The situation in the Middle East is nothing short of a tragedy.
With the amount of civilians dying and communities being destroyed, I posed the question this morning: How can continued military action in Gaza still be deemed legitimate?
It’s this question that highlights so much that is wrong with international law. The right to sovereignty is a paradox; a nation-state has a right to defend itself and its borders, but these can often conflict with the rights of the individual in the same geographical area.
Israel, for instance, to one eye is currently acting by international law in its right to defend itself against terror imposed by Hamas… yet the rights of the individuals in Gaza against war crimes are now compromised by the actions of the same state (and, therefore, breaking international law). This is almost without doubt now that areas in which civilians were directed to in the south of Gaza to avoid conflict have now been targeted.
International law isn’t like the laws we have at home. It isn’t in black-and-white for a judge and jury to decide your fate if you break the law. There’s no judge and jury and, even when a state breaks the law, it can be deemed ‘legitimate’ on certain grounds (and, therefore, in line with international law).
Confusing? Aye. The whole thing is essentially open to interpretation, and this was made sure of by countries like Britain and America with various military interventions such as and from Kosovo (a country in which military action was deemed ‘illegal but legitimate’ by the Independent International Commission on Kosovo in 2000).
Why? Well, we have a Security Council (the closest thing to an acting jury on these matters) in which members have permanent membership and a right to veto any decision. Members include China and Russia, who are often not on the same page as countries in the West.
Anyways, I could go on all day about the problems we have with the structures we have in place to make decisions in scenarios such as what’s happening in the Middle East… instead, I’ll get to the point of why the problematic nature of these structures can be explained in a gendered perspective.
Movements right across the globe are currently underway with 16 Days of Activism to challenge violence against women and girls. I wanted to highlight the conflict in Gaza because there’s now no better time to remind ourselves that women are often the forgotten victims of war. As civilians, the majority of whom are women and children, are raped, murdered and displaced from their homes, we are reminded of another brutal reality which aptly fits an age-old pattern of men committing violence against women. All are supplemented by structures, imposed by powerful men, who don’t do nearly enough to break this cycle.
You might’ve heard of ‘structural’ or ‘institutionalised’ misogyny… the implementation of international law is another stark example of this.
How can I say this with such conviction? Well, let’s take the example of this grey area surrounding state rights vs individual rights in international law…
This ambiguity was more formalised than ever when the language started to change amid military interventions like in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. A charge led by white males, such as Blair and Bush, for anyone keeping score.
We used to be able to cite the UN Charter with absolute clarity... in the aftermath of WW2, nations agreed that military interventions across state borders were strictly forbidden. Nowadays, world leaders give precedence to the rights of individuals by saying there is a moral responsibility to ‘protect’ civilians from various war crimes.
This development was formalised and widely recognised by nation-states across the globe after the ‘Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’ added the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) into the archive of international law. A global commitment, endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly, to protecting individuals across the globe from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Sound good? It often does until ulterior motives take over and we see the tragic consequences of war actually does. Oil contracts signed by the American state in Iraq whilst hundreds of thousands people died is the often-cited example here.
The Commission were careful to distance themselves from the war in Iraq… but anyone who can read will be able to see the identical language that used by Blair and Bush just months before to justify that war.
Especially given the same language is then used by Britain to justify interventions in countries like Libya and Syria… or the fact that every citation of R2P to date has been in reference to military actions (at least partly) implemented by the USA.
The Commission was a non-elected committee, by the way, that tasked itself with restoring order to the balance of power within the international community.
It had 12 members… guess how many were women?
Tables in which men are tasking themselves to formally justify war and conflict in which innocent civilians are disposable for greater ends. Literally self-entitled authority to commit violence against women.
Not only does the language used normalise a culture of violence, it also further legitimising violence as a means of solving conflict… all the while doing nothing to break this age-old narrative of the strong, powerful men looking after and protecting 'vulnerable' others.
Narratives which, by the way, do not happen by accident. Whether the men in question are conscious of this or not.
All done without election. In other words, an assumed authority. Without question.
This will speak volumes to so many victims of gender-based violence.
Surely it would be up to peacemakers to decide how international order is balanced out. And if this is the case, with feminism so closely rooted in pacificism, why are women so chronically underrepresented at these tables? Why are powerful men, with grand track records in initiating violence, making such decisions?
Again, these continuums don’t happen by accident.
There will be many lessons learned from the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.
At the macro-political level… what’s absolutely necessary is a rethink of international law. One that’s grounded in democracy and power from the bottom upwards.
At the level of our own thoughts and feelings, our hearts will ache when we think of the civilians in Israel and Palestine who have lost their lives. We’ll think… how can we ensure conflicts like this stop happening?
But at any level of dealing with recurring violence, we need to look inward.
What allows this behaviour? Why does it happen? What can I do about it? How can my community do better? What behaviours need to change?
Until we own up to our own contributions to society nothing will change. Powerful men will continue to instil their authority on conflicts around the world, in which innocent women and children are deemed disposable, unless we all try and break down these structures that allow institutionalised misogyny.
Because when you widen the lens, the implementation of international law in Gaza is another instance of structural gender-based violence.