A threat to the rule of law is in the making. Before long, the UN Security Council will be moved to force Israel to dismantle the wall. Hoisting its veto, the US would block the move. And the world would
conclude -- once again and rightly so -- that the US cares little about international law and the World Court.
In an unprecedented ruling, the World Court has declared that the separation wall Israel is building in occupied Palestine is contrary to international law, and must be dismantled. The court further ordered that Israel compensate all people whose homes, businesses and farms were destroyed or confiscated to build the wall. Most importantly, the court asked the Security Council to "take action to bring to an end the illegal situation resulting from the construction of the wall."
This explicit entrustment to the Security Council to enforce the ruling of the World Court raises high stakes for the international legal system.
For if the council fails to take action, the court will lose credibility, and even the rationale for its existence.
True, the court's decisions have been ignored before. But before, it was the loser state, and not a UN organ, that refused to comply with the judgment. And most often, the non-compliant state also held a veto in the Security Council. The world tolerated this anomaly of non-compliance as a special privilege of permanent members of the Security Council.
This time, far from having a veto, the loser state -- Israel -- is not even a member of the Security Council. Furthermore, the court's call for compliance has been made directly to the Security Council, the UN organ specially empowered to "give effect to the judgment."
And the call is clear. It mandates that the wall be dismantled and victims be compensated. Rarely is such a perfect textbook case deferred to the Security Council, leaving it no other option but to enforce the court's judgment.
To pave the way for a US veto, however, the pro-Israel lobby has begun to undermine the court's credibility. One well-known law academic has called the World Court a "Kangaroo" and "bigoted" court, advising Israel to defy its judgment and finish building the wall.
Others are trashing the UN
for referring this case to the
court. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the unyielding architect
of the wall, remains determined,
undeterred by the Court's ruling,
to fulfill his dream of expanding Israel beyond its lawful borders.
Despite attacks on the court's authority, the truth remains that
its judgment against the wall is founded on a remarkable degree
of judicial consensus.
Fourteen judges from diverse cultures and nationalities, including from China, Russia, France and Britain -- the four veto-holding members of the Security Council -- favored the court's decision on demolishing the wall. The sole dissenter on key issues was the US judge, whose dissent contradicts the very basics of international law that he, as a law professor, has ably taught to generations of law students in the US.
The dissent will carry little weight in Security Council deliberations. China, France and Russia, along with most of the non-permanent members, would support a resolution for enforcement of the judgment.
Even Britain, whose government has ceased to think independently and routinely follows the White House, would not betray the verdict of its own judge.
Should the US refrain from using its veto, a unanimous Security Council would be available to pass a resolution giving effect to the court's judgment.
But surely, the US would be unlikely to favor a resolution that compels Israel to comply with the court's judgment -- not in an election year when both presidential candidates are dancing to the tune of millions of pro-Israel voters.
Campaigning on the same side of the wall, both candidates would argue that the court has decided a "political case" and not a legal case, and that the court's decision, if implemented, would interfere with the peace process that the Security Council had previously endorsed.
Few voters would know that the World Court has specifically addressed these arguments and rejected them all. To win pro-Israel voters, the Bush administration would veto the resolution, and Senator John Kerry would seal his lips to save any unintended slips of the tongue.
Come what may, international effects of the US veto would be grave. When the wall is completed, Israel will have grabbed more than 16 percent of the West Bank; around 500,000 Palestinians will have lost their homes, businesses and agricultural holdings; and more than 300,000 Israeli settlers will have dug deeper into Palestinian territory.
With all this, the Muslim world will find more reasons to hate the US, and terrorists more reasons to kill. Even many Israelis would detest the perpetuation of injustice, as would the 14 judges of the World Court.
And the peoples of the world would say that the US' commitment to international law and human rights is empty.
Liaquat Ali Khan is a professor at Washburn University's School of Law in Kansas.
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