16 January 2024

Did the International Community Die in Gaza?

As the war in Gaza passes the 100-day mark, Fuad Zarbiyev, Professor of International Law at the Geneva Graduate Institute, considers the absence of a real international community and the obstacles to its creation.

In a satire directed at news TV shows, Dave Barry imagines an exchange between two journalists about the international community:

ANCHOR: And now to get an international perspective on this developing situation, we’re going via satellite to foreign correspondent Knowles Cardigan, who is currently in a foreign country located abroad. Knowles, how would you describe the international reaction to this breaking story?

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Bob, I would describe it as subdued.

ANCHOR: So the international community is concerned?

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: No, Bob, the international community is asleep. It’s the middle of the night over here. I myself am wearing pajamas under this suit.

ANCHOR: Can you speculate on how the international community is likely to react when it wakes up?

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It will probably go to the bathroom, Bob. But it’s too soon to speculate.

Its humoristic register notwithstanding, this dialogue quite effectively captures one or two things that characterise our thinking about the international community. It is indeed the case that we tend to visualise the international community as an entity located somewhere abroad. To use the title of an article that appeared in The Guardian in 2006, we may not know ‘what the hell is the international community?’, but we seem to know that whatever it is, it is not to be found within our national borders. We are also inclined to personify the international community: it may not sleep or go to the bathroom, but it has the capacity to react to various developments in the world and may suffer a moment of inattention. 

The horrors that have been unfolding in Gaza since 7 October 2023 are the kind of things about which one would normally think the international community should be alarmed. Numerous statements issued at the highest level of the Israeli governmental apparatus immediately after the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October suggest that Israel holds the entire population of Gaza responsible for the atrocities committed by Hamas and is determined to make it pay a high price. As of the writing of this article,  some 24,000 civilians have been reported as killed by Israeli strikes in Gaza since October 7. About two thirds of those killed are believed to be women and children, and Gaza has been described as “a graveyard for thousands of children” by UNICEF Spokesperson James Elder. Hunger or the lack of basic medical care with most hospitals out of service or only partially or minimally functioning claim innocent lives on a daily basis.

All this has been happening as the world quietly watches on — so much so that Gazans could legitimately ask “Where the hell is the international community?” To that question, there is only one honest response. There has never been such thing as the international community. The point is not simply that the international community is not truly international, as it typically refers to “the US joined by some allies and clients” (Noam Chomsky) or it is, as Margaret Thatcher once honestly admitted, a more ‘tactful’ designation of the West, as recently discussed in an article by Tarcisio Gazzini. The reality is much more unsettling: there can be no international community as long as we look for it abroad and not in our hearts.

Mass violence typically starts with treating the other as less than human with pain sensitivity, feelings, vulnerability, dignity and pride just like us. The dehumanisation of the other or the denial that the other is like us is indeed the first step towards the capacity to inflict death, pain and suffering on the other. Nazi propaganda frequently equated Jews with various animals or infectious deceases and denied that they were capable of human feelings. Reporting from Bosnia in 1992, David Rieff famously wrote that “To the Serbs, the Muslims [were] no longer human”. Hamas officials who call for the annihilation of the Jews describe them as “filthy animals”. Likewise, in the aftermath of atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October, several high-level Israeli government officials have referred to the population of Gaza as “human animals”. The message is clear: once a person is excluded from the moral community to which we belong, we no longer feel bound by the constraints of that community in the way we treat that person. We are humans; therefore, amongst ourselves, we ought to treat each other like humans;  in contrast, they are “animals”, which means that we are entitled to treat them as animals.

Such differentiations are the main stumbling blocks for the formation of a real international community. It is relatively rare to come across sadists or psychopaths incapable of human feeling and compassion. More troubling, as George Steiner pointed out, is the case of a nazi who could show affection to his family and listen to classical music in the evening before resuming his day job at Auschwitz the next day. In other words, “the person whose treatment of a rather narrow range of featherless bipeds is morally impeccable, but who remains indifferent to the suffering of those outside this range, the ones he thinks of as pseudo-humans.” (Richard Rorty).

None of us is immune to such in-group vs out-group dynamics, as our compassion for the pain and suffering of the other is subject to similar limitations. Most of us would be unable to eat comfortably while our own children are dying of starvation, but very few — if any — of us have problems with eating even though we know that children die of hunger and malnutrition in many poor countries of the world. We may feel sad for them, but that emotion does not necessarily drive us to act to change the world. People who are kin to us are those to whom we are the most strongly attached emotionally.

But there is no biological or physical laws preventing us from caring about the other as if they were kin to us. It is within our reach to attach as much importance to what is sometimes cynically referred to as “foreign human rights” as to the rights of the members of our own families, communities and tribes. All we need is the appropriate “sentimental education” that can “expand the reference of the terms ‘our kind of people’ and ‘people like us.’” (Richard Rorty). “There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination”, as a character in a novel by JM Coetzee wonderfully puts it, because “there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.” Until that sympathetic imagination is deployed with no unjustified discrimination, the international community is bound to remain a pious myth.

Header image by Jérôme BLUM, distributed under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.