Johannesburg, South Africa — In a carefully worded response this week, China voiced its support of the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, or ICJ, ruling that orders Israel to desist from the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. Experts tell VOA that privately China has reservations about the use of such courts to deal with allegations of genocide, which could have awkward implications for Beijing.
“We hope that the ICJ’s provisional measures can be effectively implemented,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin when asked about the issue at a regular press conference on Monday. While the EU and U.S. reacted almost immediately to Friday’s ruling in The Hague, Wang’s comments were the first from a previously taciturn Beijing and came in response to a question from state broadcaster CCTV.
“We condemn all acts against civilians and oppose all moves that violate international law. China urges parties to the conflict to realize a comprehensive cease-fire at once, abide by the international humanitarian law,” he said.
South Africa’s case
It was the South African government — a longtime supporter of the Palestinian cause — that asked the ICJ to investigate whether Israel was committing genocide in the war in Gaza, which began in response to an attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
While a final ruling on whether genocide has indeed been committed is years down the road, the court announced provisional measures in the case last week. A majority of the judges — including a Chinese judge — ruled that South Africa had a plausible case and that Israel must now take every measure to avoid causing deaths in Gaza.
Israel has slammed allegations of genocide, and President Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the court’s order by vowing to continue the war. Israel’s key ally, the United States, played down the ruling and noted it did not call for a cease-fire. But experts said the damning nature of the ruling was embarrassing for both democracies, which are proponents of international law.
South Africa — which has a close relationship with China — hailed the ruling as a win for the so-called Global South, of which Beijing sees itself as a leader.
Israel and the U.S. are both members of the ICJ, whose rules are binding. However, there is no enforcement mechanism, so sometimes — as in the case of the court’s 2022 ruling that Russia must exit Ukraine — its orders are ignored.
Usually, China is quick to point out anything it sees as U.S. hypocrisy, but on this issue Beijing has remained tight-lipped. Some experts think that is because Beijing is afraid of the precedent it could set.
“I think China is using the ICJ decision to push for de-escalation. But it made no mentioning of genocide and called the decision a ‘temporary measure,’” Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, told VOA.
“‘Genocide’ is a sensitive word for China, and I doubt China wants to set the precedent that it can be declared and imposed on a sovereign country,” she said.
Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, echoed this view.
“They are privately very worried about precedent,” he wrote to VOA. “It is very possible for a state that is not directly affected by the goings on in Xinjiang to bring a case at the ICJ.”
Nantulya was referring to China’s policies regarding the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. The United Nations and rights groups have accused Beijing of persecuting the minority group, which, evidence has shown, is subjected to torture, sexual violence and mass arbitrary detention in camps.
In 2022, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported China’s counterterrorism policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
Lawyers representing Uyghurs in exile filed a case with another global judicial body, the International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2020. They accused senior Chinese leaders of genocide, but the ICC said it could not hear the case because the alleged crimes happened in China, which — like the U.S. — is not a party to the court.
The lawyers have argued the ICC should still take up the case given evidence of Beijing’s efforts to round up Uyghurs in neighboring countries that are members of the court.
However, unlike with the ICC, even a state that is not party to a conflict can bring charges against another state at the ICJ if they are both members of the court — as are South Africa and Israel.
South Africa was the second country to use the court this way, after West African state Gambia filed a genocide case against Myanmar over its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.
In 2022, the ICJ set a precedent by ruling it would hear Gambia’s case on the basis that all parties to the Genocide Convention have an interest in ensuring the prevention of genocide anywhere in the world.
“I don’t think this sits easily with the Chinese side,” Nantulya said, given that China is an ICJ member.
Therefore, he said, Beijing is unlikely to chide Israel, and by association the U.S., over any noncompliance. “Softly, softly will be their approach.”
Cobus van Staden, an analyst with the South African Institute for International Affairs, told VOA he thinks China shares South Africa’s position overall on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Where I think they become more cautious is around the international institution aspect … and obviously they are wary of those tools kind of being turned against them,” he said.
Jonathan Hafetz, professor of law at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, likewise noted China’s “reticence in accepting the jurisdiction of international tribunals.” However, he said it was a reticence “shared by other major global powers, including the United States.”