What is the legal definition of genocide?

As Angela Rayner says she 'doesn't know' if Israel is carrying out a genocide in Gaza in the wake of the ICJ's ruling, here is how the UN defines it

Hague, Netherlands. 26th Jan, 2024. An interior view of the courtroom of International Court of Justice (ICJ) as ICJ set to give interim ruling in Gaza genocide case against Israel made by South Africa in the Hague, the Netherlands, on Friday, January 26, 2024. Photo by International justice of Court/ Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) was asked to rule on a genocide case brought by South Africa. (Alamy)

The discussion around genocide in relation to the conflict in Gaza has been further thrust into public discourse in recent days following last week's International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Israel should take all measures in its power to prevent such acts as it wages war against Hamas militants.

The ICJ's ruling was seized upon by both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate. Some highlighted the court's recognition of Palestinian's right to be protected from genocide and that claims by South Africa that this is being carried out in Gaza were plausible and needed further investigation.

Others pointed to the court not accusing Israel of genocidal intent and stopping short of calling for a ceasefire. Any final ruling on whether Israel is committing genocide could take years.

Politicians in the UK have subsequently been grappling with the ICJ ruling, with Labour's David Lammy urging Israel to comply with the "profoundly serious" ruling, and the SNP calling on foreign secretary David Cameron to be on the "right side of history".

Asked on ITV's Good Morning Britain if she thought there were "aspects of genocide" unfolding in the Gaza Strip, shadow deputy prime minister Angela Rayner said: "I don't know. The ICJ is the right place for that to be determined."

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What is genocide?

According to the Genocide Convention, the definition of genocide is any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. This includes:

  • Killing members of the group

  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group

  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group

  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

The United Nations treaty, signed by 150 states, emphasises that intent is the "most difficult element to determine". It adds: "To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.

"Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group, though this may constitute a crime against humanity as set out in the Rome Statute."

What did the ICJ say?

The court ordered Israel to refrain from any acts that could fall under the Genocide Convention and to ensure its troops commit no genocidal acts in Gaza.

"At least some of the acts and omissions alleged by South Africa to have been committed by Israel in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the (Genocide) Convention," the judges said. The ruling required Israel to prevent and punish any public incitements to commit genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and to preserve evidence related to any allegations of genocide there.

Israel must also take measures to improve the humanitarian situation for Palestinian civilians in the enclave, it said. However, the court did not demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, something that Israel says would allow Hamas militants to regroup and to launch new attacks on the country - something the group, a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK, has committed to doing again.

The court also said it was "gravely concerned" about the fate of hostages held in Gaza and called on Hamas and other armed groups to immediately release them without conditions. At least 15 out of 17 judges voted in favour of imposing the so-called provisional measures.

The Hague, Netherlands. 26th Jan, 2024. Large Palestinian flag and supporters, during today's International Court of Justice (ICJ) First ruling on Israel's Gaza war. The ICJ in The Hague ordered Israel on Friday to refrain from any acts of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza during its conflict with Hamas and to preserve evidence related to allegations of genocide. Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News
Protesters outside The Hague during the ICJ ruling on 26 January. (Alamy)

Reaction in the UK

A spokesperson for Rishi Sunak said the prime minister regarded the hearing at the ICJ linking Israel to a genocide as a "horrific irony". And while some Conservative MPs are said to be concerned at foreign secretary Lord David Cameron's suggestion Britain could bring forward formal recognition of Palestine as a state, the party has not been as divided on the conflict as Labour.

Angela Rayner's insistence that she "doesn't know" if Israel are carrying out genocide has received criticism. She told Good Morning Britain on Tuesday that the ICJ ruling highlighted a "very serious" humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, adding that "nowhere near" enough humanitarian aid was reaching "desperate Palestinians". She added: "I would do everything I possibly could to stop what's happening."

Referring to Rayner's previous decision to abstain from a vote calling for a Gaza ceasefire, the SNP's Westminster leader tweeted: "Sounds like Angela is reading to vote for an immediate ceasefire, no?"

Unite union assistant general secretary Howard Beckett was more blunt in his criticism. He wrote: "Angela Rayner claims she doesn’t know if genocide is happening in Gaza. The very next sentence she admits not enough humanitarian aid is getting into Gaza - the number one demand from the ICJ of Israel. Pathetic. Complicit. Unforgivable."

Watch: Angela Rayner explains why she abstained from voting on Israel-Gaza ceasefire

In recent days, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has had to distance himself from comments about the conflict from his own MPs.

The deputy shadow prime minister's lack of clarity has also fuelled criticism of Labour's decision to suspend MP Kate Osamor for suggesting that the war in Gaza should be remembered as a genocide in a post about Holocaust Memorial Day. Osamor subsequently issued an apology for “any offence caused”.

Last week, the party had to rebuke another MP, Tahir Ali, after he accused the PM of having “the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands” over his response to the conflict. Ali later issued an apology.

The internal strife points to Labour potentially being in a difficult spot as it prepares for a general election before the end of 2024.

On one hand, Starmer has made great efforts to move on from the era of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who was accused of failing to deal with a culture of antisemitism within the party. Starmer has been keen to show his support for Israel since 7 October, but has faced pressure from councillors to condemn the nation over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Starmer's office has begun polling British Muslim voters amid growing concern Labour is losing support from this core demographic, in response to its stance on the conflict.