Dr Sheetal Soni, a Senior Lecturer at the School of Law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a legal expert in International law has called for “moral courage” around the dire situation facing Palestinians in Gaza, saying that the global system has failed to protect the most vulnerable and in fact encouraged impunity.
She was speaking on the complexities of international humanitarian law at the Navi Pillay Research Group's Online Symposium hosted by UKZN on South Africa and the question of Palestine on Tuesday.
Her address highlighted the law's abstract nature and its vital role in defining humanity within the context of global conflicts.
"The law itself is abstract and has no meaning outside ourselves," she said. Adding that, it provides a framework for understanding human inhumanity and inhumane treatment.
It was difficult to contextualise these concepts outside of personal experience.
Honing in on specifics, Soni described international humanitarian law as "the mother of human rights in conflict situations," noting its role in protecting both civilians and combatants.
She pointed out the extensive reach of this law, encapsulated in the four Geneva Conventions and their protocols, which are globally recognised and adopted.
Soni drew attention to the significant events of October 7, where Israel faced attacks from the Hamas militant group and responded with a massive military campaign. She described the scale of Israel's response, telling the audience that in the first three weeks the amount of force inflicted by the bombardments exceeded the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by more than one and a half times.
“The amount of force that was inflicted in the bombardments and Gaza exceeded the bomb that was dropped in Hiroshima and World War Two by more than one and a half times,” she said.
Soni questioned the proportionality of this response, citing the staggering civilian casualty figures, including over 12,700 children killed.
Highlighting the disproportionate impact of the conflict, Soni pointed out the extensive damage to civilian infrastructure and loss of life, which she argued showed no indication of proportionality.
She said the actions directly violate not only international law but also the basic principles of law that we find in the law of all nations: the right to health, the right to life, and the right to receive emergency medical treatment.
“What Gaza has shown for the world to see is a global system that is historically flawed and that is now failing to the point of no return. A system that encourages impunity and allows civilians to be used as pawns in a conflict where the ethical and moral imperative to protect the weakest and most vulnerable among us has fallen silent in the background and places where these people can be given meaning and substance like schools and hospitals are systematically destroyed,” she said.
The law expert painted a grim picture of the situation on the ground, where basic services like fuel, water, and electricity have been suspended and medical facilities targeted.
She recounted the harrowing story of premature babies removed from incubators due to fuel cuts, spotlighting the direct violation of international law and basic human rights principles.
Soni criticised the current global system for its failure to protect the most vulnerable and for encouraging impunity.
She called for moral courage to apply the principles of international law and commended South Africa's efforts in the ICJ for facilitating humanitarian aid in Gaza. She expressed concern over the defunding of UNRWA, highlighting the compounded effects on the Palestinian population.
“The funding cuts are due to allegations that 12 of its employees may have been involved in the October 7 attacks and while we are awaiting the investigations, there are states that are still cutting their funding despite pleas that this aid will prevent starvation and a looming famine. There are over 30,000 UNRWA employees, but these states cut funding based on allegations levelled against 12 that were being investigated. In law, we are presumed innocent unless proven guilty, but not in Gaza, where the defunding of UNRWA has concentrated the collective punishment of the two million Palestinians that depend on that.
”Without UNRWA, more families will likely starve there will be more illness or disease, more malnutrition, more miscarriages, and more deaths to those who have managed to survive the bombs until now,” she said.