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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 3 January 20, 2024

How Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit played peacemaker between Palestine and Israel | Manu Bhagavan

Friday 19 January 2024


January 16, 2024

South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ arrives at a pivotal moment, and Pandit played a vital part in bringing human rights discourse to this juncture

This week, South Africa brought a case before the International Court of Justice in the Hague, charging Israel with genocide for its ongoing campaign in Gaza. It is a pivotal moment in which many precarious elements of the international order hang in the balance.

South Africa’s case is based on the 1948 Genocide Convention, which over 150 countries have ratified, including the United States, Israel, and Russia, making it one of the few such instruments to have such near universal support around the globe.

Yet South Africa’s actions carry a touch of irony for they themselves were once brought before the world body for their actions.

And the Convention on which their current case rests almost never came to be.

That it did, based on the idea that no state can hide behind domestic sovereignty to violate basic human rights, can be traced back in large measure to the actions of one particularly capable and tenacious woman, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, a barrier-shattering politician and diplomat who helped build much of the post-war international world order we today take for granted.

In 1944, Raphael Lemkin, an international lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent who had come to the United States as a refugee, coined the term “genocide” to mean “the destruction of a nation or ethnic group.” He had been hoping that the Nuremberg Trials taking place in Germany would create a precedent for a formal convention aimed at preventing genocide to stop the kind of atrocities that had occurred during the war from happening again. But as verdicts from the trials came in in the late spring of 1946, he had found his “most modest expectations thwarted.”

Later in the fall, a Pulitzer-winning journalist encouraged him to push ahead at the nascent United Nations nonetheless. The plan he came up with “in its entirety” rested on merging the support of a Latin American country, which would rally the region, with one from Asia with the moral and cultural standing to bring everyone else along.

Having secured the votes of Panama and Cuba he was unsure of his next move, until Dame Ashby, a British feminist and politician, urged him to consult with Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the leader of India’s delegation. Lemkin laid out a vision of “the unity of mankind in diversity.” Hearing the values her own country cherished, Pandit replied without hesitation, “We [in India and the world] are many races and creeds. Still, we have a concept of oneness.” She signed on, providing the requisite legitimacy he needed. From there, Lemkin rushed his resolution over to the office of Trygve Lie, the secretary-general, to be put before the General Assembly. After some discussion, the resolution was unanimously adopted, declaring genocide a crime punishable by international law, and instructing a relevant convention to be drawn up.

At the same moment that Lemkin initiated his efforts at criminalizing genocide, Pandit was charging the country of South Africa with violations of the United Nations Charter, for its treatment of Indians inside the country. She was up against Jan Smuts, the eminent statesman, who was supported by many of the world’s greatest lawyers, including Sir Hartley Shawcross, Britain’s lead prosecutor at Nuremberg, and Charles Fahy, the former solicitor-general of the United States.

But none of these men were a match for her “silver-tongued” oratory, as members of the press noted. In a series of public and private debates, she outmanoeuvred her rivals and won a striking two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly.

“Mine is an appeal to conscience, to the conscience of the world, which this Assembly is,” she concluded. W.E.B. Du Bois, the leading Black intellectual in the United States, praised her for framing her remarks in universal terms. She was, Du Bois asserted, “the leader of the successful assault upon the colour line.” It was a landmark event with long-term consequences.

As the assistant secretary-general, Henri Laugier, observed in inaugurating the new Human Rights Commission in early 1947, Pandit’s actions helped establish the precedent on which international human rights laws and norms would be based.

That same year, as tensions between Palestinians and Jewish representatives were on the rise, she found herself playing peacemaker. Committed to fostering amity between communities, she became involved with the Ad Hoc Committee for Palestine, which had been established by the UNGA in September. She put forward alternative proposals to solve the crisis in a way that fairly addressed the needs of Jews, especially those harmed by the recent war (World War II), and the needs of Palestinians, who were emerging as independent from the post-World War I British mandate. She faced life-threatening pressure to stand down but pressed ahead. While her proposals would not carry the day, she won the admiration of many within the Arab world while also maintaining good relations with the Jewish representatives.

At this fraught juncture, the world has much to learn from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, one of the 20th century’s most renowned and respected figures. She charted a path that even today might allow us to move forward together.

(Author: Manu Bhagavan is professor of history, human rights, and public policy at Hunter College and the Graduate Center-The City University of New York. He is the author of a new biography of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (Penguin/Allen Lane). The articles consulted for this piece include a piece in The Conversation, titled “The landmark Genocide Convention has had mixed results since the UN approved it 75 years ago”, a piece from the Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum titled, “Coining a word and championing a cause: The story of Raphael Lemkin”, and an article on Lemkin on the UNHRC website.)

[The above article appeared earlier in Hindustan Times and is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use)

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