South Africa is challenging the Western-led world order with its genocide case against Israel

By Abby Amoakuh

Published Feb 17, 2024 at 09:15 AM

Reading time: 6 minutes


Since birth, we’ve been told stories, stories about good and evil, right and wrong, heroes versus villains. These tales extend to the realm of states and nations, because states are, fundamentally, imagined communities, and nationalities are just ideas constructed and reinforced by governments. A central premise of political science is that a nation’s power does not only lie in its ability to control land and bodies but also in its capacity to control minds. This world is constructed mentally as much as it is physically and, for years, western governments have held the reins in forging the most dominant narratives that’ve shaped people’s worldviews.

However, recent events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war have triggered a significant shift in global power dynamics. The West’s control over historical and present narratives has been challenged, as its moral standing and commitment to international law have come under scrutiny. South Africa’s bold move to present a genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was not only meant to indict the Jewish state, it was meant to jumpstart an attempt to upend a whole Western-led world order.

After arguing its genocide case against Israel at the ICJ, South Africa won praise among pro-Palestinian activists globally. This was not just for highlighting human rights violations against Palestinians, but also for closing the gap between Palestinian reality and how the dominant political forces have always described it.

The war between the state of Israel and the militant group Hamas has so far killed approximately 27,708 Palestinians and 1,410 Israelis.

In the UK, over 70 per cent of the public support a ceasefire, a sentiment also shared by many prominent activists and human rights organisations in condemnation of the violence that they have witnessed in the past few months. Yet, this has not translated into political action, with both the reigning Conservative party and its main opposition, Labour, still advocating for humanitarian pauses instead.

Similarly, the UK has dismissed the genocide accusations brought against Israel, with Foreign Secretary David Cameron stating that the public should not “bandy” about the term. This position is in no way unusual for a Western government: the US, UK, Canada, Germany and others have also expressed similar opinions regarding the charges.

“All this does is reflect what supporters of Palestine have been told for years: your position is fringe. But this case gives them legitimacy—and tests the limits of human rights,” columnist Nesrine Malik commented in The Guardian.

The ongoing public outcries and growing opposition by eastern and southern governments to the war in the Middle East convey two things that I would like to focus on in this article. Firstly, that Western logic is wearing thin, revealing the hypocrisy and double standards of the West. Secondly, countries like South Africa are leveraging this situation to do something quite remarkable: break the spell of Western hegemony.

How was the West made?

A strong dissonance exists between the origins of the West and its self-portrayal. Western nations often depict themselves as morally superior, champions of law and order, and a “rules-based” global structure. They position themselves as the epitome of civilisation while overlooking and avoiding accountability for their historical actions.

Yet, the rest of the world has not forgotten how the West was made, according to journalist Tony Karon. Take the UK, for instance. British colonialism killed 100 million Indians between 1880 and 1920 and extracted around $45 trillion in wealth from the country, showing that Britain did not earn its current position. Its prosperity was violently taken through the oppression, subjugation and exploitation of several former colonies. While the country might not be proud of how it got here, its failure to consistently recognise and condemn these crimes against humanity built the cornerstone of what much of the global East and South perceives as Western hypocrisy.

The frustration over this duplicity has been brewing for decades and the Israel-Hamas war just brought it to a boiling point. A notable example was when India’s former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the Indian government wanted to “voluntarily” give up UK development funding in 2011, describing its size as “peanuts” in its buckets and voicing frustration about the images of poverty and deprivation that are consistently brought into association with the country. In 2022, India overtook the UK as the fifth-largest economy worldwide. However, Britain’s Department for International Development insisted that cancelling the programme would cause “grave political embarrassment” after exhaustive efforts to push it through parliament, according to sources in Delhi.

India ultimately reversed its decision. Nevertheless, this ordeal illustrates how the power dynamics of the global world order have shifted in the past few decades. Countries that have once been viewed as subordinate are getting tired of feeling patronised, spoken down to, and at worst, being villainised in our storytelling. Instead, they are seeking to renegotiate the current global order and their positioning in it.

Then, the Israel-Hamas war broke loose, beginning the latest installation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. To many, it became clear that Israel has been acting with near impunity for the last few decades, as many of its Western allies failed to hold it accountable for its war crimes.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US and its allies did not hesitate to condemn the act as imperialist aggression and penalised Russia for its breaches of international laws. US President Joe Biden even accused Russia of committing genocide: “Yes, I called it genocide because it’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being Ukrainian,” he stated in April 2022. “We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” the politician added.

However, when comparable reactions and sanctions remained absent during this war, countries like China, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and Iran emerged as the sharpest critics for what they perceived as a double standard. They became intent on discrediting the West, specifically the US, and eroding what was left of Western prestige.

“Many in the Global South see in Israel’s violence an echo of their historical brutalisation and humiliation at the hands of Western power,” Karon argues in The Nation.

It should be noted that I don’t completely agree with this point. To align Israel with Western colonialism is dangerous because it connects Jews to the very white European colonisers who prosecuted and murdered them by the millions for several centuries. And make no mistake by believing that the West views Israel as an equal. It is seen as a responsibility at best and a liability at worst.

Israel is not a Western power. However, backed by some of the strongest nations in the world, Israel is a vessel of Western power. And its military practices echo historical and present Western warfare. The Hamas attack on 7 October 2023 was described by some as Israel’s 9/11, referring to the terrorist attack on the US World Trade Centre in 2001. In accordance, Israeli officials have likened their military actions in urban areas to the post-9/11 wars against terrorism. Analysts even compared its bombing campaign to the mass bombings carried out by the US during the Vietnam War. Thus, it is not difficult to understand why its military offensive reproduces memories of a controversial past.

Yet this also shifts the ICJ case into a different light: it is not just about what is happening at present. It also seeks to confront and correct the past because it charges the nations standing behind Israel. This case asks whether the West’s superiority and its commitment to human rights infrastructure are real, or “just a theatre to be convened in the service of some international caste system,” while already predicting the answer. And with every statement that denies, downplays, or ignores human rights violations that have occurred, the West is dismantling its own house with the very same tools it built it with.

What will the new world order be about?

Now, it would be easy to believe that black-and-white stories are real and we are simply standing on the wrong side of them. However, this encourages one to flip the outdated narrative rather than dismiss it altogether. The new world order will not be about better morals.

South Africa itself was under increased scrutiny last year, after a US ambassador accused it of selling weapons to Russia, following joint military exercises the two BRICS countries performed together. Rather than sanctioning Russia for its invasion like most of the West did, South Africa deepened its economic and political ties to the federation, leading many to describe its foreign policy as inconsistent.

Iran, with all of its fiery rhetoric against Israel, was accused of incitement to genocide against the Jewish state in 2012 by the Genocide Watch after its former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for its destruction and suggested that Israeli Jews should be transferred to Germany and Austria. Hamas advocate Azerbaijan displaced 100,400 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, after widespread bombing and a nine-month-long blockade in September 2023. It was subsequently confronted with accusations of ethnic cleansing and breaking the Genocide Convention by EU lawmakers. Hamas on the other hand, congratulated Azerbaijan on its “victory” in Karabakh.

Likewise, Turkey’s criticism of Israel’s allies for tolerating its settlements and displacement of Palestinians contrasts with its ongoing illegal occupation of 37 per cent of the island of Cyprus. The “Turkish Republic of Cyprus” is the result of a military campaign that started in 1974 and displaced 162,000 Greek Cypriots within their own country. Turkey is also still engaging in the suppression of its Kurdish minority, with human rights organisations recording thousands of violations, including systematic executions, torture, forced displacements, destroyed villages, food blockages, and murdered and disappeared journalists as part of a conflict that has been ongoing since 1921.

The new world order will simply be about a triangle of power oscillating between the global West, the global East and the global South. This means that we should also expect more clashes between these regions of power because moral superiority might be exclusive to the West but moral ambiguity certainly is not.

When Israeli officials list examples like these, it is usually to trivialise their human rights violations and even imply that it would be antisemitic to deny Israel the right to behave as other countries have and still are. However, this is not what I am attempting to do here. Just like I am not trying to imply that global politics is built on alliances more so than it is built on morals. I am merely trying to introduce a new world order that will unfold a lot of complex and contradicting narratives going forward. 

And it might be for the best: while we always talk about checks and balances within a state, what I see emerging in the global order is stronger checks and balances between states. For the first time, we might be seeing meaningful opposition to the West and its storytelling.

It would be naive to think that this is the start of more peace and prosperity, as all sides seem quite uncommitted to the rule of law. However, if the ICJ plays its card right, we might be looking at more equality and justice.

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