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Cowardice as a principle of foreign policy - what on earth are they thinking?

By Stuart Rees - posted Tuesday, 26 May 2020

In relation to Israel’s decades of military occupation of Palestinian lands, a cowardice spreading pandemic has infected Australian politicians and public servants. Symptoms of this epidemic are evident in the Australian government’s submission to the International Criminal Court (ICC) that an investigation of Israeli war crimes in Palestine should not take place.   

Before pursuing the argument that legal casuistry and cowardice characterize an Australian government’s attitude towards the plight of Palestinian people, it is important to remember that the cowardice pandemic has also affected ICC deliberations. 

ICC Deliberations and Canberra’s Response 


In his book I Accuse, the forensically brilliant US author Norman Finkelstein examines the ICC Chief Prosecutor’s refusal to investigate the killing by Israeli forces in May 2010 of nine people on the humanitarian flagship the Mavi Marmora, bound for Gaza. Finkelstein records that the eventual death of ten people and injuries to scores of others was judged by the Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, as of not sufficient gravity to warrant an official investigation. Finkelstein shows proof beyond reasonable doubt that the ICC Chief Prosecutor whitewashed Israel.

Pushback within the ICC then obliged Bensouda to reopen the investigation into the Mavi Marmora murders and the carnage in Gaza in 2014, yet take five years to do so. An inquiry, which covered Israel’s building of settlements and its military operation in Gaza, concluded that Bensouda was ‘satisfied that there was a reasonable basis to proceed.’  

At that point the Australian government informed the ICC that ‘on jurisdictional grounds Palestine is not a state’, therefore there should be no investigation of alleged war crimes in Palestine.

Legal contortions over the notion ‘jurisdiction’ must have been made in closed door conversations as to how to protect Israel, how to comply with what Israel and the US want. At that point a public servant, presumably, was instructed to give a shameful explanation to parliament.

Appearing before Senate Estimates Committee, James Larsen, chief legal officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that ‘Israel has encouraged us (Australia) to make observations to the court regarding the investigation into war crimes.’

Prior to Larsen’s appearance, the Australian Ambassador to the Netherlands, Mathew Neuhaus, is reported to have given Australia’s objections to the ICC investigation. When he was Ambassador in Zimbabwe, and in relation to the brutalities of the Mugabe regime, my meetings with Ambassador Neuhaus showed him to be a principled, brave, consistent defender of human rights. But in the context of demands from Israel, principle and courage are stifled by the usual gutless, amoral pragmatism that passes for Australian policy making. This principled man must have squirmed at the demands placed upon him?


In response to Australia’s objections to the ICC, Bensouda, no doubt affected by Professor Finkelstein’s devastating critique, has informed Canberra, ‘There are no substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.’

Yet the ICC’s ‘substantial reasons’ have been water off a duck’s back to Canberra. What on earth were they thinking?

Brutality and the Obscenity of ‘Balance’  

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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