The EU and the United States strive to promote democracy and human rights in the world and call for respect for the rules-based international order. After Russia attacked Ukraine they have tried to summon all free countries around the world to stand for Ukraine and condemn Russia’s attack. However, a large number of countries have refused to choose a side and abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly votes condemning Russia’s attack.
The state of democracy in the world is deteriorating. The US has responded to the threat of growing authoritarianism by initiating Summit for Democracy, which will be held in March 2024 for the third time, this time hosted by South Korea. The EU’s policy on the promotion of democracy and human rights is guided by the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020–2024, according to which the EU promotes democracy and human rights consistently in all areas of external relations.
Is this what EU is currently doing? From the point of view of the global south, it seems hypocritical that while the EU demands them to stand behind international law and support Ukraine, the EU itself supports Israel when it violates international law in its policy towards Palestine.
Turning a blind eye
One of the examples of the EU’s double standards can be found in the statements of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. After Russia attacked civilian infrastructure of Ukraine, von der Leyen called it an act of pure terror on Twitter (now X). Now that Israel has done the same to Gaza by cutting off water, electricity and other necessary supplies, there are no similar statements. Instead, a statement of the European Council on 15 October condemns the terrorist attack by Hamas and emphasises Israel’s right to defend itself “in line with humanitarian and international law”.
It is evident that in the war that began after the terror attack by Hamas on 7 October, Israel has not respected international law in its airstrikes on Gaza, which have already killed thousands of civilians, or in cutting off the distribution of electricity, water, food and medicine, any more than Hamas has in its attacks on civilians. The fact that Hamas places, in violation of international law, rocket launchers near civilian sites, does not remove Israel’s responsibility to protect civilians when attacking Hamas.
There is a lot of evidence of Israel’s long-standing violations of international law. It has unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem, built illegal settlements in the occupied territory, and continued to build the separation wall in the occupied territory despite the International Court of Justice declaring it illegal in 2004.
The UN Special Rapporteur and several human rights organisations (see Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem) have stated that Israel’s system of rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is actually apartheid. Restrictions of movement, forced displacement of Palestinian communities, demolition of houses, land grabbing and settler violence and other human rights violations that occur under the occupation are well documented. Finnish Middle East researchers write in their article (in Finnish) that the conflict should be seen from the perspective of settler colonialism, which refers to a form of colonialism where the purpose is to gain control of areas by replacing the existing population with a settler population. Europe is often haunted by its colonial history in its current efforts to promote democracy globally, and the silent acceptance of Israel’s policy is not helping.
The United States and the EU, including Finland, stick to their stated goal of two-state solution to the region. The fact that Israel has made the establishment of a viable Palestinian state practically impossible by building settlements and seizing land has not made them change their policy towards Israel. During past decades, the US has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to block several resolutions related to Israel, as it did this month, when a draft resolution called for “humanitarian pauses” to deliver lifesaving aid to Gaza.
In their statements supporting Israel, western countries often refer to the Hamas goal of eliminating the State of Israel stated in the Hamas Covenant. However, these statements have ignored the violent, dehumanising and even genocidal rhetoric of Israeli decision-makers. Antisemitism and hate speech against Israel is not allowed (as it shouldn’t be), but hate speech against Palestinians is.
There seems to be double standards also in the attitude towards demonstrations and advocacy defending the rights of Palestinians. Pro-Palestine demonstrations have been banned in several European countries in recent weeks, and suppression of pro-Palestine advocacy has been growing in the US and in Europe for a longer time already. Whereas violent protests or antisemitic symbols can of course be prohibited for good reason, the categorical ban on demonstrations brings to mind unpleasant echoes of authoritarian countries, where demonstrations can be banned under any pretext.
A consistent policy strengthens democracy and security
Showing unconditional support to Israel and turning a blind eye to its human rights violations erodes the credibility of western efforts to promote democracy worldwide. From the point of view of the global south, Europe can’t get rid of its colonialist attitude towards the rest of the world and acts hypocritically on the Palestine issue. The Palestinian right to self-determination and the Palestinians’ right to a normal life are as self-evident seen from the perspective of countries freed from colonial rule as, from our perspective, that Russia is the aggressor in the war in Ukraine.
If authoritarian states like China and Russia, whose own list of human rights violations is grim, appear to defend international law more than those who advocate for democracy, the consequences can be serious. The world is already threatening to split into an authoritarian and at least somewhat democratic camp. We know that authoritarian states are a threat not only to their own citizens, but also to international security, so defending democracy is also promoting security.
It is possible to stop the rise of authoritarianism. Promoting democracy internationally requires, however, that democratic countries show that democracy brings benefits to citizens, that we also protect democracy in our own societies, and that we truly stand behind the values we demand from others in foreign policy. Engaging more consistently and more coherently is one of the recommendations in the report How (not) to engage with authoritarian states by Nic Cheeseman and Marie-Eve Desrosiers.
Israel is just one example of cases where western countries have been selective about human rights issues. If we are not able to consistently act in accordance with our stated values, it weakens the respect for international law and contributes to the anti-western narrative of authoritarian states. It’s not just about Israel and Palestine, it’s about global security.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland.