In response to South Africa’s suit before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) charging Israel with genocide in Gaza, Australian politicians have refused to support a significant international means of ending this slaughter of Palestinians. Instead, party leaders search for words to disguise cowardice, to camouflage the lack of courage required to avoid offending Israel or the U.S.

Prime Minister Albanese says Australia will not intervene before the ICJ because he is ‘focussed on a political solution’, code for doing nothing. Foreign Minister Penny Wong says she does not accept the premise of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel. Yet a few months ago, when Ukraine took Russia to the ICJ, Australia rushed to support Ukraine and made the self righteous claim that this support showed Australia’s ‘continued commitment to protecting and promoting the rules based international order and peaceful settlement of disputes.’

What was good for Ukraine is unacceptable towards South Africa. Hypocrisy goes hand in hand with cowardice. Despite Gazans suffering an ongoing slaughter, Australian leaders watch and wait, hence a need to examine the nature of their conduct.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar gives the first clues. Suspecting that something terrible might happen to him, Caesar explained to his wife that he had no fear because, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once.’

Via Caesar, Shakespeare depicted a coward as someone who was afraid to face challenges by taking risks, by fighting for what they believed in. For example, Australia’s foreign policy is said to adhere to humanitarian law, but that belief becomes paper thin when the government is asked to challenge Israeli/US policies towards Palestinians.

Cowardice shown over Australia’s reluctance to support South Africa before the ICJ has decades of precedence. In previous Israeli slaughter of Palestinians, successive Coalition and Labor Prime Ministers have looked the other way or made meaningless statements about good intentions.

In response to the brutality of Israeli Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Julia Gillard said she was ‘very mindful of (the lives of) civilians.’ In his Memoir, Bob Carr concludes that on Israel issues, Australian governments were paralysed by obligations to the Zionist lobby. Malcolm Turnbull bravely stated, ‘My government will not support one-sided resolutions criticising Israel’, as adopted by the UN Security Council. The Christian fundamentalist Scott Morrison squealed, ‘Israel has no greater friend than Australia anywhere in the world. We will always be consistent about that.’

Avoiding commentary about the deaths of Palestinians, reveals germs of cowardice. Avoidance so infects the mentality of leading politicians that they appear to stand for nothing, as in a refusal to respond to correspondence. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Birmingham ignores registered letters asking him to acknowledge the regular Israeli killings of Palestinians not just the Hamas savagery of October 7. Labor members’ letters to the Prime Minister pleading for his government’s support of South Africa fall on deaf ears.

Avoidance as a feature of cowardice has become a taken for granted feature of public administration. Before Senate hearings inquiring into police raids on the home of former NSW MP Shaoquett Moselmane, the AFP Commissioner, when asked how the media knew of the impending raid, trotted out the standard, ‘I’ll take that question on notice’, which meant ‘don’t expect to hear from me again.’

In the ICJ controversy, fear has stifled freedom of thought, a fear born of wishes to avoid offending powerful interests. Instead, consistent with other features of cowardice, assessments are made of the consequences of acting decisively, a process which has produced a preoccupation with minimising risks. Courage to show concern for a common humanity is replaced by the cowardice inherent in policy makers’ fifty cents each way bets.

Cowards can also appear passive aggressive, as when claiming, in the Palestinian case, that a terrorist organisation Hamas is entirely at fault, never themselves. Hamas is accused of cowardly conduct by using civilians as human shields, but there‘s little or no insight into the cowardice involved in fearing to offend, the US, Israel or News Corporation outlets. It even appears that cowardice persists through projection, that psychological/political practice of attributing to others behaviour characteristic of your own thoughts.

Investigating cowardice must avoid generalisations which could imply there are no exceptions to the rule. To her credit, Foreign Minister Penny Wong has insisted that there must be a ceasefire over Gaza though that stand does not explain prevarication over the ICJ initiative.

What else has to happen before Australia provides unashamed support for South Africa? What could get worse than the depravity suffered by Gazan child amputees as described in a January 17 P&I article [LINK] by Helen McCue: ‘since October 7, over 1,000 children have lost a limb, either one or two legs or an arm, an average of 10 per day’, surgery completed largely without anaesthetic.

In his challenge to a cowardly west looking on in silence, in last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres demanded, ‘Nothing can justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people… the long shadow of starvation is stalking the people of Gaza along with disease, malnutrition and other health threats.’

Guterres lamented that he was also ‘deeply troubled by the clear violation of international humanitarian law.’

The South African ICJ initiative relies on principles of humanitarian law to hold accountable the Israeli perpetrators of an alleged genocide. The world watches. The ICJ is on trial, so too the persistence of political cowardice in western democracies.

Refusal to support the principled South African ICJ initiative is a legal, political and humanitarian opportunity missed. Australia, and other western governments, the US and UK, behave as though the world should not worry.

Cowardice is alive and well. When it comes to deliberations about peace, indecisiveness plus scant regard for beyond belief inhumanities, persist as though these are helpful ways to contribute to solutions to end the brutalities of a one sided slaughter, which is also referred to as a war.

Courtesy Pearls and Irritation, original article at:

Cowardly refusal to support South Africa at the ICJ

Stuart Rees AM is Professor Emeritus at the University of Sydney & recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize.