stressed that Israel’s response was in self-defence.
Using visual aids, Becker said Hamas had “tortured children in front of parents, burned people… systematically raped and mutilated”, in attacks that evoked memories of the Holocaust.
As the war’s civilian toll soared and diplomatic ceasefire efforts sputtered, backers of the Palestinian cause have looked to legal routes to halt the violence.
The loudest supporters of the ICJ case have included Muslim-majority states Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Maldives.
They also include a slate of leftist-ruled Latin American nations including Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela.
Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been the most active Latin American leader, accusing Israel of “acts of terrorism”.
Israel’s strongest ally the United States has opposed the case, and some European Union members and Britain have refused to support it, with France saying accusing Israel of genocide “crosses a moral threshold”.
Unlike its neighbours, India also hasn’t backed the case.
“I’m not so sure that everyone in the West is in favour of Israel and everyone in the Global South is opposed to Israel,” said Marco Sassoli, international law professor at the University of Geneva.
“Both Western States and the Global South have double standards. Double standards are a poison for the credibility of international law,” he added, pointing to Western policy on the Ukraine war, which has largely opposed Russian aggression.
Some supporters of the case are also not signatories of the 1948 genocide convention, which was signed after the Holocaust, leaving them hesitant to officially sponsor South Africa’s action.
One of them is Muslim-majority Indonesia where military-backed, anti-communist purges in the mid-1960s — some of the worst of the 20th century — killed at least 500,000 people.
Rather than lend its full support to the case, Jakarta instead provided an advisory legal opinion to the ICJ calling for international law to prevail, according to University of Indonesia professor Juwana, who helped craft it.
‘Moral and political’
But even in South Africa there are voices critical of the action, which the ruling African National Congress (ANC) sees as inspired by the teachings of the late Nelson Mandela.
Some Christian leaders condemned it as “fundamentally flawed”, while South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies expressed “concern” to President Cyril Ramaphosa that the case could fuel anti-Semitism at home.
A ruling in favour of South Africa could legally oblige Israel to stop its campaign.
But some of the supporting nations are conscious it may have little impact.
Great powers who “generally do not abide” by the court’s decisions have the ability to exert pressure on it, said Roberto Goulart Menezes, professor at the University of Brasilia.
Brazil also knows a decision might only have a “moral and political” value, but would nonetheless add weight to ceasefire calls, he added.
Still, Soufi warned Washington and its allies to take South Africa’s case seriously and to listen to the developing world, which is increasingly using the levers of international law and justice to hold the West to account.
“If the United States and their allies maintain their position against this new trend… they will significantly, and perhaps permanently weaken a system they took 75 years to build,” he said.
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