Soft Power, Misinformation and the Role of the International Court of Justice

Soft Power, Misinformation and the Role of the International Court of Justice

[Subash Jai Devaraj is a 2020 University of London LLB Graduate currently employed with the Malaysian Bar Council as a Law, Policy and Special Projects Officer. He is a Fellow at the Centre for International Law Research and Policy (CILRAP) as well as a volunteer at the Platform for Peace and Humanity.]


With Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Gaza crisis, reports emanating from international bodies and media have directed their discerning gaze towards the weaponry deployed or threat of further deployment thereof, and the consequential ramifications of destruction within the relevant regions. While the exercise of hard power has taken the limelight, it is noteworthy that the ongoing conflicts are not bereft of the involvement and influence of soft power. 

The present discussion will delve into the significance of soft power and the correlation between such power and misinformation. Upon making several observations to that effect, the discussion will then progress to the role of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in light of soft power and misinformation. 

The Significance of Soft Power

As defined by Joseph S. Nye, ‘soft power’ refers to a nation’s capacity to sway others without resorting to coercive measures. In practical terms, this intricate process involves nations elegantly projecting their values, ideals, and cultural prowess across borders, fostering benevolence, and fortifying alliances. 

In the ongoing Ukraine conflict, the amalgamation of hard and soft power tools has become a defining strategy, with notable examples illustrating the influence of soft power. The U.S. response to Russia’s invasion leverages soft power through corporate withdrawals, economic sanctions, and currency markets, showcasing the impact of combining economic penalties with social and cultural measures. The deployment of intelligence as a tool blurs the line between hard and soft power, as classified information is strategically released to discredit Russian narratives and influence public opinion. 

Additionally, the emergence of hacktivist groups employing cyber capabilities signifies a convergence of hard power tools with persuasive aims, aiming to undermine Russian capabilities and influence public sentiment. As observed by Jennifer Kavanagh, these nuanced approaches, while avoiding direct military intervention, pose unexpected risks of escalation, prompting policymakers to adopt incremental strategies to mitigate unintended consequences. 

Ergo, soft power, with its ability to shape perceptions, cultivate alliances, and wield influence without resorting to coercive measures, has proven to be an invaluable asset in navigating the complex terrain of international relations. As nations strategically deploy elements such as economic prowess, cultural diplomacy, and global appeal, the undeniable truth emerges — the relevance of soft power stands as an indispensable force in shaping the dynamics of the modern world.

Soft Power and Misinformation

It is fitting to preface this section with an observation from Robert Winder:

‘More than anything soft power is, as we will see, a storytelling competition. And what recent time suggest – from the Iraq War to the financial crash to Brexit to Trump to Hong Kong – is that the world has lost track of what the story is… Which is why, as the world splinters into competing spheres, states are striving to present their own national stories in the most beguiling and persuasive light…it invariably involves discrediting the tales told by other.’

The swift rise of social media introduces the peril of rapid dissemination of misinformation and fake news, posing a threat to endeavours aimed at fostering relationships and cultivating mutual understanding between nations. Furthermore, certain countries employ social media as a conduit for disseminating propaganda and fake news to advance their soft power initiatives. An extreme example of this is genocide denial through social media campaigns. As observed by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, ‘nearly half (49 per cent) of all content on public Telegram channels that discusses the Holocaust either denies or distorts its history.’

With regard to the ongoing Gaza conflict, Nicole Zedeck, a journalist, claimed that during the 7 October 2023 attack, Hamas beheaded 40 Israeli children. President Biden supported the claim, citing pictures he claimed to have seen. However, Western activists and journalists demanded evidence. Instead of providing proof, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a photo of a charred body, later debunked as a manipulated image of a dog. Additionally, a circulated image of Israeli flag-adorned tents supposedly for displaced Israelis was debunked by anti-misinformation platforms as AI-generated and videos claiming to depict the Gaza conflict were later confirmed as adaptations from an online game, Arma 3.

By distorting facts and shaping public perceptions, governments and other relevant actors can manipulate opinions, exacerbating tensions and hindering genuine efforts towards peace and reconciliation. Injustice may prevail as misinformation skews the understanding of historical events or ongoing conflicts, hindering the pursuit of accountability and fair resolution.

With these serious repercussions and the recent news that South Africa has filed an Application against Israel at the ICJ, accusing it of crimes of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza, it is timely to examine the dynamics between the ICJ, soft power, and misinformation.

Role of the International Court of Justice (ICJ)

As the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (Article 92, United Nations Charter), the ICJ regularly engages in fact-intensive cases, necessitating a meticulous examination of details beyond mere legal inquiries, as the resolution of these cases hinges upon a comprehensive assessment of factual intricacies.

With the growing use of misinformation by States to advance their soft power initiatives, it is submitted that in the pursuit of justice, the ICJ’s meticulous examination and establishment of facts play a pivotal role in dispelling inaccuracies and combating the spread of false narratives.

In support of the above position, it is worth recalling the Srebrenica Genocide where in July 1995, within the confines of a small eastern Bosnian town, a lamentable tragedy unfolded. Here, in a heinous act, 8,372 innocent Muslim men and boys, with nearly 500 below the age of 18, met their untimely demise in a calculated massacre. This malevolent event, ostensibly conceived as a mere steppingstone in the realisation of the Serbian leadership’s aspiration for a Greater Serbia, instead unfolded as a shocking tableau of human frailty and political misjudgment. 

Less than 30 years after the horrendous incident, numerous Bosnian Serbs and political figures dispute the occurrence of genocide, giving rise to a post-war political landscape that resulted in the removal of Bosniaks from Serb territory. The violence perpetrated during this period is construed by some as a legitimate application of armed forces in safeguarding the Serbs’ community. 

Denialism manifests in various ways in Bosnia, ranging from outright denial of genocide to the dissemination of deliberate disinformation about the events. Some individuals reject the responsibility of Serbian forces for the Sarajevo bombing in May 1992, which claimed 26 lives and resulted in nearly 14,000 deaths during the siege. Instead, they attribute the attack to the Bosnian government, distorting the narrative. Milorad Dodik, the current leader of Republika Srpska, dismisses the genocide as a ‘fabricated myth.’

Another instance of genocide denial relates to the Vilina Vlas hotel in Republika Srpska, which served as a detention camp during the war, where numerous women were subjected to rape by Serb forces. Presently, the Republika Srpska tourist board has rebranded the hotel as a spa retreat, and the hotel management refutes the accounts of its previous role as a detention camp, dismissing them as ‘unsubstantiated rumors’.

With regard to the Vilina Vlas hotel, it is noteworthy that tourism assumes a pivotal role within the realm of soft power, emerging as a potent instrument in public diplomacy endeavours. In conjunction with destination branding, its primary objective lies in fortifying the allure of a locale to beckon visitors, thereby imparting a substantial multiplier effect on its economic landscape. Both destination branding and public diplomacy share a common pursuit of cultivating a positive reputation and image for a place, albeit driven by divergent motives. 

While destination branding primarily seeks to entice tourists with a pronounced economic agenda, public diplomacy, in contrast, endeavours to champion broader national interests encompassing economic, social, and political dimensions, all while advancing foreign policy objectives. In essence, destination branding and public diplomacy can be viewed as complementary facets of the same coin, synergistically harnessing a country’s soft power equity. 

Returning to the point on the role of the ICJ, on 26 February 2007, the ICJ issued its opinion in Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro. In its inaugural interpretation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), the ICJ concluded that the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims in July 1995 constituted genocide. 

However, concurrently the Court determined that there was insufficient evidence to directly implicate Serbia in the genocide or establish complicity. Despite this, in its groundbreaking decision, the Court asserted that Serbia had breached the Genocide Convention by neglecting to prevent the massacre and subsequently failing to mete out punishment to those accountable for the Srebrenica killings.

While the Court harboured some reservations regarding the precise intent to destroy a protected group under the Genocide Convention in areas outside Srebrenica, the verdict unequivocally dispels any uncertainty regarding the grievous suffering endured by Bosnian Muslims throughout the war. The Court confirmed that there is ‘fully conclusive evidence’ establishing that members of the protected group were systematically subjected to extensive mistreatment, beatings, rape, and torture, resulting in severe physical and mental harm, both during the conflict and notably in detention camps.

From the above analysis, it can be seen that the ICJ joins the ranks of other key institutions in affirming the occurrence of genocide in Bosnia, therein dispelling denialist narratives and fostering an informed international order. 

While the complete eradication of genocide denial remains an ongoing challenge, the ICJ’s authoritative rulings stand as a formidable arsenal in the battle against misinformation and propaganda that underpins soft power initiatives. 

A more recent example to substantiate the above position, which concerns the Ukraine conflict, is when Ukraine made an application to the ICJ contending that 

‘the Russian Federation has falsely claimed that acts of genocide have occurred in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts of Ukraine, recognized on that basis the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”, and then declared and implemented a “special military operation” against Ukraine with the express purpose of preventing and punishing purported acts of genocide that have no basis in fact’.

While it remains to be seen as to how the ICJ will decide on the merits, it is reasonably inferred that any ruling on the allegations made by the Russian Federation would assist the international community in realising the true narrative and combat misinformation from the highest level of governance. 


The international community’s faith in the ICJ to resolve disputes and act as a bastion of truth, contributing to the restoration of accuracy and rectitude, was alluded to by Joan E. Donoghue, President of the International Court of Justice in a speech before the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly:

‘…The current docket indicates high expectations for, and trust in, the Court. The extent to which this situation will continue will be determined largely by the way that States assess the substantive and procedural decisions of the Court.’

In conclusion, given the role of the ICJ, it is pertinent for Member States to support its judgment and fact-finding efforts because in the present globalised ‘post-truth’ era where soft power initiatives have become aggressive, the ICJ’s steadfast commitment to factual precision becomes a foundational element for cultivating a global milieu grounded in accountability, transparency, and the pursuit of authentic justice.

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Courts & Tribunals, Featured, Public International Law
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