Canada fully supports the International Court of Justice but that doesn’t mean it supports the premise of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.
On Thursday, South Africa launched a case at the top United Nations court arguing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and its siege on the Palestinians who live there “are genocidal in character.”
Israel, a Jewish state founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has vehemently denied the allegations, and took the rare step of engaging with the court to defend its international reputation.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a written statement Friday afternoon that there is a high legal threshold for proving claims of genocide.
Neither Trudeau nor Joly were specific about what Canada will do if the International Court of Justice were to rule in favour of South Africa’s claims, but Joly warned the case could provoke antisemitic acts.
Trudeau said Canada is continuing to follow the South Africa case closely.
“Canada is engaged in five cases at the ICJ because we believe in the importance of that as an institution,” Trudeau said during a news conference Friday in Guelph, Ont.
“But our wholehearted support of the ICJ and its processes does not mean that we support the premise of the case brought forward by South Africa.”
In a statement following Trudeau’s remarks, Joly noted that the 1948 Genocide Convention defines the crime as intending to destroy a group in whole or in part, because of their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion.
“Meeting this high threshold requires compelling evidence,” she wrote.
“We must ensure that the procedural steps in this case are not used to foster antisemitism and targeting of Jewish neighbourhoods, businesses, and individuals. At the same time, we will continue to stand against Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment.”
South Africa has asked the international court to order Israel to halt its attacks, which began after Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in Israel and took about 240 people, including some children, hostage on Oct. 7.
Israel responded with airstrikes and by restricting access to crucial supplies in the Hamas-controlled territory, where local authorities say more than 23,200 Palestinians have been killed.
About 100 hostages were released by Hamas during a temporary ceasefire in November, which ended when Israel accused Hamas of firing a rocket at Israel and breaking the ceasefire terms to release all the female hostages.
The United States issued a statement Wednesday that, like Canada, backs the “vital role” the International Court of Justice plays. But it went much further than Canada on this particular case, calling the claims Israel is committing genocide “unfounded.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday the case is “meritless.”
When asked if Canada would support the international court if it sides with South Africa, Trudeau said he supports the court’s “important and rigorous work.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims said it was “beyond disappointed” with Trudeau’s response, arguing it fell short of supporting the principles of humanitarianism and accountability.
“This signals a failure to support Canada’s commitment to international law.”
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said it was glad to see Trudeau’s initial statement, but had hoped Joly would have clearly rejected “the libellous genocide allegations against Israel.”
Germany came out against South Africa’s case on Friday, saying there is “no basis whatsoever” for an accusation of genocide against Israel. And media reports say a spokesperson for the British government told reporters the South African case was unjustifiable and wrong.
France has publicly said it would support the court’s decision. The federal New Democrats had urged Canada to also take that stance and not intervene in opposition to the case.
Members of Trudeau’s Liberal caucus have expressed a range of opinions on the issue, with some siding with South Africa and others with Israel.
On Friday, Montreal MP Anthony Housefather thanked Trudeau for his stance, noting both he and Toronto MP Marco Mendicino — who was formerly the minister of public safety — have said “the claim that Israel is committing genocide is baseless and unconscionable.”
“Very pleased that Prime Minister Trudeau has made clear that Canada does not support the premise of South Africa’s claim at the ICJ,” Housefather wrote.
Ahead of Trudeau’s Friday news conference, official Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre accused the prime minister of playing to both sides of the issue.
“He is telling whatever you want to hear, and then he is going to another group and saying exactly the opposite,” Poilievre told reporters Friday in Winnipeg. The Conservative party opposes the case.
Poilievre said the case brought by South Africa is “shamelessly and dishonestly attacking the Jewish people and the Jewish state.”
The top UN court, which rules on disputes between nations, has never adjudged a country to be responsible for genocide. The closest it came was in 2007 when it ruled that Serbia “violated the obligation to prevent genocide” in the July 1995 massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.
Mickey Djuric and Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2024.
— With files from The Associated Press