South Africa invoked the Genocide Convention and initiated proceedings at the International Court of Justice on Friday in a significant step towards ending the relentless bloodshed in Gaza.
The development comes as the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza said that nearly 200 more people had been killed in the past 24 hours. The confirmed death toll in the territory stands at more than 21,500 people – around one percent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million.
The actual number of fatalities is much higher, with thousands of people missing and feared dead under the rubble of destroyed buildings. Others have died as a result of disease and hunger borne of Israel’s siege or because they were unable to access health care, with most hospitals in Gaza rendered inoperable.
South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation stated that it is “gravely concerned with the plight of civilians caught in the present Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip due to the indiscriminate use of force and forcible removal of inhabitants.”
The office added that it had requested the world court declare “on an urgent basis that Israel is in breach of its obligations in terms of the Genocide Convention, should immediately cease all acts and measures in breach of those obligations and take a number of related actions.”
UN’s tribunal for disputes between states
The International Court of Justice is the UN’s tribunal for settling legal disputes submitted by states.
It also considers requests for advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it through the UN system. Earlier this year, the UN General Assembly voted in favor of requesting an advisory opinion on the legality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank – including East Jerusalem – and Gaza.
Though both are based in The Hague, the International Court of Justice is a separate body from the International Criminal Court.
The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into the human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in March 2021. Its chief prosecutor, the British barrister Karim Khan, has been accused of bias for his failure to prevent the genocide unfolding in Gaza.
Along with four other states, South Africa referred the situation in Palestine to the International Criminal Court in mid-November.
Balkees Jarrah, an associate director at Human Rights Watch, stated that the case at the International Court of Justice “should also propel greater international support for impartial justice at the ICC and other credible venues.”
In its 84-page submission to the International Court of Justice on Friday, South Africa requested that the tribunal indicate provisional measures “to protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights of the Palestinian people under the Genocide Convention” and to ensure Israel’s compliance with its obligations.
Both South Africa and Israel are parties to the Genocide Convention.
“Any country that has ratified the treaty has the right and responsibility to invoke the Genocide Convention and bring another state suspected of genocide to the International Court of Justice and other UN bodies,” as The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah has stated.
South Africa is the first state to do so regarding Israel’s eliminationist campaign in Gaza.
Three prominent Palestinian groups – Al-Haq, Al Mezan and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights – welcomed the initiative on Friday.“This principled move stands as a testament to South Africa’s unyielding commitment to human rights, justice and accountability,” the Palestinian groups said.
The three groups added that some states “have not only failed to uphold international law and their legal obligations … but have shamelessly been complicit in perpetuating injustice.”
Principal among them is the US, which has blocked calls for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council while providing Israel with weapons used to wage genocide in Gaza.
Palestinians are suing US President Joe Biden and his secretaries of state and defense in that country’s court system for their failure to prevent genocide and for their complicity in genocide.
The three Palestinian human rights groups urged the UN court to “expedite the proceedings and move as swiftly as possible.”