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On Gaza, Australia Should Show That Respect for International Humanitarian Law is Not Selective

25 Oct 2023
By Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh and Dr Arif Saba
Riad Al-Malki, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the State of Palestine,
addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question 24 October, 2023. Source: United Nations /

Australia should stay true to its track record of promoting the international rule of law and counsel Israel to show restraint in Gaza. Only by adhering to the norms of humanitarian law, can the ongoing bloodshed by aborted. 

Many Australians were rightly shocked by the atrocities of 7 October, following Hamas’ murder of more than 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, and the kidnapping more than 200 persons to hold hostage. Foreign Minister Penny Wong was quick to unequivocally condemn the attack. As Israel embarked on its military operation to destroy Hamas in subsequent days, Australia called for restraint to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, while endorsing Israel’s right to defend itself.

The right to self-defence is a cornerstone of statehood and international law, enshrined in the UN Charter. There is no question that Israel, like any other state, has the right to defend itself. But the right to self-defence is not a carte blanch to bomb Gaza into the stone age. As with all rights, this right has its limits: the ones set by international law and, in particular, international humanitarian law.

Israeli military conduct is a challenge to the rules of engagement set in the Geneva Convention and Rome Statute, two institutions that explicitly forbid harm to civilian populations. Justifying Israeli miliary operations in Gaza, as well as “outdoing” such crimes along the way, will find no legal cover. Yet that is exactly how the Israeli action is justified. Israel’s Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant did not mince words on such actions: “I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed.” He continued, “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” The Israeli war on Gaza meets the textbook definition of war crimes as per article 8(2)(b)(xxv) of the Rome Statute that led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court in the hopeful epoch of 1990s.

The rapidly unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is a test for Australian statecraft. Australia has been a good international citizen, and is committed to a rules-based international order. It has actively contributed to the expansion of international law and has an impressive track record in the creation of new instruments to promote and protect fundamental human rights. In the early 2000s, Australia’s Foreign Minister Gareth Evans played a leading role in the development of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine – an international norm adopted by the United Nations to protect populations from war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Will Australia stay true to its principled advocacy for the rule of law and protection of civilians from mass atrocity crimes?

There is scope for Australia to advocate for a humanitarian ceasefire to allow the shipment of badly needed water, medicine, and food to the 2.2 million people trapped in Gaza. This would be an important reminder to Australia’s allies, and adversaries alike, that the nation stands for a rules-based international order, an important message for the Biden administration.

The United States appears oblivious to the tragedy unfolding in Gaza. On 18 October it vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have called for a “humanitarian pause” to deliver lifesaving aid to Gaza, effectively allowing Israel to continue its aerial bombardment, an action that has killed at least 4,700 people, according to the Spectator Index, and mostly women and children. Australia is a reliable friend to the United States and Israel and can lean on its good offices to lobby for a pause and reprieve for the civilian population in Gaza, at the very least. It can and should also call on the Israeli government to abide by the laws of the war.

Stakes are very high. For the trapped civilian population in Gaza, it is a matter of life or death. For Australia and its allies, it’s a matter of international credibility and a test of their commitment to a rules-based international order. How can Australian’s expect international rules to be respected in other scenarios, if Canberra is not prepared to stand up for them now? The same moral strength that enabled Canberra to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and its many violations of international humanitarian law, can be used to denounce other atrocities. Failing to do so would strengthen the perception, among both our friends and foes, of Australian hypocrisy and double standards in the application of international law. Such perception is already evident among our friends in the Arab world. Speaking at the Cairo Summit for Peace this last Saturday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said this:

Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water, electricity, and basic necessities would be condemned. Accountability would be enforced, immediately, unequivocally.

And it has been done before—recently, in another conflict.

But not in Gaza.

Yet the message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional. And human rights have boundaries—they stop at borders, they stop at races, and they stop at religions.

That is a very, very dangerous message, as the consequences of continued international apathy and inaction will be catastrophic—on us all.

The UN has called the situation in Gaza a “catastrophic” humanitarian crisis. Now is the time for Australia to fulfil its commitment to a rules-based international order by calling for a humanitarian ceasefire and an immediate, unconditional access to humanitarian assistance for the besieged population in Gaza. Now is the time for Australia to demonstrate its moral strength in denouncing grave breaches of international law irrespective of where they occur and by whom.

Prof Shahram Akbarzadeh is Convenor of the Middle East Studies Forum (MESF) and Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University.  @S_Akbarzadeh

Dr Arif Saba is Associate Research Fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. @ArifSaba

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.