9th Dec 2023


Iraq to Gaza via Ukraine — the moral bankruptcy of the West

  • Europe and the US are sending the message that human rights and international law apply to some, but not to others. This attitude makes the West morally bankrupt in the eyes of the rest of the world (Photo: Annie Spratt)
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The conflict between Israel and Hamas is being followed very closely around the world. I noticed this even in Japan where I stayed for a few days. The war made the front pages of all newspapers every day.

That in itself is not strange. That is the case with any new conflict. What did surprise me were the reactions of the Japanese I spoke to. They were especially hard on the West, especially the unconditional support of most Western countries for Israel.

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To be clear, each of them strongly condemned Hamas' attack on Israeli soil, and deplored the many civilian casualties.

But they had no sympathy for the unilateral support for Israel from US president Joe Biden and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. One professor of European politics even literally told me that he had always found von der Leyen an excellent president of the European Commission, but that he had now lost all respect for her.

Before we haughtily dismiss criticism from faraway Japan, it is nevertheless important to underline that Japan has been the West's most important political and military partner in Asia since World War II.

Certainly for the United States, the country is crucial in its growing disagreement with China. But above all, if Japan is already dropping out, what about the rest of the world? Diplomats have known it for some time: the West has a serious credibility problem that has grown to the point of moral bankruptcy in recent weeks.


Since 1945, Europe and the US have proclaimed the universality of democracy, free market economy and the rule of law, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the cornerstone. The Soviet Union's rival system imploded in 1991, revealing the superiority of the Western system. In the 1990s, the number of democracies increased, world trade grew and the West placed increasing emphasis on human rights and international law. This was accepted worldwide, albeit sometimes reluctantly.

The West's credibility on human rights and international law took a serious dent with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The war was supposedly justified by the US, but soon turned out to be based on lies. Moreover, the Western alliance was found to have severely violated human rights in prisons like Abu Graib. As if this were not enough, the US kidnapped suspects in the Middle East and Afghanistan and flew secret CIA planes to Guantanamo, a prison in Cuba, where US law did not apply.

The fact that in 2003 the West asked the entire world for support for an operation that ultimately violated international law resurfaced in February 2022, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Europeans and Americans tried to organise global sanctions against Russia. The main argument was that Russia had violated international law.

Support from the so-called Global South for these sanctions was surprisingly low. A former foreign minister of Pakistan literally said, "In 2003, the US violated international law but asked for our support. Now Russia is violating the same law and we have to sanction it. We are not going to do that."


There is no doubt that the whole world watched Hamas' attack on Israeli soil on 7 October with horror. Unlike Palestinians in general, Hamas has few sympathisers in the rest of the world. But Israel's response to Gaza also meets with much outrage and incomprehension. Why must thousands of civilians, about half of them children, die as some kind of collective punishment for an attack of which they had no knowledge?

The difference between Europe and the US, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other, is that in the West there is a historical sense of guilt towards the Jewish community since the Holocaust. That guilt is fully justified. The Holocaust was the biggest and worst genocide that ever took place. It is that guilt that ensures that countries like Germany will always support Israel. That in itself is understandable.

The difference is that the rest of the world does not share that guilt because it simply does not bear responsibility for it. In a way, those countries look at the current conflict in Gaza with a more objective view.

They see that Israel is currently in Gaza not only flouting international law, but moreover does not even seem to care about it. Those countries also see that the West apparently supports Israel in this 100 percent. Europe and the US are thus sending the message that human rights and international law apply to some, but not to others. Some countries that flout rights are sanctioned, while others are simply supported.

It is this attitude that makes the West morally bankrupt in the eyes of the rest of the world. With what authority can the West still criticise China for its Uighur re-education camps? Who will still listen when Europe publishes a new report on problems with democracy and human rights in Turkey?

This is not only problematic for the credibility of Europe and the US. The biggest problem is that human rights, international law and democracy themselves are being undermined.

Yet these are the values on which the post-1945 world order was built. When the standard-bearers of these values, trample on their universality and present compliance as optional, the end is not far off. When people even in Japan start wondering what on earth the West is doing, there is reason enough to be seriously concerned.

Author bio

Koert Debeuf is distinguished adjunct professor of the Middle East at Vrije Universiteit Brussels, author of Why this is not the last war. On the psychology of international conflicts", and chair of the board of EUobserver.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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