As Israel pans Nicaragua’s World Court suit, experts see new ‘lawfare’ front in war

With Managua accusing Berlin of genocide for backing Israel in campaign against Hamas, analysts see motion as largely a product of frustration after political pressure failed

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

The International Court of Justice holds public hearings on the request for an advisory opinion on the Legal Consequences arising from the Policies and Practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, from February 19 to February 26 at the Peace Palace in The Hague in the Netherlands. (International Court of Justice)
The International Court of Justice holds public hearings on the request for an advisory opinion on the Legal Consequences arising from the Policies and Practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, from February 19 to February 26 at the Peace Palace in The Hague in the Netherlands. (International Court of Justice)

Israel has condemned Nicaragua’s lawsuit filed against Germany in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on genocide charges for supporting Israel in its ongoing campaign against the Hamas terror group in Gaza, while concerns have been raised about what appears to be a developing legal front against Jerusalem.

Nicaragua filed a suit against Germany in the ICJ on Friday for what it claimed was Berlin’s violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention, due its diplomatic support for Israel, its arms sales to Jerusalem, and its decision to halt funds to Palestinian aid agency UNRWA due to allegations that its personnel are complicit in terror against Israel.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned Nicaragua’s ICJ application against Germany on Sunday, describing it as “another abuse of the International Court intended to assist the Hamas terror organization through the total distortion of reality.”

Israel is itself subject to ICJ provisional measures, after the court found “plausibility” to allegations made by South Africa that it had violated at least some clauses of the Genocide Convention, and ordered Jerusalem to report back on measures it was taking to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza and punish those who may have engaged in incitement to genocide. The court has not ruled on the merit of the claims, and declined to order Israel to halt is military operations.

Nicaragua’s highly irregular, and possibly unprecedented, step of filing a genocide suit at the ICJ against another country regarding the alleged genocidal actions of a third country is the latest legal measure on the international stage to further ramp up pressure on Israel and its ongoing campaign against Hamas.

Nicaragua, which was rated as an “authoritarian regime” by the Economist’s 2023 Democracy Index and as “not free” by Freedom House’s 2023 report, has strong relations with avowedly anti-Western nations, including Russia and Iran.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (L) meets with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the Olof Palme Convention Centre in Managua, on June 14, 2023. (Cesar PEREZ/Nicaraguan Presidency/AFP)

Nicaragua’s ICJ suit alleges that by providing Israel with support, including military assistance, and by cutting off funds to UNRWA, Germany has violated its obligation under the Genocide Convention to prevent genocide.

The country asked the court to issue provisional measures against Germany, including ordering it to suspend any aid, military assistance, and delivery of military equipment to Israel, ensure that weapons it has already supplied “are not used to commit genocide,” and to reverse its suspension of funding for UNRWA.

“Germany is facilitating the commission of genocide and in any case has failed in its obligation to do everything possible to prevent the commission of genocide,” the suit alleges.

“Germany has provided political, financial and military support to Israel fully aware at the time of authorization that the military equipments would be used in the commission of great breaches of international law by this State and in disregard of its own obligations,” the suit continues, claiming that the military equipment provided by Germany “has enabled Israel to perpetrate genocidal acts and other atrocities.”

The lawsuit said Germany exported €327 million ($364 million) in arms and military equipment to Israel in 2023, with the vast majority of those sales coming after October 7.

Dr. Yonatan Freeman, an expert on international relations with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described the suit as “more of a stunt” and said it was “another facet of weaponization of the ICJ” and unlikely to be taken up by the court.

He said Israel has enjoyed the support of numerous Western countries during the war who have not called for Israel to halt its military campaign against Hamas, and argued that the legal attacks on Jerusalem stem from the failure of Israel’s international foes to alter the positions of key countries such as the US, Germany, the UK and others towards the Gaza campaign

Israel’s military operation started after Hamas sent thousands of terrorists into southern Israel in a devastating assault on October 7, killing some 1,200 people amid widespread atrocities including rape and torture, and abducting 253 to Gaza. Israel vowed to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza and secure the release of the hostages, some half of whom are still held in the Strip.

“Western nations haven’t changed their policy. Germany has provided a lot of supplies to Israel, and is continuing to do so. The potential of this suit leading to sanctions or some measure which will be enforced is not likely,” Freeman said.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) receives his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog at the Presidential Bellevue Palace, on February 16, 2024 in Berlin. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)

“This suit is part of the desire of countries such as Iran, Russia and China to create a new world order, and part of their efforts to undermine the post-World War II international order and undermine the institutions that established it,” he continued.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has aligned himself with this bloc of anti-Western states, hosting a state visit for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Managua in 2014 just after the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea, and last June hosting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in the capital.

Nicaragua has voted with Russia in the UN on numerous occasions, notably voting against condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory in the current war in a UN General Assembly resolution vote in October 2022.

Ortega has allowed the Russian military temporary access to Nicaragua, and also deployed a surveillance system with assistance from Russian intelligence and secret police, Foreign Policy reported recently.

Anne Herzberg, a legal adviser to the pro-Israeli NGO Monitor organization, noted that lobbying and campaigning by pro-Palestinian states and organizations to pressure Israel into a unilateral ceasefire has not worked, while South Africa’s two applications to the ICJ that sought to force Israel to halt its military operation have also failed.

“We have to see this through the lens of resistance to the West. It’s a new geopolitical alignment that has come out from this war and the war in Ukraine, countries with anti-Western views like South Africa, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Brazil, Russia, China, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey are shaping this new axis,” she said.

Herzberg added that Nicaragua’s lawsuit in the ICJ was “a way of trying to get Western countries to rein in support for Israel and to stop arms sales to Israel,” and that the failure to directly halt Israel’s military campaign had lead to the new tactic of trying to intimidate Israel’s allies.

She also said the focus in the Nicaraguan suit on UNRWA was key because it was designed to create fear among donor countries that they may be subject to legal action if they cut off funds, as numerous countries have done due to allegations that UNRWA employees participated in the shock October 7 attack as well as the claim that thousands of UNRWA workers are tied to terror groups.

“This is part of the lawfare campaign,” Herzberg said. “The Palestinians stated in 2011 that their agenda was to internationalize the conflict by going to the ICJ, to have other countries go to the ICJ, to file complaints against Israel in the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and in the UN Human Rights Council, and this suit is another way of expanding that effort. I imagine we’ll see more of this.”

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