A Tale of Two Conferences
Earlier this month Southampton University spiked a conference on International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, organised by an Israeli-born professor of law and philosophy at the university, Oren Ben-Dor. It had promised to explore ‘the creation and the nature of the Jewish state’ and ‘the role international law can play in political struggles’. The idea had got about that Southampton would be throwing a shindig for aspiring jihadis and Zion-deniers, thanks to the Henry Jackson Society, Eric Pickles and the Daily Express, who demanded that the event be squelched.
Southampton’s vice-chancellor, Don Nutbeam, nixed the event on the plea that demonstrations against it would pose a ‘health and safety’ risk. The only body that had notified the police of an intent to protest was the Sussex Friends of Israel. Hampshire Constabulary had confirmed its ability to police the event safely. Agitators including Fiona Sharpe of the Sussex Friends and Douglas Murray of the Henry Jackson Society voiced their satisfaction at having stifled free speech.
By contrast, a conference that runs no risk of cancellation is Towards a New Law of War, organised by Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Centre in Jerusalem, which will run next week. Its list of speakers include Israeli journalists and diplomats, as well as a number of senior military officers from the US, British and Israeli armed forces; there is a lone ‘Palestinian Human-Rights Activist’, for balance. Shurat HaDin’s mission statement says it aims to ‘bankrupt terror’, to combat ‘lawfare’ – the use of international law to deter and prosecute the criminal use of military force – and, with more meaning than it may have intended, to ‘defend Israel from war crimes’.
Shurat HaDin’s conference prospectus promises ‘a special session’ on the ‘dangers of the International Criminal Court’, which menaces members of the global community, under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, with prosecution for such activities as torture, mass murder and mutilation. In the background lies last year’s ‘Protective Edge’ offensive by the Israel Defence Forces against Gaza. As the blurb for the session rhetorically asks, ‘aren’t democratic states capable of policing their own military forces?’
It doesn’t say whether the community of democratic states includes one that denies voting rights to 3.5 million of the 5 million Arabs under its control. Still, one can hazard a guess. Unacknowledged exceptionalism rules. The résumé for a session on the ‘dangerous phenomenon’ of human shields worries that ‘the current laws of war provide no effective approach to this dangerous dilemma’ – the danger in question being that human shields ‘imperil the safety of military forces’. As for the dilemma, it seems to be that commanders would like to blast away at civilian centres on the off-chance that they host some guerrillas, but the current laws of war prohibit this – though, as Protective Edge showed, the IDF often blasts away regardless.
A further panel blurb notes that ‘the recent Gaza war’ showed ‘just how sensitive the international community and world media are to the images of dead civilians’, and argues that just-war proportionality criteria need finessing. Shurat HaDin says forebodingly that its conference will be a ‘perennial event’, and that the law of war ‘develops on the basis of state practice’.