Gaza Reveals Cracks in the West’s Ideals of Justice

As violence in Gaza rages on with increasingly devastating impacts on Palestinian civilians, Western nations have been slow on the uptake to condemn Israel’s recent raids and, more importantly, enact meaningful policies to improve the situation. According to figures reported by OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) on December 14th, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has killed over 18,700 Palestinians since October 7, with 70% being women or children. 


Despite claiming to support international law and liberal values, the West has downplayed the possible war crimes committed by the Israeli military and continues to support Israel’s disproportionate retaliations as justified self-defence. This undermines the authority of international law, imperils the West’s moral leadership, and hands powerful propaganda ammunition to China and Russia. 


Consistency from Western democracies in upholding international law is essential to regain moral authority in the eyes of the Global South. The West’s espoused liberal order already seems tarnished to many outside observers. Redeeming liberal ideals and ceasing further disruption of international law requires consistent condemnation of Israel’s disproportionate self-defence actions in Gaza and ending military aid that risks complicity in war crimes.


The US, a staunch ally of Israel, vetoed a UN call for a humanitarian ceasefire, and the UK abstained from the vote, potentially eschewing international law and obligations. This is true as states are obligated not to recognise war crimes as lawful or offer assistance, by Article 41(2) of Draft Articles on State Responsibility, adopted by the International Law Commission (ILC). The UN Independent Commission claimed Israel’s recent Gaza blockade depriving civilians of necessities constitutes collective punishment, which is a war crime. The UN Human Rights Office said Israeli attacks caused a high number of casualties and the scale of destruction “could amount to war crimes”. This sentiment was echoed in an open letter signed by 1,082 legal experts in the UK. 


In contrast, given the mounting death toll, many countries in the Global South were quick to condemn Israel’s military actions. In early November, Bolivia cut ties with Israel, whilst Colombia and Chile recalled their ambassadors. Chile’s President Gabriel Boric explicitly censured Israel’s military actions as warranting “our clearest condemnation” despite meeting Biden days later. Both South Africa and the Arab League called the conflict a “collective punishment” and recalled envoys from Tel Aviv in protest.


Hamas’ attacks targeting and terrorising Israeli civilians have been widely and rightly condemned as acts of terrorism by the West. However, Israel’s strikes that are de facto terrorising the Gazan civilian population received far less Western condemnation. The recent BRICS Summit Declaration explicitly criticised the West’s “double standards” in human rights and counter-terrorism. As argued by former humanitarian practitioners, alongside Arabian and African commentators, this double standard dehumanises Palestinians and delegitimises their struggles. In an anonymous interview with Reuters, an African diplomat said, “They lost credibility with the veto. What is good enough for Ukraine is not good enough for Palestine,” encapsulating sentiments of double standards. 


This comparison between Ukraine and Gaza makes sense. Though the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s Gaza strikes differ in origins, both conflicts are characterised by severe civilian suffering, with thousands dead and injured.  An Israeli study reveals civilian death ratios in Gaza airstrikes since 2012 have averaged around 40%, exceeding historical norms in wartime air campaigns. Western nations swiftly lambasted Russia’s bombing of Ukrainian civilians as potential war crimes, but reactions to the more rapidly increasing civilian casualties in Gaza are far more restrained. For outsiders, it seems that Palestinian lives matter less than those of Ukrainians.


Putting reactions to two wars together, as illustrated in the map drawn by the Wall Street Journal, voting patterns at the United Nations reveal a divide: whereas Western nations predominantly condemn Russia over Ukraine, Global South countries are either condemning both Israel and Russia or criticising Israel solely (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Divergent Perspectives between the West and Global South 


While it can be argued double standards exist in non-Western countries as well and probably even more so,  Western hypocrisy hands propaganda victories to US rivals like Russia and China in their crusade to undermine the credibility of America and its allies. The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, Global Times, argues that the Gaza conflict “provides new opportunities for China and Russia to ‘reform the existing international order’. [...]  The US and Europe have significantly weakened their capacity to uphold the existing world order. [...] [The current order] is essentially a distribution of power and interests led by the US.” Nonetheless, the presumed alternative – a multipolar order led by China and Russia – seems unlikely to prove more just or moral. As Indian activist Kavita Krishnan presciently noted, for many marginalised peoples, multipolarity now signifies “multi-imperialism” rather than genuine democratisation.


In light of recent protests in the UK, listening to the wider population and confronting hypocrisy could catalyse meaningful reform. As Paulo Matias Spektor, Professor of International Relations at FGV in Brazil, argues, accusations of double standards force self-examination and realignment of lofty words with actual deeds. A selective adherence to international law only bolsters perceptions of it being expediently used by Western powers to maintain their privileged status rather than fulfilling universal obligations. 


The consistent upholding of international law and human rights is indispensable to regain the credibility of the West in the sceptical Global South. In addressing the crisis in Gaza, the international law regarding proportionality, indiscriminate harm, and civilian harm must be respected. On Dec 12, President Biden criticised Israel over its “indiscriminate bombing,” but there should be a more unequivocal condemnation of Israel’s law-breaking retaliation, votes for an immediate ceasefire in the UN, and an immediate cessation of weapon exports to Israel before we can say that the fundamental rights of innocent Palestinian civilians are being upheld.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.