If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing - Ireland’s fear of supporting social justice

Image Credit: Ibrahim guetar via Unsplash

Deborah Obarisiagbon evaluates Ireland's neutrality on South Africa's case against Israel at the International Court of Justice

Ireland, a nation with a rich history of struggles for independence and human rights, is often commended for its commitment to neutrality. However, this neutrality has come under scrutiny in recent times, particularly in cases where supporting social justice would seemingly be a moral imperative. One such instance is Ireland's hesitancy to support South Africa's legal case against Israel, shedding light on the use of supposed Irish neutrality to take actual strong stances on seemingly clear-cut human rights violations and its implications on the pursuit of global social justice. As Nesrine Malik highlighted: “It’s not only Israel on trial. South Africa is testing the West’s claim to moral superiority” – and Ireland is failing this test. 

'It’s not only Israel on trial. South Africa is testing the west’s claim to moral superiority' – and Ireland is failing this test

Ireland's commitment to neutrality has been a defining characteristic of its foreign policy. Ireland declared itself a neutral state during the Second World War, during the Cold War and is one of only five European Union member states that are not part of NATO. The policy of non-alignment and staying out of military conflicts has often been praised for its role in promoting peace and stability. However, can we say this neutrality has ever fully been practised?

Although Ireland was officially “neutral” during World War II, German sailors and Luftwaffe pilots who crash-landed in Ireland were interned whilst the Allies’ pilots who crashed were released on personal assurances and usually allowed to cross the border into British territory. Furthermore, Irish weather reports were also crucial to the timing of the D-Day landings. However, when news came through on 2 May 1945 that Hitler was dead, de Valera called on the German Minister, Eduard Hempel, ‘to offer condolences’ on his death. This supposed act of neutrality showcased a lack of moral clarity and a failure to stand up against egregious human rights violations and history seems to be repeating itself.

The weakness of Ireland's neutrality becomes evident when examining its reluctance to support causes aligned with global social justice. The recent case involving South Africa's legal action against Israel underscores this point. The South African team has highlighted that this case underscores the very essence of our shared humanity. The fact that South Africa is leading the case is highly significant, as the state itself has been the victim of an apartheid regime which was also largely ignored by the international community.

The weakness of Ireland's neutrality becomes evident when examining its reluctance to support causes aligned with global social justice. 

South Africa's submission alleges that Israel has committed, and is committing, genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in violation of the Genocide Convention and places the charges in what it describes as the broader context of Israel's conduct towards Palestinians, including what it described as a 75-year apartheid, 56-year occupation and 16-year blockade of the Strip. South Africa asserts that statements made by Israeli officials, such as Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Gallant (who referred to Palestinians as “Human Animals”), are evidence of genocidal intent.

Despite the photographic evidence of the horrific war crimes that Palestinian documents and Ireland's strong historical ties with South Africa during the apartheid era, the Irish government refused to take a stand and support South Africa's efforts to hold Israel accountable for alleged human rights violations. Instead, it sat on the sidelines. This is especially contradictory when our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said, on multiple occasions, Israel is acting in breach of international humanitarian law and that Israel's assault of Gaza "resembles something more approaching revenge". Other members of Government, Simon Harris, and Eamon Ryan have respectively stated that the Israeli offensive in Gaza as a "war on children" and there are "irrefutable" points in the case South Africa has taken against Israel. Most confusingly, the government has spent three months issuing condemnatory statements about Israel's ongoing massacre of innocents in Gaza but fail to match any of these words with tangible actions. 

The question arises as to whether Ireland is utilising its neutral stance to avoid taking a firm stance on matters regarding global injustices. If you stand for everything, you stand for nothing at all. There is no such thing as neutrality in the face of genocide. There is no such thing as neutrality as 85% of Palestinians are displaced. There is no such thing as neutrality when Benyamin Netanyahu is calling for a complete siege of Gaza. Refusing to take a moral stand undermines not only Ireland’s claim but every other Western state’s claim to Moral authority as Malik points out. Western states such as the US, the UK, Canada, Germany, and France have appointed themselves as the authority that decides when states can and cannot intervene in humanitarian crises. This is not depending on need but depending on how much it affects their foreign policy and how convenient it is as highlighted by the numerous failures of the so-called War on Terrorism. We cannot claim to be a state that respects human rights law and then stand idle as Palestinian lives are being taken every single day. 

We cannot claim to be a state that respects human rights law and then stands idle as Palestinian lives are being taken every single day. 

As a party to the Genocide Convention, Ireland has an obligation to prevent and punish crimes of genocide. It is time for this State to take its responsibilities, in this regard, seriously. As a country, we should not be sitting idly by while we can take a stand on an issue of such grave importance and imperative. Ireland was one of the first states to stand in solidarity with South Africa against the apartheid regime. We have an international reputation for standing up in the face of injustice. The injustice that takes place on the Gaza strip everyday is crystal clear. This is our chance to not allow history to repeat itself. For once, Ireland needs to put down its shield of neutrality and fight for what is justified – exactly like we did for Ukraine.