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Any role for international law societies concerning the latest escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian armed conflict?

Some context concerning the latest escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 7 October 2023

The indiscriminate attacks launched by Hamas militants on 7 October 2023, resulting in about 1,200 Israelis killed and several thousands’ wounded (also in following days), with about 240 persons forcefully detained and taken back to the Gaza Strip, including children and elderly persons, took the world by surprise. What rightfully and immediately followed was the condemnation of these attacks by Heads of States and Governments, many emphasizing Israel’s right to defend itself without making any qualifications. Since then, due to military action by the Israeli army, in less than 50 days, about 15 thousand Palestinians have been killed and over 36 thousand have been injured. Moreover, due to the near blockade imposed by Israeli authorities on the Gaza Strip from electricity, food and water, and medicines, with every day that passes its 2,3 million inhabitants, 80% of whom are internally forcibly displaced, are at increased risk of an impending humanitarian disaster. While this blogpost focuses on this last escalation, the flaring up of tensions and armed conflict in Gaza, which is under an Israeli blockade since 2007, has happened regularly, with crimes committed documented in reports of UN inquiry commissions established by the UN Human Rights Council; see respectively concerning 2009; 2012; 2014; 2018; and 2021-ongoing). This decades-long conflict is one of the best documented for the last 15 years, starting in 2008 (OCHA, oPt, Data on casualties).

The role of international law societies

International law societies come in various forms and shapes and have different mandates. Most countries have a national society of international law (and some have more), where scholars and practitioners and others interested meet occasionally and discuss various issues. Besides national societies, there are regional societies, like the European (ESIL) and the Asian (AsianSIL), to mention some of the most well-known. The US has two large societies, ASIL and the US branch of the ILA, and both of them count as members many persons with other nationalities. Finally, and more broadly and internationally, there are the International Law Association (with 63 branches) and the Institute of International Law (membership capped at total of 132 Members and Associates under the age of 80). Briefly put in terms of their mandates, these societies, be they at the national, regional, or international level, are trying to spread knowledge, develop international law, and occasionally also call for its respect and  proper implementation.

Calling for respect and implementation of international law

Many have criticized the double standards applied by States when it comes to calling for respecting and implementing international law. Some States are eager to point out violations by others they deem hostile, while closing their eyes when similar crimes are committed by their perceived or real friends and allies. This is not something new and most likely will always be part of international relations. What is problematic, of course, is when some States try to claim the moral high ground, which is as often betrayed by their voting record at the United Nations, whether at the General Assembly or the Security Council (and their actions at home and abroad).

To get back to the reaction of international law societies, when the Russian Federation started its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 in an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that started in 2014, many national and regional international law societies were very quick to issue condemnations. And rightfully so (see here for some examples – check period February-March 2022). After more than 50 days of the latest escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with no end in sight, and thousands killed and injured and an impending humanitarian disaster, there are very few statements issued by international law societies. What I have come across so far, are statements by the Belgian Association of International Law; the Institute of International Law; and the President of Albanian branch of ILA). In terms of other activities organized from ILA branches that I am aware of, there was an online panel on “International law and the conflict in Palestine” ably organized by the Irish ILA branch on 27 November.

Of course, one could say it is not easy to issue a detailed statement on this latest escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because we do not know all the facts, it is a very complex conflict, the situation is fluid, there are many armed conflicts so better not issue anything for fear of being accused of selectivity, etc. Obviously, where there is no will, there are thousand reasons not to do something, as the saying goes. But, all of these reasons combined, it should not be difficult to call for respect for international law, especially of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, for an immediate release of Israeli hostages, for humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza, for a permanent ceasefire and for ending the conflict, and for ensuring the long-denied right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

In contrast to the muted response by learned international law societies, people have taken to the streets across the world, to protest the continuation of the conflict and the killing of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, asking for a ceasefire, an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and respect for the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. Moreover, and importantly, they have also taken to the streets to protest antisemitism and islamophobia. It seems the street is more sensitive to violations of international law and bloodshed than organized epistemic communities are. It was also due to that popular response that many governments were forced to change their rhetoric and ask for proportionality to be respected by Israel in its military response against Hamas and at least call for humanitarian truces.

What role for international law societies?

I am not calling for international law societies to draft and issue statements for every armed conflict. That would be nearly impossible, since there are so many. And, the strategic “decoupling” and finger-pointing, saber-rattling in various parts of the world, arms-races (including modernization of nuclear arsenals), and a myriad other problems the current political elites are perpetuating, is not going to help bring down the number of armed conflicts. I am arguing three things though. First, those societies which react to one armed conflict, have to try to be consistent and react to others too, even those involving allied or friendly countries. Second, demanding respect for international law from the parties to an armed conflict and that relevant international and regional institutions be involved and follow up closely such situations, is important and does not require too much effort. That will help societies with the framing, especially where condemnation of allies is a political no-go. And third, and complying with their instructive function, by issuing such measured statements, these societies could give necessary guidance to their governments and eventually provide them with some support to become more engaged, where possible.

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