International Legal Rulings Are Helping Block Arms to Israel

The International Court of Justice’s ruling to prevent genocide in Gaza has triggered cutoffs and legal challenges to military cooperation with Israel. Despite its many problems, international lawmaking is hurting Israel’s ability to wage brutal war.

A view of Israel Defense Forces with ammunition in Sderot, Israel, on October 9, 2023. (Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The trouble with international law is that it’s always been a great idea. While in principle, everyone agrees it should be the universal standard that governs the way states behave, and politicians’ speeches the world over are littered with high-minded allusions to it, in practice, international law is selectively applied, ritually ignored, and often not actually enforced.

Still, because of the moral authority it carries, the shame of hypocrisy, and the treaty obligations of signatory states, international law can shape the behavior of states and even private actors. This has been on full display with the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) January 26 ruling that Israel is plausibly carrying out a genocide in Gaza, which has been both ignored and gone unenforced by the Israeli government and Washington, while also setting off a host of legal and political efforts to end the military campaign.

The first domino to fall was in Japan. Nine days after the ICJ’s ruling and the Japanese foreign ministry’s statement that it was “legally binding” and “should be fulfilled in good faith,” Japanese investment giant Itochu Corporation announced it was ending its collaboration with Israeli military contractor Elbit Systems. The decision ends a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the two firms in only March of last year.

“Taking into consideration the International Court of Justice’s order on January 26, and that the Japanese government supports the role of the Court, we have already suspended new activities related to the MOU, and plan to end the MOU by the end of February,” Itochu chief financial officer Tsuyoshi Hachimura explained.

That same day saw the local government of Belgium’s Walloon Region suspend two export licenses for gunpowder destined for Israel. Because the gunpowder wasn’t being supplied to the Israeli military, but was going to be processed and reexported back to the EU and to the United States, the exports actually complied with Walloon law, which along with two other regions banned the export of military equipment to Israel in 2009. Still, the ICJ ruling “and the unacceptable deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip” led the region’s center-left minister-president to suspend them anyway, his housing minister told the press.

More recently, a motion passed unanimously in Ireland’s Senate calling for sanctions on Israel and a ban on US weapons headed there passing through Irish airspace. The motion specifically cites the fact that the ICJ “ruled that Israel must punish those inciting genocide,” and that the court’s “imposition of provisional measures . . . means that Israel is credibly accused of committing genocide in Gaza and must take measures to prevent further damage while the case is ongoing.”

Meanwhile, at the start of this month, more than two-hundred legislators across thirteen countries — including the UK, Australia, France, and Canada — signed on to a letter organized by the Progressive International pledging to “take immediate and coordinated action in our respective legislatures to stop our countries from arming Israel.” The letter states that, because of the ICJ’s decision, “an arms embargo has moved beyond a moral necessity to become a legal requirement.” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) was the only US signatory.

The ruling may also have played a role in a Dutch court’s February 12 decision to similarly bar sending fighter jet parts to Israel from the Netherlands, on the basis that “there is a clear risk that the F-35 components exported to Israel will be used in committing serious violations of humanitarian law.”

The extent to which the ICJ ruling, which came after the appeal had already been heard, played a role in the decision is disputed. Lex Takkenberg, senior advisor with the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, a Jordanian human rights organization, told the New Arab that “the ICJ’s influence on the tribunal was undeniable, triggering a more sympathetic approach among judges and significantly influencing the Dutch court’s proceedings.”

Lawyers for the coalition of groups pushing the ban likewise told PBS that the Dutch judges likely had in mind the ICJ decision when issuing their own ruling. Dirk Jan Jalvingh, policy advisor on conflict and humanitarian response at Oxfam Novib, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit that led to the ban, told Jacobin that it may have “played a role in the broader context, but as far as we know it officially played no role and was not mentioned by the court in the considerations.”

Legal Challenges Looming

Elsewhere, in countries whose governments are staunchly behind Israel, the ICJ ruling is spurring legal action to curb continued official support for the war.

In the United Kingdom, Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq and the London-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) are appealing a high court’s February 19 decision to dismiss their case to suspend further British arms exports to Israel, charging the UK government was defying its own rules that arms exports licenses are barred if there was a “clear risk” weapons might end up being used to violate international law. GLAN senior lawyer Siobhán Allen has staked the groups’ appeal of the court’s decision partly on the fact that it “is difficult to reconcile with the interim ruling of the ICJ.”

It remains to be seen if the courts will agree. But the very real possibility that a court could block further weapons transfers from one of the top military exporters to Israel, and the potential role of the ICJ ruling in creating the domestic legal basis to do so, would be a fairly remarkable development  — one that would suggest international law isn’t quite as toothless as its critics charge.

And the UK is not the only place where this is a possibility. Just last week, Al-Haq was part of a similar coalition of human rights organizations — Oxfam Denmark, Amnesty International Denmark, and Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (Action Aid Denmark) — launching a lawsuit to halt further Danish arms shipments to Israel, again citing the ICJ ruling and the obligations it imposes on the government of Denmark.

Such moves have been lent further weight by major public statements that have come in the wake of the ruling. That includes EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s February remarks, that “if the international community believes that this is a slaughter . . . maybe they have to think about the provision of arms,” and the statement later that month by dozens of UN experts calling for transfers of weapons and ammunition to Israel to “cease immediately.” Both of those statements made reference to the ICJ ruling to back up their position.

Over in Canada, which has approved more than $28 million worth of military export permits to Israel since October 7, Al-Haq also teamed up with a group of Palestinian Canadians and human rights lawyers to sue the federal government over its Israel-bound exports of military equipment, on the grounds that they violate the country’s obligations under international law. They likewise cited the ICJ’s ruling, as did three Canadian law professors who in late January charged that the decision made Canada’s continued military exports illegal under its own laws and opened it up to liability for being complicit in genocide. So did the forty-five civil society organizations who signed an open letter to Canada’s foreign affairs minister declaring it was legally obligated to halt arms transfers.

Whatever happens with the lawsuit, all of this may have already spooked the Justin Trudeau government, which reportedly stopped issuing export permits for military equipment to Israel last month.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the ruling was center stage in an extraordinary ruling from a US federal court last month that agreed with the ICJ’s finding that “the current treatment of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military may plausibly constitute a genocide.” Though US district judge Jeffrey White ultimately dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction — there is long-standing US legal precedent that makes judges leery of stepping on the federal government’s toes when it comes to conduct of foreign policy — he implored the Biden administration to “examine the results of their unflagging support of the military siege against the Palestinians in Gaza,” and noted that this was not his “preferred outcome.” The case is now being appealed.

As the Canadian example demonstrates, a key piece of the puzzle in turning the ICJ ruling from words into tangible action in many of these countries has been bottom-up pressure. Itochu Corporation’s divestment was preceded by protests in Tokyo and chains in majority-Muslim Malaysia. The Walloon government’s decision to halt gunpowder exports came five days after an open letter from Amnesty International and other human rights groups pressuring it to abide by the ICJ ruling, which came on top of months more of grass-roots pressure.

Pointing to a Different World

Clearly, we are far from the kind of immediate and universally adhered-to global ban on continued military aid to Israel as demanded by the ICJ, let alone a world where a consistent, fair, and enforceable system of international law governs how states behave on the world stage. But that doesn’t mean that system and the ICJ ruling it underpins has had no effect on states’ policy toward the Israeli war — in fact, it has clearly had a tangible impact.

Thanks to a combination of public pressure, the obligations that being party to various human rights treaties creates for states under their own domestic legal systems, and the geopolitical implications of shame and embarrassment for those — particularly in North America and Europe — that have very loudly embraced international law when it’s proven convenient the last few years, the ICJ ruling has had notable real-world ripple effects on global military support for Israel’s war. This is true even if it still falls far short of what we would ideally expect to see in a world where international law truly reigned supreme.

It would be perverse to talk about a silver lining to Israel’s seemingly never-ending massacre of human beings in Gaza. But one of the few heartening things about the response to this horror is how it has strengthened the legitimacy and even enforceability of international law in more of the world’s eyes. This has come alongside, and likely couldn’t have happened without, the legal peril piling on Russia for the terrible things it has done to Ukraine, a peril considered real enough that Vladimir Putin has sharply limited his travel to avoid being slapped with an arrest warrant.

We’re still far from the world envisioned after the ruins of World War II. But as the world recoils from the horrors their own governments enable in Gaza, we’re starting to see faint glimmers of what it could look like.