Creating new perspectives since 2009

Unmasking the culprit: States' credibility at stake in the evolving international legal order

February 7, 2024 at 6:30 pm

People, holding Palestinian flags, gather outside the International Court of Justice during the session on the day the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rule on Gaza genocide case against Israel made by South Africa in the Hague, the Netherlands on January 26, 2024 [Nikos Oikonomou – Anadolu Agency]

In the global arena, there is a tendency to spotlight the perceived deficiencies of international laws and organisations. States are often swift to lay blame on these laws and institutions, citing their supposed inadequacies in terms of capacity, credibility and enforcement capabilities.

However, recent events, particularly Israel’s war on Gaza and the South Africa vs. Israel case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), reveal a profound reality: the issue does not lie with international laws and organisations but, rather, with the conduct and trustworthiness of individual states. It is now imperative to redirect our attention away from questioning the effectiveness of international laws and organisations and, instead, focus on examining and compelling a transformation in the behaviour and trustworthiness of nations themselves.

The scapegoating of international laws and organisations continues unabated

Following the Russia-Ukraine war, the prevailing narrative argued that international institutions, notably the UN, lacked effectiveness and influence. Both protagonists criticised the UN for its actions and inactions. However, a closer examination reveals that the true challenge lies in states’ refusal to acknowledge that their actions damage the functioning of international legal order and, instead, scapegoat the very institutions attempting to bring order to the chaos.

WATCH: UN Secretary General announces investigation into UNRWA

The ineffectiveness of the UN Security Council can be attributed to Russia and the US vetoing actions against Russia’s and Israel’s misconduct, rather than being a flaw of the UN itself. Furthermore, any challenge to the international rule of law stems from Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s unjustified targeting of civilians in Gaza, not any inherent incompatibility of international laws.

International legal institutions also took their share of such a narrative. The ICJ, for example, has faced accusations of politicisation, with senior Israeli officials dismissing its ruling on the provisional measures in the case of South Africa vs. Israel. More significantly, essential UN agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) saw their funding suspended by major donors amid allegations of individual staff members’ involvement in the 7 October attacks. Even though the UN immediately terminated suspected staff’s contracts, major donors swiftly defunded UNRWA. This move came just after the ICJ’s ruling and even raised doubt on whether such an act was an indirect reaction by the Global North to the World Court’s ruling against Israel.

International organisations navigate a tumultuous landscape 

Last week’s ICJ ruling, a crucial juncture in international legal history, reaffirms that the international legal order endeavours to remain active, despite severe pressure. Diplomacy, not dogma, guided the ICJ’s decision to choose a moderate route in the South Africa vs. Israel case. The Court, aware of the scrutiny it faced, sought a delicate balance, opting for provisional measures grounded in legal justification that called upon Israel to prevent genocide without entirely aligning with South Africa’s requests. This decision, far from a sign of weakness, exemplifies the option left to the ICJ: finding a compromise to maintain functionality in the face of adversity.

Subjected to a smear campaign in addition to the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, UNRWA, too, has emphasised its dedication to transparency, accountability and ethical conduct. The international organisation promptly responded to the claims by terminating the contracts of the individuals involved and launching internal investigations to ensure a thorough examination of the situation. Moreover, the agency’s leadership has consistently communicated with major donors and the international community, providing updates on rectifying the situation and preventing any recurrence. UNRWA’s diplomatic approach underscores its commitment to upholding its mandate, navigating challenges with transparency and seeking collaborative solutions in the face of external pressures.

READ: Lebanese judge elected president of ICJ

Attacks on credibility come with a high cost

Defunding organisations like UNRWA, despite its action against the alleged misconduct by a handful of employees, is a testament to states prioritising blame over collaborative solutions. Rather than slashing funding, states should engage constructively, address issues transparently and work collectively to improve these organisations’ functioning. The knee-jerk reaction of defunding perpetuates a cycle of mistrust and impedes the progress these organisations strive to achieve. But, more than that, states should realise that attacks on the functioning and credibility of international institutions have tangible consequences for people on the ground. The suspension of UNRWA funding directly impacts the lives of vulnerable Palestinian refugees who depend on its assistance and will probably “result in the collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza”. Similarly, questioning the legitimacy of the ICJ undermines the pursuit of justice and accountability on the global stage, closing the doors for those seeking justice.

States must change their discourses

Instead of relentless attacks aimed at diminishing the credibility of international institutions, it is time for nations to acknowledge their role in global affairs, take accountability for their decisions and move forward collaboratively. Because, despite their struggles with enforcement capacity, they manage to impose reputational costs on non-compliant states. The international legal order, as a whole, has contributed significantly to global governance and justice.

In the end, blaming international institutions only hinders progress, while constructive engagement fosters a world where the rule of law prevails, and justice is not sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Let us not be the architects of our collective undoing but, rather, the builders of a world where states rise above the shadows of doubt and work hand in hand to create a more just and accountable international community.

READ: UN experts condemn any efforts to delegitimise UN agency for Palestinian refugees as a whole

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.