By Rudy Barnes, Jr.,
Standards of legitimacy define what is right, and include values, moral standards and the law. Religions are the primary source of values, and the moral standards of political legitimacy vary among nations. While nations define their own laws, universal treaties define humanitarian law and the Law of War (LOW) that binds all nations to those treaties.
The wars in Israel and Ukraine are testing the effectiveness of LOW and international humanitarian law treaties to which all nations, including Israel, Russia and Ukraine are parties. Those treaties have a religious foundation in the The Just war Tradition, with its roots in Christianity; and South Africa has already brought an action against Israel for genocide.
Moral standards and values cannot be enforced as law, but churches should emphasize the altruistic moral imperatives taught by Jesus that are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves. It provides essential standards of political legitimacy for all democracies.
The greatest commandment was taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith. It should be a universal moral imperative, but nationalist aggression in Ukraine and Israel are egregious violations of the universal standards of humanitarian law and LOW that have made world peace wishful thinking.
The effectiveness of international law depends on its universal acceptance. Following the defeat of Hitler’s Nazis in WWII, all nations, including Russia and Israel, became signatories to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that outlaw aggressive warfare. Without the restrictions of the Geneva Conventions, might would make right.
Russia’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine and Israel’s wanton destruction of civilian property in Gaza are unlawful aggression seeking to gain territory and power. While South Africa has filed an action against Israel for genocide and destroying Palestinian homes and hospitals, no action has yet been brought against Russia for its war crimes in Ukraine.
Netanyahu’s IDF continues to strike civilian targets in Gaza and has killed over 22,000 Palestinians. It’s reminiscent of Joshua’s genocide at Jericho and the purge of non-Jews in Israel after the Babylonian exile. Last week the Israeli Finance Minister called for Palestinians to leave Gaza to make room for more Jews. It’s an echo of Hitler’s 1934 Anschluss in Austria.
The nationalist aggression of Russia and Israel are challenging universal standards of humanitarian law and LOW needed for peace. The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin’s aggression to restore Ukraine to Russia, while America is sending mixed signals on Netanyahu’s aggressive Zionism in Gaza and on aid to Ukraine. With 2024 being an election year, it promises even more volatile issues in religion, legitimacy and politics.
US double standards on Israel and Russia are playing into a dangerous game: “Joe Biden’s decision to defend Israel’s methods in Gaza so soon after, in a different context, condemning Russia’s in Ukraine, is not just an occasion for hand wringing from liberals and lawyers. It is already having a real-world impact on relations between the global north and south, and west and east, creating consequences that could reverberate for decades. The Biden administration, reluctant to change course, may say the parallels between Gaza and Ukraine are far from exact, but it also seems to know it is gradually losing diplomatic support. When the US and Israel are joined at the UN general assembly by only eight other nations, including Micronesia and Nauru, as happened when they rejected a ceasefire resolution for Gaza this December, it is harder to argue that America remains the indispensable nation – a phrase from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright frequently referenced by Biden. By contrast, Vladimir Putin, after a period of his own global isolation, “really feels everything at this point is trending in his favour”, according to Fiona Hill, the former US state department official specialising in Russia.
Putin’s invasion and destruction of Ukrainian cities was not an act of self-defence. It was not a response to a specific outrage in which Ukrainian forces had crossed into Russia and massacred young party-going Russians. It was a Russian assertion of empire and its sphere of influence. But once the bombed-out buildings of Gaza get juxtaposed on social media alongside those of Mariupol on social media, it gets more complex. The issue of proportionality comes into play. The Israeli response looks closer to the US post-9/11 revenge, which Biden had specifically counselled Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, against. After two months of destruction in Gaza, the US state department has said it sees no need to begin any formal internal examination of whether Israel has committed war crimes, even though the weapons it has been using were supplied by the US, and by some counts more civilians were killed in Gaza in two months than were killed in Ukraine more than two years.
Even the news that unguided dumb bombs had been used in almost half of the Israeli strikes, or that the president himself said he feared the bombing was indiscriminate, led the State Department to say it felt the need to conduct a formal investigation into breaches of humanitarian law. A cursory journey round the world reveals the impact this has had. The US, whether it likes it or not, risks becoming synonymous with double standards.
So what comes next?
Putin feels he already knows. He recently told a group of new diplomats: “The world is undergoing cardinal transformation. The underlying change is that the former unipolar world system is being replaced by a new, more just, multipolar world order. By trying to dominate the diplomacy around Israel, and exclude other countries, Biden showed he did not understand the world being forged, he argued. Putin hopes all he has to do is encourage some sanctions busting, and wait for 5 November 2024 – US election day – when Donald Trump could be re-elected. Trump’s pledge to “end the war in 24 hours” is widely seen as requiring a significant loss of Ukrainian territory to Russia. To prove Putin wrong, and to protect himself, Biden occasionally seems to realise he needs the Gaza war to end and this requires ending his self-defeating unconditional support for Netanyahu. For the moment they give the impression of an administration slowly realising the limits of their ability to direct not just the outcome of this war, but what global order will come in its aftermath. Only the memoirs will reveal how much senior figures in the Biden administration feared, in real time, about the scale of the cumulative reputational damage being inflicted not just on Biden but to American prestige. For the moment they give the impression of an administration slowly realising the limits of their ability to direct not just the outcome of this war, but what global order will come in its aftermath.” See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/dec/26/why-us-double-standards-on-israel-and-russia-play-into-a-dangerous-game.
On South Africa filing a Case at ICJ accusing Israel of genocidal acts in Gaza, see https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/29/south-africa-files-case-at-icj-accusing-israel-of-genocidal-acts-in-gaza#:
On Israeli minister reiterating calls for Palestinians to leave Gaza, see https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/31/israeli-minister-reiter.
On Israel saying war in Gaza is expected to continue throughout 2024, see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67855117.
On Israel’s Supreme Court overturning a key component of Netanyahu’s polarizing judicial overhaul, see https://apnews.com/article/israel-supreme-court-judicial-overhaul-78733a94428b8b9f2c311ee6779eba23.