Source: The Indian Express Relevance: GS-II (International Relations), GS-IV (Ethics in International Relations)

Background of the Case:

  • On December 29, 2023, South Africa initiated legal action against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

  • Allegation: Israel’s military actions in Gaza violate the Genocide Convention.

Global Responses:

  • Support: Bangladesh, Jordan, Latin American, and Middle Eastern nations.

  • Opposition: Germany supports Israel; the U.S., U.K., and France express opposition.

Legal Context and Comparison:

  • Genocide, a severe crime, requires collective prevention efforts.

  • South Africa argues standing based on “erga omnes obligation” of states.

  • Reference to The Gambia’s successful case against Myanmar for the Rohingya genocide.

Core Arguments:

  • South Africa highlights decades of Palestinian suffering.

  • Cites a high death toll, destruction, and famine threat in Gaza.

  • Accuses high-level Israeli politicians of making genocidal statements.

Israel’s Defense:

  • Denies a dispute between parties.

  • Contends statements are open to interpretation, not reflective of military protocols.

  • Asserts military operation aims to destroy Hamas in response to prior attacks.

Potential Measures and Forums:

  • South Africa seeks an immediate cessation of military hostilities.

  • ICJ ruling may include alternatives like facilitating resource entry or declaring a humanitarian ceasefire.

  • ICC can address non-state actors like Hamas.

ICJ Ruling and Implications:

  • ICJ orders Israel to prevent acts of genocide but doesn’t call for an immediate ceasefire.

  • Majority of judges favor emergency measures for basic services and humanitarian aid.

  • Victory for South Africa; other states supporting Israel may face implications.

Enforcement Challenges and Israel’s Response:

  • ICJ lacks its own enforcement; relies on the UN Security Council.

  • Compliance may be affected by veto power in the Security Council.

  • Israel contests the decision, citing past instances like Russia’s non-compliance in Ukraine.

Future Proceedings and Legal Context:

  • Ongoing proceedings may influence international opinion and pressure Israel.

  • Israel ordered to report steps based on the verdict within a month.

UN Security Council Meeting and Funding Suspension:

  • UNSC meeting to discuss the decision with potential implications for U.S. President Joe Biden’s stance.

  • Western countries, including the U.S., suspend funding for UNRWA over alleged staff involvement in Hamas attacks.

Next Steps:

  • UNSC meeting and subsequent events will shape the future dynamics of the situation.

Understanding Genocide: The UN's Definition

The United Nations defines genocide as the deliberate and systematic extermination of a particular ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. This extermination can occur through several means, such as extensive killings, forced displacement, and the creation of living conditions that result in the group's significant mortality.

The UN identifies genocide by two main components:

Intent Component:

  • This involves the determination to annihilate, in whole or in part, a group identified by nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion.

Action Component:

  • This includes a range of acts specifically identified, which comprise:

  1. The murder of members of the group.

  2. Causing serious physical or psychological harm to group members.

  3. Intentionally creating living conditions designed to precipitate the group's complete or partial physical destruction.

The Significance of the Genocide Convention

The Genocide Convention, formally known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, represents a foundational piece of international law that established the legal framework for identifying and addressing genocide. Ratified by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948, it emerged as the first treaty focused on human rights, reflecting a global pledge to prevent future atrocities akin to those experienced during World War II. This landmark treaty marked a significant advancement in the field of international human rights and criminal law.

Key Aspects:

Definition and Application:

  • The convention categorizes genocide as a crime that can be committed in both wartime and peacetime settings.

Global Ratification:

  • Its ratification by the UN General Assembly in 1948 represents a worldwide agreement to combat and penalize acts of genocide.

Impact on Global Legal Practices:

  • The definition of genocide provided by the convention has been universally adopted and incorporated into national laws and international treaties, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) established in 1998.

Responsibilities of States:

  • States party to the convention are obligated to prevent and prosecute acts of genocide, necessitating the creation of domestic laws and the prosecution of offenders, regardless of their official capacity.

International Legal Standards:

  • The principles set forth by the convention, particularly the prohibition of genocide, are recognized as customary international law, obliging all states, even those not party to the convention.

India's Participation:

  • India ratified the Genocide Convention on August 27, 1959, affirming its dedication to the principles of preventing and punishing genocide.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) versus the International Criminal Court (ICC): Distinctions in Roles and Jurisdictions

The ICJ and the ICC serve distinct purposes within the international legal framework, with separate mandates, operational scopes, and legal jurisdictions. Below are the primary distinctions between these two courts:

Purpose and Foundation:

  • ICJ: Acts as the United Nations' main judicial branch, resolving legal disputes among nations and issuing advisory opinions, with its authority stemming from the United Nations Charter's "Statute of the International Court of Justice."

  • ICC: Functions as a permanent tribunal to try individuals for grave international offenses, founded on the "Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court," ratified in 1998, and operates under the Assembly of States Parties' oversight.

Jurisdictional Scope:

  • ICJ: Handles disputes between states, offers advisory opinions, and possesses a specific mandate to adjudicate certain cases involving individuals and international crimes.

  • ICC: Targets individuals accused of international crimes, stepping in when national jurisdictions are either incapable or unwilling to prosecute.

Case Types:

  • ICJ: Focuses on legal conflicts and advisory opinions, often dealing with state liability, border controversies, and the interpretation of agreements.

  • ICC: Charges individuals for severe crimes such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression.

Organizational Structure:

  • ICJ: Consists of 15 judges selected by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, with each judge serving a term of nine years.

  • ICC: Features a composition of judges, a prosecutor, and a registrar, with judges and the prosecutor elected by the Assembly of States Parties, and the registrar appointed by the judges.

Relevant Parties:

  • ICJ: Addresses disputes among states and specific advisory matters.

  • ICC: Concerns itself with prosecuting individuals responsible for committing severe international crimes.

Enforcement Mechanisms:

  • ICJ: Depends on states' voluntary adherence to its decisions, with the UN Security Council occasionally enforcing judgments.

  • ICC: Lacks an independent enforcement arm, relying instead on state cooperation for the apprehension and extradition of accused individuals.

Source of Authority:

  • ICJ: Draws its mandate from the "Statute of the International Court of Justice," a component of the UN Charter.

  • ICC: Gains its authority from the "Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court," established in 1998.

Efforts to Prevent Genocide in India:

International Commitments:

  • India has endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

  • Although India is a party to the UN Convention on Genocide, it currently lacks specific national legislation targeting genocide.

 Legal Framework in India:

  • The Indian Penal Code (IPC) encompasses provisions related to genocide and associated offenses. Specifically, Section 153B of the IPC criminalizes actions intended to incite discord among groups based on religion, race, birthplace, residence, or language, aiming to provoke riots or violence.

Constitutional Safeguards:

  • The Constitution of India, via Article 15, prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or birthplace.

  • Article 21 secures every individual's right to life and personal freedom.

Human Rights Legislation:

  • The Protection of Human Rights Act of 1993 led to the creation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and enables the establishment of State Human Rights Commissions.

Strategies for Genocide and War Crimes Prevention:

Addressing Fundamental Issues:

  • Combat prejudice, intolerance, racism, and discrimination.

  • Mitigate access disparities to essential resources as a key preventive measure.

Civilian Protection:

  • Focus on safeguarding civilians, particularly those targeted due to their identity.

  • UN peacekeeping forces are vital in providing physical protection to at-risk populations


  • Prosecute individuals responsible for genocide to enforce accountability.

  • Cultivate a preventive culture by setting a firm expectation of legal consequences for offenders.

 Early Warning Mechanisms:

  • Designate Special Advisers on Genocide Prevention to monitor and report on potential genocide or war crimes threats.

Proactive Measures:

  • Military intervention by UN Security Council decision when necessary.

  • Take collective, decisive action if peaceful means are exhausted and national protections are insufficient.

The case brought by South Africa against Israel at the ICJ regarding alleged genocide in Gaza underscores the importance of international legal mechanisms in addressing and preventing atrocities. The ICJ's decisions in this matter will not only affect the situation in Gaza but also influence how the international legal system is viewed and utilized globally.

Advait IAS