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It’s A Facade: The Symbolism of International Law

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, focused a significant part of his career on the value and psychological interpretation of symbols; he was fascinated by the way in which symbols emerge and are reproduced. What would Jung have made then of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to seek an arrest warrant for Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minister Yoav Gallant?


As Chief Prosecutor, Karim Khan, addressed the world and called for Netanyahu to face accountability for a myriad of accusations, including the use of starvation as a method of warfare; intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population as a war crime; and acts of extermination, it seemed almost futile. It is clear we will never see Mr Netanyahu or Mr Gallant on trial for their actions (or inactions), so what then is the point and why does this matter? 


There are two key points of interest here. Firstly, the decision of the ICC matters in the sense that it reveals something about the way in which geopolitics is conducted. It not only reveals the façade of international law, but also the lengths to which the United States will go to support Israel. Mr Biden appears to be entangling himself in a complex web of knots over Israel, and his famously strong support of Israel and decades long friendship with Mr Netanyahu has been tested to breaking point in the past seven months. 


On the one hand, Biden is in an election year; the spectre of Trump looms over him with an ominously familiar twang and pointing finger. The Republican attack dogs sense Biden is now not only appearing more and more confused before an impatient electorate, but that this confusion has manifested itself in his policy on Israel. Netenyahu’s government is no longer listening to Joe Biden. This is a grave concern, as the impending ground assault on Rafah seems inevitable. Biden not only appears to be unable to stop Israel from committing more atrocities, but outright unwilling to condemn them for doing so. As a consequence, he risks alienating the left of his own Democrat Party and fracturing the left-leaning vote in November between himself and Robert Kennedy Jr. 


Biden has attacked the ruling by the ICC, labelling it ‘outrageous’ and arguing that what is occurring in Gaza does not constitute genocide. I fear history will not look kindly on Biden’s appraisal. It appears incompatible with reason that the Biden Administration can publish a detailed report on Friday  May 11 which clearly stated that it was, and I quote, “reasonable to assess that defence articles have been used by Israeli security forces since October 7 in instances inconsistent with its international humanitarian law obligations”, and then on May 20  double down on supporting the Israeli conduct of war and criticise the ICC. 


What the ICC arrest warrants illustrate, as in 2023 when Putin’s arrest warrant was issued, was the illusion of international law. It is merely a story we tell ourselves to satisfy the intellectual mind; but even though it is unenforceable and unworkable, it really does matter a great deal. I began this piece by talking of Jung and his symbols – for me, that is how international law acts at its best and in its current form.  


It is the symbolism of Netanyahu and Gallant receiving calls for their arrest by an international organisation built on the principles of justice and equality. Politics is really all symbolism; it’s the spinning of a story, the framing of a problem, or the setting of the agenda. Politics is all about perception: how do we understand problems in our society, who do we blame and how can we fix them? Symbols are important because they define our sense of being and our identity whether we are conscious of it or not. Our place in the world and our happiness stems from a complex social understanding of our perceived place within that world. It is the perception that is King. 


The symbolism of Netanyahu and Gallant’s arrest warrants matters for Palestinians, it matters for the families of those who have lost loved ones, and it matters for those suffering. It is a symbol that the international world order is beginning to wake up to the horrors occurring in Gaza. It is a symbol which vindicates those who protest from Washington to Whitehall. It is a symbol that vindicates and acknowledges the suffering of the Palestinian people and illustrates the failure of the West’s response.  


And yet, despite this, it is just a symbol, but symbols are often the first step on the long road to material consequence, and whilst I have no faith in the material reality of international law, I believe this move by the ICC will put more public pressure on the likes of Rishi Sunak, Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz to distance themselves from crimes against humanity being committed in Gaza. 

Image: justflix

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