What is most remarkable about the International Court of Justice decision on Israel’s ”security barrier” in the West Bank is the strength of the consensus behind it. By a vote of 14-1, the 15 distinguished jurists who make up the highest judicial body on the planet found that the barrier is illegal under international law and that Israel must dismantle it, as well as compensate Palestinians for damage to their property resulting from the barrier’s construction.
The International Court of Justice has very rarely reached this degree of unanimity in big cases. The July 9 decision was even supported by the generally conservative British judge Rosalyn Higgins, whose intellectual force is widely admired in the United States.
One might expect the government of Ariel Sharon to wave off this notable consensus as an ”immoral and dangerous opinion.” But one might expect the United States — even as it backed its ally Israel — at least to take account of the court’s reasoning in its criticisms. Instead, both the Bush administration and leading Democrats, including Senators John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, mindlessly rejected the decision.
Even the American justice in The Hague, Thomas Buergenthal, was careful in his lone dissent. He argued that the court did not fully explore Israel’s contention that the wall-and-fence complex is necessary for its security before arriving at its sweeping legal conclusions. But Judge Buergenthal also indicated that Israel was bound to adhere to international humanitarian law, that the Palestinians were entitled to exercise their right of self-determination and, insofar as the wall was built to protect Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that he had “serious doubt that the wall would. . .satisfy the proportionality requirement to qualify as legitimate self-defense.”
The nuance in Buergenthal’s narrow dissent contrasts sharply with, for instance, Kerry’s categorical statement that Israel’s barrier “is not a matter for the ICJ.”
To the contrary, Israel’s construction of the wall in the West Bank has flagrantly violated clear standards in international law. The clarity of the violations accounts for the willingness of the U.N. General Assembly to request an advisory opinion on the wall from the court, a right it has never previously exercised in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The clarity also helps to explain Israel’s refusal to participate in the ICJ proceedings — not even to present its claim that the barrier under construction has already reduced the incidence of suicide bombing by as much as 90 percent.
Significantly, the court confirms that Israel is entitled to build a wall to defend itself from threats emanating from the Palestinian territories if it builds the barrier on its own territory. The justices based their objection to the wall on its location within occupied Palestinian territories, as well as the consequent suffering visited upon affected Palestinians.
If Israel had erected the wall on its side of the boundary of Israel prior to the 1967 war, then it would not have encroached on Palestinian legal rights. The court’s logic assumes the unconditional applicability of international humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, to Israel’s administration of the West Bank and Gaza (a principle affirmed by Judge Buergenthal). That body of law obliges Israel to respect the property rights of Palestinians without qualification, and to avoid altering the character of the territory, including by population transfer.
The decision creates a clear mandate. The ICJ decision, by a vote of 13-2, imposes upon all states an obligation not to recognize ”the illegal situation” created by the construction of the wall. This is supplemented by a 14-1 vote urging the General Assembly and Security Council to “consider what further action is required to bring an end to the illegal situation.”
Such a plain-spoken ruling from the characteristically cautious International Court of Justice will test the respect accorded international law, including U.S. willingness to support international law despite a ruling against its ally. The invasion of Iraq and the continuing scandals have already tarnished the reputation of the United States as a law-abiding member of the international community. When U.S. officials dismiss the nearly unanimous ICJ decision without even bothering to engage its arguments, America’s reputation suffers further. In fact, elsewhere in the world, U.S. repudiation of this decision can only entrench existing views of America as an international outlaw.
Richard Falk is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton University, and is chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.