Antiwar.com is pleased to announce the winners of its first-ever Student Essay Contest, held summer 2006. Today we present Jamie Stern-Weiner of the United Kingdom, 2nd place winner in the senior division.
Executive director, Antiwar.com
“Wherever Law ends, Tyranny begins.”
– John Locke
In principle, international law serves the same purpose for the world as traditional common law does for states. As with domestic societies, without a system of law that is both applied universally and enforced effectively, what you get is a world where the only law is the law of the jungle, where the strong prey on the weak and where might makes right. That is the world we live in today, effectively run as a dictatorship, where the powerful mold the world around them according to their interests using force and coercion where necessary. Unsurprisingly, then, the current international climate exhibits many of the features of a dictatorship. The strong are exempt from the rule of law and decide unilaterally whom the law should and should not apply to. The powerful are free to use violence and intimidation to coerce the weak into submission. The status quo is, unsurprisingly, extremely unpopular with the majority of the world a popular dictatorship is a rare thing. Dictatorship usually goes hand in hand with war because a dictator is primarily concerned with consolidating and expanding his power and, for the powerful, war is an extremely effective tool for furthering one’s own interests.
A strong and apolitical international justice system is, then, critical in the struggle for peace. Without such a system of international law, we are all leaving our collective fate in the hands of the powerful, hands that we can be sure are far from benign. Essentially, the crux of the problem is this: at the moment, if the powerful don’t want peace, there won’t be peace. There can be no better example of this than the Israel/Palestine conflict.
The Israeli occupation of the Palestinians has lasted nearly four decades, making it the longest illegal occupation in the world. Israel has occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967, when it captured them during the Six Day War. In the immediate aftermath of the ’67 war, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 242, later reinforced by Resolution 338, which emphasized the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and called upon Israel to “withdraw from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Israel has never complied with this resolution and occupies Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights to this day. It is a fundamental truth that the Israeli leadership is not interested in peace and hasn’t been for a long time. This, together with the fact that Israel is the regional superpower and is backed by the global superpower, has resulted in the continuation of the conflict.
A prime reason for this consistent Israeli rejectionism is a profound commitment to expansion, illustrated perfectly by the aftermath of the 1967 war. Israel emerged from the war victorious, and a feeling of invincibility among both the Israeli leadership and public meant Israel felt it had no need to return the territories it had acquired during the war. It had defeated the Arabs and assumed they would never again be able to pose a military threat to Israel. Why, then, should Israel return the territories?
Of course, many Israelis came later to rue the triumphalism of 1967 after Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the Sinai in exchange for peace with Egypt led directly to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. But the fundamental Israeli commitment to expansion has remained ever present, both before ’67 and after. Let’s take Israel’s “War of Independence” in 1948: the Palestinians call it by a different name, Nakba, or “catastrophe,” and for good reason. On May 14, 1948, the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel brought Israel into existence. But the Declaration’s apparent goodwill in appealing to “the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel” to “participate in the up-building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship” was belied by the subsequent Israeli-Arab war, which Israel used as an excuse to expel approximately 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. The refugees did not flee, as orthodox Israeli historians would have it, purely in response to requests from Arab governments. Rather, “[t]he bulk of the Palestinian refugees some 250,000-300,000 went into exile with the major precipitant being (Haganah/IDF or IZL) military attack or fears of such attack.” The United Nations General Assembly adopted, in December 1948, Resolution 194(III), which resolved that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” Israel refused to allow the refugees to return and continues to do so to this day. Because we have no universally enforced system of international law, Israel has been allowed to violate the Palestinian refugees’ legal rights for nearly 60 years.
Israel’s strategy is one of “endless negotiations,” whereby the “peace process” is protracted and stalled at every opportunity to allow Israel to continue the occupation while pretending to work for peace. Those who disagree point to the Oslo Accord of 1993 and the Camp David talks in 2000 to show that it is the Palestinians who have consistently rejected peace, not Israel. This objection is, however, misguided.
The 1993 Oslo Accord was primarily a “mandate for continued Israeli settlement programs” whose main outcome was to legitimize the Israeli occupation. After the Gulf War, the PLO was “on the verge of bankruptcy” and “in [a] weakened condition,” and Israel seized the chance to recruit them as “enforcers.” The Accord didn’t even mention the right to self-determination. It was a travesty of Palestinian rights. We can see precisely how Israel saw Oslo by its behavior in the years following it, when Israel continued to rapidly expand its illegal settlements in Palestinian Occupied Territory, in flagrant violation of UNSC Resolutions 452 and 465.
The Camp David negotiations of 2000 were as dedicated, on the Israeli side, to bringing about peace as the Oslo Accord was. There is this myth among many Israelis that at Camp David, Ehud Barak made huge concessions but the stubborn Palestinians rejected peace for violence. Nothing could be further from the truth, and all one has to do to see why is look at the “final status” map that Barak presented to the Palestinians in May 2000 and again at Camp David. It proposed a Palestinian sovereignty area of 66 percent of the West Bank, with Israel permanently annexing 25 percent and holding a further 14 percent under “temporary security control,” for periods of between 12 and 20 years. Furthermore, the West Bank would effectively be split up into three separate and de facto noncontiguous cantons, each with only limited access to East Jerusalem. The three Palestinian cantons were to be surrounded with Israeli checkpoints and military bases. The Palestinians were not offered East Jerusalem as their capital, as most Israelis, as well as the Palestinian delegation, were led to believe. In a cynical semantic trick, Israel offered the Palestinians al-Quds the Arabic word for Jerusalem as a capital, but in fact what Israel was referring to was the village of Abu Dis. The Palestinians could accept what was being offered, and Israel knew it. Barak’s aims at Camp David were not to negotiate peace but rather to appear to be trying to negotiate peace, making it look like it was the Palestinians who were blocking the way.
Camp David illustrates another important point Israel has never made any concessions regarding peace with the Palestinians because, unlike the Palestinians, Israel is not seeking peace. When Israel speaks of “concessions,” it does so in terms of what it wants. But if the discussion is framed in terms of what international law demands, it quickly emerges that, as Norman Finkelstein puts it, “On every single issue, all the concessions came from the Palestinians.” Under international law every single Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories is illegal, but the Palestinians were willing to allow Israel to keep 50 percent of its settlements. Under international law, Israel must withdraw completely to the 1967 “green line,” yet the Palestinians do not demand this; they are willing to make “minor” and “mutual” border adjustments. Lastly, on the refugee issue, international law is clear: every single one of the 5-6 million Palestinian refugees has the right to return to their homes inside of Israel. In fact, the Palestinians are only demanding that several hundred thousand be allowed to do so. At Camp David and at Taba, then, Israel made (in Finkelstein’s words) “precisely and exactly zero concessions.” It is the Palestinians who are in need of a “partner for peace,” not the other way around.
In 2002, the Arab League met at a summit in Beirut, the outcome of which was the Arab peace initiative. This was a huge development; the Arab states essentially offered Israel full normalization of relations “in the context of comprehensive peace” in return for Israel abiding by international law. It wasn’t perfect by any means it didn’t, for example, talk about water reserves but an Israel truly interested in peace would have jumped at it. Instead, Israel/U.S. dismissed and ignored the plan. Recently, after Israel’s aggression against Lebanon, the Arab League tried to inject some life back into the peace process by calling for a UNSC meeting to discuss a resumption of negotiations based on the 2002 Arab peace initiative. Once again, the proposal was met with U.S./Israeli rejectionism.
So, in 2006, almost 40 years since it began, the occupation is going strong. Israel is constructing an illegal “separation wall” to annex parts of the West Bank while continuing to expand its illegal settlements and has refused even to speak with the Hamas-led Palestinian government.
The Israeli occupation is just one example of the contempt power has for the law. This is inevitable because, while a system of international law exists, it is enforced selectively and ineffectively. A prime reason for this is that ever so undemocratic tool, the veto, through which the United Nations Security Council becomes a mere tool for the powerful to further their own interests. The United States has used the veto far more times than anyone else, often in order to protect Israel. It is this crucial diplomatic support that has enabled Israel to continue violating the law with impunity for so long. The principle judicial organ of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), is likewise politicized by the veto and at any rate is nonbinding. What this means in practice is that weak states have no legal protection against aggression by the powerful, as Nicaragua discovered to its dismay in 1986.
Thus, the current international climate is similar to one we would expect in a domestic society lacking an apolitical, effective justice system, complete with criminal cartels, military juntas, oppressive gangsters, and aggressive military machines, all financed by the wealthy elites who essentially run the world in their interests. Likewise, we have the oppressed, the murdered, the occupied, and the abused that come with it. This system benefits an elite few and dooms the rest of us to, at best, manipulation and complicity in oppression or at worst, brutal victimization by those stronger than us. Those interested in equality, freedom, and elementary morality cannot support such a hierarchical system founded on and maintained through violence and oppression. An effective, universal criminal justice system is an absolute prerequisite for global democracy and peace, and that requires a complete reform of the UN and other international institutions. A grassroots intervention is required to force those in power to introduce the institutions necessary to protect people everywhere from the dictates of power because they will certainly not do it themselves. Equality is not in their interests. In reality, despite what they would have people believe, the current status quo is incredibly vulnerable, relying as it does on the acquiescence and silence of the masses. Those interested in justice and peace should let them know they can rely on this no longer.