Dr GNM Pandor, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Shireen Abu Akleh Memorial Lecture Responsibility of the Academy in a Time of Genocide, 8 May 2024

Dr GNM Pandor, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Shireen Abu Akleh Memorial Lecture Responsibility of the Academy in a Time of Genocide, 8 May 2024


Programme Coordinator Salim Vally,

Professor Kammila Naidoo, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities,

Former Minister Ronnie Kasrils,

Director-General Zane Dangor,

Professor Samia Botmeh, Dean of Economics, Birzeit University,

Advocate Diana Buttu,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


It is an honour to address you today at the second Shireen Abu Akleh memorial lecture. This lecture occurs against a troubling backdrop of evident decline in media freedom with suggestions of complicity by practitioners that were previously ardent fighters for free media and expression. It is vital that academics and institutions devote more time to this decline and the growing threat to free expression. The decline began well before the advent of embedded journalists but has snowballed ever since. In the past journalists knew they would enjoy robust and active protection from fearless colleagues who would risk their lives to protect them. The decline we are witnessing cannot simply be explained away by citing wireless, social media or other technologies.


This week we mark two years since the assassination of Shireen, the beloved veteran journalist who dedicated her life to the pursuit of justice and truth. To date no one has been held accountable for her death despite the global outrage, and there has been no reported progress in the investigation at the International Criminal Court, and silence with regards to any other investigation.


The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory “concluded on reasonable grounds that Israeli forces used lethal force without justification under international human rights law” when they shot and killed Shireen in the occupied West Bank, violating her “right to life”.


The situation for journalists in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has become increasingly grave over the past seven months, they are marooned and abandoned by their colleagues even as the world annually celebrates World Press Freedom Day. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of 23 April this year, at least 97 journalists and media workers have been killed in Gaza since 7 October 2023.


The targeting of journalists in the Occupied Territories is part of a pattern of silencing the free press and is an outright contravention of international law. International human rights law obligates an occupying power to allow for freedom of expression and protests. The ability of journalists to cover events as they take place is essential, and efforts to intimidate and assassinate members of the media should not be allowed to continue with impunity.


If Shireen were alive today, she would have been in the trenches in Gaza, reporting day and night on the atrocities taking place in the hopes that the world would take notice and show their solidarity with the Palestinian people. She would have been devastated by the wholesale destruction of civilian life in Gaza and the unfathomable global tolerance of the unending suffering of the Palestinian people, many of whom have died agonising deaths trapped under the rubble. She would have been reporting on the immense suffering of survivors in Gaza who are now battling unprecedented hunger and starvation, as well as continuous military assaults by the Occupying Forces.


Regrettably, despite the ruling by the highest Court of the United Nations – the International Court of Justice – the Israeli state has continued its murderous assault on the people of Gaza with impunity, killing more civilians, maiming thousands of others, continuing the bombing of homes and other buildings and infrastructure, affecting every possible avenue of life of the residents of Gaza. This includes hospitals, ambulances, hundreds of schools, all 14 universities in Gaza, cultural and religious institutions and much more. The vast majority of the dead and injured are women and children.


According to the report by the UN Human Rights office on 18 April this year, UN experts have expressed grave concern over the pattern of attacks on schools, universities, teachers, and students in the Gaza Strip, raising serious alarm over the systemic destruction of the Palestinian education system. The report states that, “With more than 80% of schools in Gaza damaged or destroyed, it may be reasonable to ask if there is an intentional effort to comprehensively destroy the Palestinian education system, an action known as ‘scholasticide’.” The term refers to the systemic obliteration of education through the arrest, detention or killing of teachers, students and staff, and the destruction of educational infrastructure.


After six months of military assault, more than 5 479 students, 261 teachers and 95 university professors had been killed in Gaza, and over 7 819 students and 756 teachers have been injured – with numbers growing each day. At least 60 percent of educational facilities, including 13 public libraries, have been damaged or destroyed and at least 625 000 primary and secondary school students, and over 100 000 college and university students in Gaza have no access to education. The IDF has damaged or destroyed nine out of every ten schools, at least 65 of which were UNRWA-run facilities, sheltering thousands of displaced civilians.


Between October 2023 and January this year, the IDF bombed all the universities in Gaza. Consequently, Gaza’s treasured intellectual landmarks, including the Islamic University of Gaza, the North Gaza and Tubas branches of Al-Quds Open University, and Palestine Technical University have all been destroyed. Another 195 heritage sites, 227 mosques and three churches have also been damaged or destroyed, including the Central Archives of Gaza, containing 150 years of history. Israa University, the last remaining university in Gaza was demolished by the Israeli military on 17 January this year.


The obliteration of Palestine’s schools, universities, and libraries furthers the settler-colonial project of erasure because these are spaces that nurtured the creation and transmission of knowledge. The destruction of schools, universities, libraries, and research facilities has deprived Palestinians of the histories and knowledge housed in these institutions. Attacks on education are often a key indicator of state intolerance of views that do not reflect state thinking. They should not be tolerated.


The international academic community should have sent a clear message that those who target schools and universities in other states will be held responsible, and that accountability for these violations will include an end to collaboration, an end to donations and financial support. Universities are the bedrock of knowledge and truth and require freedom to do their essential work of knowledge generation and innovation. World universities must keep a watching brief on the reconstruction of Palestine and insist that the programme includes the reconstruction of education at all levels.


Today as educators, advocates, activists, civil society, and state structures, we should all play a role in the global struggle in search of truth and justice. It is our collective responsibility to raise our voices in solidarity with the people of Palestine who are fighting for their survival in the midst of the genocidal campaign being waged against them. University students in other regions of the world should feel the support of universities worldwide in a unified rejection of injustice harm and murder.


Our institutions of higher learning have a special responsibility to lead by example and provide moral and political leadership given that they claim to play a key role in advancing critical citizenship. This has been done by our institutions in the battle against apartheid and must be done again.


In November last year, more than 1 000 individuals connected to higher education in South Africa – including researchers, lecturers, administrators and students at public universities and other structures – signed an open letter “on solidarity with Palestine”. They “condemned Israel’s onslaught on the people of Gaza … and the targeting of schools, universities, hospitals and emergency support infrastructure”, and called on Universities South Africa and the Academy of Science of South Africa and their members to do the same.


The University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape have made official statements calling for a ceasefire and immediate humanitarian aid to Gaza. The UCT Senate has resolved that no UCT academic should collaborate with any academic on any research project if they are identified with the Israeli Defence Force. The majority in the Senate voted in favour of supporting Palestinian academics and the right to have debates on Zionism without being accused of anti-semitism. Stellenbosch University Senate members have called for an end to the brutal and barbaric destruction of Gaza saying that, “no crimes can justify genocidal actions in retaliation”. Unfortunately, the Senate did not pass a resolution on the Israel-Palestine crisis on the Genocide and Destruction of Scholarship and Education in Gaza, as it was not agreed to by the majority of Senate members.


One of the strongest statements has come from the University of Fort Hare, the university from where many of our struggle stalwarts emanated. The University of Fort Hare has called for an immediate cease fire that must be enforced by the United Nations, and the smooth passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza equitably distributed throughout the whole territory of the Gaza strip. The University has expressed its support for our government’s call for the International Criminal Court to investigate international war crimes committed by Israel.


Fort Hare has also committed not to pursue any institutional links with Israeli institutions as these have played a key role in supporting settler colonial oppression and apartheid and have been complicit in grave violations of human rights, including developing weaponry, military doctrines, and legal justification for the indiscriminate mass targeting of Palestinians. The university has committed itself to helping end the 17-year siege on Gaza, and called for the immediate release of Palestinian academic staff and students who are being held in terms of Israeli apartheid legislation and in violation of international law. We applaud Fort Hare for the strong stand it has taken, and our other universities that continue to express solidarity with Palestinian universities, scholars, and students.


Recently the renowned Palestinian feminist scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian was suspended from the Hebrew University for her outspoken stance against genocide. Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian had previously been unjustly suspended by Hebrew University following a month’s long public smear campaign by the university for having urged an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and describing Israel’s military assault against Palestinians in Gaza as genocide. While she has been reinstated, Israel has made it a crime to express any empathy and support for Palestinians, thereby making genocide the only acceptable public opinion. The mobilisation in support of Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian on South African campuses is commendable.


We are also buoyed by the growing mobilisation on college campuses across the world in support of the just cause for freedom and justice of the people of Palestine. Columbia University has been the locus of protest against America’s support for the war in Gaza. Columbia University has a long history of protest on social justice issues in past decades from the war in Vietnam, to protests in support of the civil rights movement, and the university campus movement against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. Columbia was the first US university to divest from apartheid South Africa.


The student encampment at Columbia University that started on 17 April has inspired students worldwide. Students had camped out in tents in protest over the war in Gaza and called for the university to divest itself from anything related to Israel. A massive crowd of faculty recently walked out in solidarity with students and with the movement for Palestine at Columbia University. Princeton University faculty and staff have also affirmed their solidarity with and support for the Columbia University and Barnard College students who are continuing their demand that the university divest from Israel’s genocide in Gaza and ongoing occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and other Palestinian land. Princeton has also called on Columbia University to reverse the suspension of the student groups Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia Jewish Voices for Peace.


Yale University has become another flashpoint in the conflict between pro-Palestinian demonstrators and university administrators. Demonstrators were camped at the university plaza protesting Yale’s refusal to divest from military weapons manufacturers as they claim that it makes Yale complicit in Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Students at the University of Minnesota were also recently arrested for demanding that their school divest funds from arms companies including General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Honeywell. Students at New York University and MIT are the latest to have joined the pro-Palestinian movement. We hope that this unprecedented activism by students in the US will also spur greater activism amongst student movements here in South Africa, and spur more vocal support from our university administrators, some of whom have remained silent.


It is utterly unacceptable that Israel continues to disregard the rulings by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as well as UN Resolutions and continues its unrelenting bombardment of Gaza with impunity. Israel has simply ignored the ICJ’s ruling which granted South Africa’s Urgent Request of 6 March 2024 for further provisional measures to prevent Israel from causing irreparable harm to the rights invoked by South Africa under the 1948 Genocide Convention in respect of the ongoing siege of Gaza. The Court was unambiguous when it agreed with South Africa’s assertion that the situation in Gaza had deteriorated significantly since the Court’s Order of 26 January 2024, as a result of Israel’s failure and responsibility to comply with the Court’s rulings.


The lack of accountability by Israel is increasingly clear. South Africa concurs with the assertion made by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Ms Tlaleng Mofokeng, when she aptly stated that Israel’s war in Gaza has from the start been a “war on the right to health” and has “obliterated” the Palestinian territory’s health system. We further concur with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories, Ms Francesca Albanese, when she recently highlighted that the continuation of Israel’s impunity and exceptionalism is no longer viable, especially in light of the binding UN Security Council Resolution 2728, which called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. In this respect, we call on the international community to act to bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure accountability for the victims and their families.


The evidence of the mass killings of civilians points to the perpetration of war crimes, crimes against humanity, including murder and extermination, and genocide as defined in Articles 6, 7 and 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, as well as violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, as well as Customary International Humanitarian Law. International Humanitarian Law prohibits attacks on civilians and non-combatants, underlining the need to protect human life during times of war.


South Africa was appalled by the recent grim discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 202 Palestinian civilians at Nasser Hospital in Gaza. This followed the reported discovery of mass graves at Al-Shifa Hospital. These grim findings necessitate immediate and comprehensive investigations to ensure justice and accountability. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over the situation in Palestine, and we have called on the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC to urgently lead a thorough and impartial investigation into this matter, that complies with international legal standards, to establish the facts and bring those responsible to justice. It is the collective duty of the international community to ensure that atrocities of this nature are duly prosecuted in terms of the Rome Statute and the Geneva Conventions.


South Africa is equally concerned with Israel’s use of starvation as a weapon of war. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has recently issued a new report, Manufacturing Famine, which concludes that Israel has been committing the crime of starvation under international law in the Gaza Strip. According to the report, the severe hunger that has developed over recent months in the Gaza Strip is the product of a deliberate and conscious Israeli policy. It has been openly declared by decision makers, including a member of the Israeli war cabinet, from the very beginning of the war. For months, Israel has pursued a policy of total blockade, complete destruction of the possibility of local food production through farming or fishing, and restrictions on the delivery of aid. The result of this policy is millions of starving people. During Israel’s years of blockade on Gaza, it has studied how much food Gaza’s residents need to survive. Israel has drafted mathematical formulae and put together caloric tables for this purpose. As B’tselem points out in its report, this means Israel entered the war with a vast amount of knowledge about the needs of Gaza’s population and made a conscious choice to deny them. Pushing hundreds of thousands of people into hunger and using starvation as a method of warfare requires full dehumanisation. The dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli eyes has accelerated in recent months.


According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in March this year, 2.2 million people (nearly 100% of the population) in Gaza were experiencing Phase 3 level food insecurity or worse, 1.17 million were at Phase 4 and nearly half a million people were experiencing the highest level of food insecurity – Phase 5.


In early April, Samantha Power, who heads the United States Agency for International Development, assessed that famine was already occurring in northern Gaza. The assessment was given during a hearing of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee. This was the first time a US official declared famine was already present in Gaza, after months of warnings that the hunger crisis was escalating.


For many months Israel has prevented the required scope of humanitarian relief, including food and medicines, from entering the Gaza Strip and particularly northern Gaza. The destruction that Israel sowed during the fighting has all but obliterated the ability to locally grow food or source it for production. Given these circumstances, the population’s diet relies almost entirely on outside aid, which is controlled by Israel. Israel is failing to meet its obligations in this regard by not allowing sufficient aid to enter the Gaza Strip and by failing to guarantee the safe arrival of the aid to its destination, even in areas it says are under its control. A concrete, criminal prohibition on starvation is set out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is defined in the Statute as a war crime, which falls under the ICC’s jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute. The Rome Statute definition of the crime of starvation is: “Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies…”


We continue to call on the ICC to prosecute these war crimes and to issue arrest warrants for those leaders in Israel who have ordered and presided over these crimes. The slowness to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these war crimes necessitates greater mobilisation among the youth and civil society around the globe to ensure that justice for the Palestinians is realised. It is time for collective action and for us to champion the call for implementation of UN resolutions and rulings of the World’s highest court. We owe this to the people of Palestine and to the memory of Shireen Abu Akleh.


Thank you.




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