- - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay
recently made the following astounding statement: “It is imperative
that Israel, Hamas and all Palestinian armed groups strictly abide by
applicable norms of international humanitarian law and international
human rights law”, thus imposing an implied moral and legal
equivalence between a terrorist organization deliberately attacking
civilians and a state defending against these attacks.

Substitute in the above sentence “Al Qaeda” for “Hamas” and the “United States” for “Israel” and then ask yourself whether it strikes a reasonable chord.
Similarly, the Commissioner General of UNRWA Pierre Krahenbuhl
recently accused Israel of violating international law by shelling a
source of Palestinian fire located near an UNRWA school. This despite
the agency’s own admission that its premises have been used to store
Hamas weapons as well as evidence of attacks being launched repeatedly
from them. The complacency with which such statements are met
internationally, especially given the senior rank of the UN officials
speaking, should be cause for serious worry to anyone genuinely
concerned with global peace and security.

International relations scholars have long debated the ability of
international norms, legal and behavioral, to affect conflict patterns
and to positively impact the perpetually unstable anarchic global
arena, in which states have recourse only to self-help in guaranteeing
their security. The United Nations and the League of Nations before it
were established with the express aim of providing for peace and
security between states. The edifice of modern international
humanitarian law was intended to play a comparable role to that played
by law within states as a means of regulating conflict non-violently.
International law and UN institutions tasked with acting within its
framework were thought and expected to alleviate the underlying
‘security dilemma’ – the inherent tendency of defensive measures to be
perceived by others as a potential threat – and lead to a
well-regulated, reasonably peaceful international community.

Views and research findings on the matter, ranging across the gamut of
‘realist’ or ‘liberal’ schools of thought, remain divergent. One
thing, however, does seem clear: insofar as legal norms can be
beneficial, they must be able to serve as a means of substituting for
self-help. Those who are aggressed must have some measure of
confidence that the architecture of international law, and the organs
tasked with administering it, remain fair-handed and clean of
political or ideological interests insofar as possible.

To the extent that legal norms are twisted away from this fundamental
attribute, there can be little hope of their being able to serve as a
viable mechanism for ensuring peace. In the absence of a functional
police force with the capability to compel, what person in his or her
right mind would voluntarily agree to place their fate in the hands of
a judge known to be prejudiced. The same holds true for states in the
international arena.

This is why Pillay’s and Krahenbuhl’s obviously slanted statements are
so problematic. They reflect a completely upside-down view of the most
basic principle of the UN Charter and of the hopes held by the
founders of the UN to establish a more peaceful world order: the
unassailable right of states to defend themselves from attack, as
provided for in Article 51. By the logic of these senior UN officials,
the aggressor is indistinguishable from the victim. How, then, are
states victimized by terrorism to ensure their security? Unless
peaceful states suddenly adopt a lemming-like inclination to commit
mass suicide, it is difficult to see how widespread acceptance of such
misguided reasoning can lead to anything other than an exacerbation of
international anarchy.

This is something which has implications far beyond the case of
Israel. Other countries and observers might be inclined to look at
Israel’s dilemma in Gaza as a faraway problem with no immediate impact
on their own security and well-being. They would be wrong. The
landscape of international norms is a mosaic of piecemeal documents,
resolutions, treaties, statements and behaviors. Statements such as
the above, left unchecked, contribute to a cumulative corpus of
expectations which inevitably impact the normative environment within
which future victims of aggression will be forced to act.

One needn’t look further than the rabidly anti-Semitic rallies held
recently in major western capitals, with Swastikas brandished by
pro-Palestinian demonstrators in places like London, Paris and Rome,
to understand that the ranks of those who harbor fundamentally
violent, xenophobic and anti-democratic inclinations are deeply
embedded outside the Middle East. As anyone with a sense of history
must readily acknowledge, Swastikas aren’t just a threat to Jews, they
are a threat to us all. Thus, this is not a problem which could
gravitate towards the West; it already has.

Serious observers of the situation in Gaza – especially government
officials in the western diplomatic corps and intelligence communities
– would do well to take careful heed of the irresponsible rhetoric
that senior UN officials like Pillay and Krahenbuhl are getting away
with. The tarnishing of international legal principles and of the very
concept of a fairly implemented body of international standards is not
only Israel’s problem. It’s everyone’s.

Uri Resnick is incoming policy advisor to Israel’s Minister of Foreign
Affairs. He teaches foreign policy planning at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem and Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

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