Canada takes no clear position on interim ruling in genocide case against Israel

Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly speaks about Canada's position on the Israel-Gaza situation in the Foyer of the House of Commons, Tuesday, December 12, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

CTV News/OTTAWA – Canada opted to say as little as possible Friday about an International Court of Justice ruling that ordered Israel to prevent a genocide of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

After hours of silence from the federal government, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly eventually released a statement that did not directly respond to the ruling.

The court’s finding was not a final decision on the case, which Canada is following “very closely,” Joly said.

South Africa brought the allegation that Israel is perpetrating genocide to the UN’s highest court a month ago and asked it to impose a ceasefire.

The overwhelming majority of judges instead ordered six provisional measures to limit casualties in the Gaza Strip and to ensure the preservation of evidence should the court find Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians.

The judges ruled against Israel’s request to throw out the case altogether.

Neither Joly nor Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped to answer questions Friday as members of the Liberal caucus gathered on Parliament Hill.

The statement reiterated Canada’s position that the government supports the court’s “critical role in the peaceful settlement of disputes and its work in upholding the international rules-based order.”

It added, as Trudeau has said before: “Our support for the ICJ does not mean that we accept the premise of the case brought by South Africa.”

Earlier on Friday, Liberal MPs offered mixed opinions on how Canada should respond.

It is incumbent on Canada, a signatory to the international court, to “make sure that they convince Israel to follow what has been said” in the ruling, said Toronto MP Salma Zahid.

“They have to have some dialogue with them.”

Her colleague Anthony Housefather said he didn’t want to “overblow” Friday’s decision since it was primarily about whether or not the court would continue to hear the case.

“My position has been that Israel is not committing genocide, that it’s baseless and it’s insulting, and I don’t think the case was helpful to bring,” Housefather said.

Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Iddo Moed, said he did not hear from Canadian officials in the initial hours after the ruling.

He said it is important to be clear that the court has not made any judgment about whether a genocide has taken place.

“Let it also be clear that Israel respects international law and is a law-abiding country, and this is what we’ve been making sure that we do all along the way,” Moed said after Friday’s Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa.

The ruling did not speak to Israel’s right to self-defence but did say the court was “gravely concerned” about hostages who remain in the grip of Hamas.

The death toll from the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip has surpassed 26,000, including militants. The Hamas-run Health Ministry also said Friday that more than 64,400 had been wounded since Oct. 7.

That was the day militants from the territory launched a surprise attack in southern Israel, killing around 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostages.

The court concluded that Israel has not taken enough care to prevent its bombardment and restrictions on aid and other essentials from costing lives in Gaza.

It cited statements from senior officials that suggest a policy of collective punishment, including comments from Israel’s president on Oct. 12 that named an “entire nation” as responsible for the Hamas attacks.

Even before Joly’s statement, Canadian officials had offered little of substance about the case.

Mona Abuamara, the Palestinian ambassador to Canada, urged Trudeau to break the silence.

“We call on Canada to end its regarding of Palestinians as an exception to the protection of the international order, and Israel as the exception to adhering to international law,” she told an online news conference.

South Africa’s high commissioner in Ottawa, Rieaz Shaik, said that prior to Friday’s ruling, he discussed the case with Canadian officials who seemed to take his country’s arguments seriously.

He said the logical next step is for Canada to formally recognize a Palestinian state, in order to build on its commitment to a two-state solution.

Jewish and Muslim groups have been impatiently pushing for Canada to speak to its stance.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs said in a statement that Trudeau and Joly “must speak out” against what it called a “clear ploy to politicize the ICJ as a platform to target Israel.”

B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy group, said it feared Friday’s judgment would “only intensify the anti-Israel demonstrations routinely occurring across the country.”

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, for its part, called on the Liberals to voice support for the ruling and call for a ceasefire to prevent more deaths.

“The fact that this case is proceeding forward — that the evidence has been met to move forward on a genocide case — should prompt deep introspection for our political parties here in Canada,” the group said in a statement.

A spokesman for Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre declined to comment on the court’s ruling, pointing to earlier comments Poilievre made on South Africa’s case. He previously criticized it as “shameless” and “dishonest.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department announced Friday it has suspended aid to the UN agency tasked with supporting Palestinians, due to allegations that some staff at the body known as UNRWA participated in the brutal Hamas attack on Israel last October.

International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen did not stop to answer questions Friday about whether Canada would follow suit.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2024.

— With files from Mia Rabson and Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa and The Associated Press