5 January 2009
Vera Gowlland-Debbas is Professor of Public International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. She served as the Counsel to the Arab League in the egal Consequences of a Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Advisory Opinion) in which the International Court of Justice ruled that Israels construction of a wall separating the West Bank from Israel violated international law.
() Today, partly as a result of the shocked reactions to the crimes perpetrated during World War II, fundamental and intransgressible rules and principles of international law, including of human rights and humanitarian law directed to the protection of the essential values and interests of the international community as a whole, now provide the foundations of contemporary international society.
The obligation of each and every State to prevent their flagrant violation was reiterated in the recent September 2005 General Assembly World Summit Outcome document, in which all States members of the United Nations pledged that: he international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful meansto help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and that e are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by case basisshould peaceful means be inadequate." ()
The UN Secretary-Generals "mea culpa" in the cases of Rwanda and Srebrenica had underlined that the international community as a whole had to accept its share of responsibility for failing to take action to prevent the tragic course of events. In a recent case involving Bosnia against Serbia, the International Court of Justice underlined a duty of prevention, the failure of which entails guilt and complicity. And in a Human Rights Council statement, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories has this to say: "The Israeli airstrikes today, and the catastrophic human toll that they caused, challenge those countries that have been and remain complicit, either directly or indirectly, in Israel's violations of international law. That complicity includes those countries knowingly providing the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks, as well as those countries who have supported and participated in the siege of Gaza that itself has caused a humanitarian catastrophe."
Will the inaction of the permanent members of the Security Council, the parties to the Geneva Conventions, who undertake to "respect and to ensure" international humanitarian law, in particular Switzerland as the depositary, the European Union, the pillars of which are said to be based on the rule of law and democracy, and the international community as a whole, mean that this "responsibility to protect is nothing but a mere pious buzz word, conveniently used only as a cover for furthering interests?
Reactions to such blatant violations of international law would normally take the form of UN and regional sanctions, civil boycotts and criminal pursuit of individuals. Precedents in the region (remember the reactions to Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait and the $26 billion compensation it was forced to pay?) and elsewhere abound. It is ironic therefore that far from measures to ensure Israeli compliance with UN resolutions and international law, the Palestinians themselves over the past few years have been condemned, sanctioned and strangled. Such double standards are totally incompatible with the key principle of the rule of law in international affairs which states that the rules apply equally to all, and can only pave the way for more frustration, incomprehension, anger and violence on the part of the victims.