Is the UN Failing in Gaza?

As the war on Gaza enters its eight month, 35,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed, warnings of genocide and famine are mounting and reports of mass graves with bodies showing signs of torture are emerging. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows to invade Rafah, a battered city in southern Gaza where over a million Palestinians are trapped, the United Nations, has been widely criticized for its paralysis and inability to fulfill its mandate to protect civilians and preserve international peace and security.

“It is at the political level where the UN is failing,” said Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank based in Berlin, Germany. “That’s the problem.”

But, even as negotiations between Hamas and Israel, to end the conflict continue to grind on – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is currently in the region to support talks – there’s one question that still begs to be answered: could the UN, including the Secretary-General, the Security Council and the General Assembly, be doing more to bring an end to the conflict in Gaza?

What the Secretary-General is not saying

Among those at the political level in the UN who have come under fire by observers for failing to show firm leadership on the crisis in Gaza is the Secretary-General António Guterres himself. In addition to “unequivocally condemning” the “unprecedented 7 October acts of terror by Hamas in Israel,” Guterres, in his remarks to the Security Council on Oct. 24, 2023, stressed the importance of recognizing that attacks by Hamas “did not happen in a vacuum,” but he did refer to the “relentless bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces. ”The Israeli ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan responded by calling for the Secretary-General to be fired. But unlike the direct mention of Hamas, Guterres idn’t identify Israel as the occupier and instead described the Palestinian people as being “subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.”

“If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t know who he [Secretary-General Guterres] was talking about because he never identified Israel by name as the perpetrator,” said Mouin Rabbani a non-resident fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian studies based in Doha, Qatar. In some speeches, Guterres has been more direct referring to the  “relentless bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces,” and “the Israeli military campaign” in Gaza as bringing “relentless death and destruction to Palestinians.”

Guterres, has often used similar language when addressing the deaths of United Nations Relief Works Agency (Unrwa) workers, by the Israeli military. Instead of calling for accountability Guterres offers condolences, said Rabbani. “More UN staff have been killed in this conflict than in any other” – a fact Guterres has acknowledged in previous remarks. “Where is the condemnation? Imagine if these people had been killed by Hamas.”

According to the agencies latest estimates,180 Unrwa workers have been killed since Oct. 7

In another instance, on March 18, while briefing reporters at UN headquarters in New York, Guterres described Palestinians in Gaza as enduring “horrifying levels of hunger and suffering.” His remarks were in response to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report warning of imminent famine in Gaza “as 1.1 million people, half of Gaza, experience catastrophic food insecurity.”

According to Aicha Elbasri a researcher at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, in Doha, Qatar, choosing to describe food insecurity in Gaza in neutral language using words like “famine” or “human suffering” rather than “deliberate starvation” caused by the Israeli government only obscures reality and “fails to convey Israel’s human rights abuses.”

Meanwhile, the Secretary General’s use of the phrase humanitarian ceasefire versus permanent ceasefire and end of hostilities – has also been scrutinized. But Mitchell Plitnick, writer and president of ReThinking foreign policy contends that the fine line Guterres is walking is directly related the UN’s relationship with the US, the global body’s largest donor. “I don’t think he can call for a ceasefire and risk alienating the Biden administration, said Plitnick. So, I think he’s trying to come as close to that as he can, without getting into a fight with the US.”

US veto dashes hopes for Palestinian statehood and a ceasefire

Palestine’s recent bid for full membership status in the UN, was blocked by the United States use of the veto on April 18. The move called into question the effectiveness of the international body’s most powerful organ, the Security Council.

Algeria tabled the draft resolution, which received 12 votes in favor and two abstentions from Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The Council has 15 members, but the permanent five members the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Russia and China, can veto the passage of a resolution.

Since 2012, the international community has recognized Palestine as a permanent observer state. This status, granted by the General Assembly, means Palestine can participate in UN proceedings but cannot vote on draft resolutions or decisions.

But while it’s the Security Council that’s most often scrutinized by the media, in the context of the Palestinian question and Israel’s current war in Gaza, it’s most often the US and its “ironclad” commitment to Israel – as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken often says – that prevents the Council from translating words into life-saving action.

“When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think one needs to underscore the role that the United States has played in blocking the UN Security Council from being able to play a more meaningful role,” said Lovatt. It’s through the use of the veto and “its “continued willingness” to shield Israel diplomatically, that Lovatt says has led to the current deadlock.

Since Hamas attacked Israel on the morning of Oct. 7, the US has vetoed four resolutions on Gaza. On Oct. 16, 2023, the US cast its first veto on a draft resolution tabled by Brazil that called for “humanitarian pauses.” Then, on Dec. 8 and on Feb. 20, 2024, the US rejected two separate resolutions that called for immediate cease-fires in Gaza. The US’s most recent veto occurred on April 18 when it blocked Palestine’s bid for full membership at the UN. 

After the vote on Palestinian membership to the UN, US Deputy Ambassador to the UN Robert Wood said that although the US supports Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood,  “premature actions,” even those with the “best intentions,” will not achieve that end.  “Sustainable peace in the region can only be achieved through a two-state solution.” said Wood, adding that Israel’s security guaranteed.

“Talk about the two-state solution is discourse for doing nothing,” said Lars Andersen, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies based in Copenhagen.

The recognition of Palestine as a state would have been politically important, he added, but would have no impact “whatsoever” on the ground in Gaza.

“What we need to see in Security Council and international society is recognition that the way Israel is conducting its politics is wrong,” he said. Without that, a resolution accepting a Palestinian state won’t change anything.

Additionally, on March 25, the US abstained on a vote that allowed a draft resolution demanding “an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan” and “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages” to pass, infuriating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From the floor of the Security Council, Gilad Erdan, described the resolution as  “shameful.” And in her remarks after the vote, the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, described the resolution as “non-binding,” drawing sharp criticism from other members of the Council who strongly disagreed.

In a rare move, the Secretary-General invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter in December 2023, a tool that allows him “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” But because Guterres offered no new information on Gaza beyond the humanitarian crisis, Elbasri said he missed a critical opportunity to use it to draw the Council’s attention to “the risk of Israeli genocide against Palestinians.” 

Could the General Assembly challenge the veto deadlock?

One measure available to the General Assembly and designed to address any veto deadlock in the Security Council when its permanent members “fail to exercise their primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case” is an initiative called “Uniting for Peace.”

Adopted in 1950, resolution 377A(V) gives the General Assembly the option to convene an emergency session, “in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression to make recommendations for collective measures including the use of armed force “in the case of a breach of the peace or act of aggression.” The recommendations are legally non-binding.

Last December, as the conflict in Gaza reached its second month, the permanent members of Egypt and Mauritania called for an emergency session in the Assembly after the US vetoed a cease-fire resolution in the Council. During that session, the international body adopted a resolution demanding “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” and “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as ensuring humanitarian access” in Gaza. However, if the political will existed and in the case of Gaza, the Palestinian Authority, the governmental body of the State of Palestine based in Ramallah, requested the General Assembly to do so, the global body could recommend that countries adopt other punitive measures, not use of force, against Israel including sanctions or boycotts. Ukraine recently used this option to create a registry of damages meant to record any claims of damage, loss or injury caused by Russia’s invasion.

Through the Uniting for Peace resolution, using Ukraine as an example, Larry D. Johnson a professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna in Austria says that Kyiv can ask countries to adopt a wide array of “non-coercive” measures against Russia including sanctions. But Johnson adds, you need the “political votes and support to get it done.”

On Tuesday, during a press briefing with reporters outside the Security Council chambers in New York, the Secretary General reiterated that the UN “is totally committed to supporting a pathway to peace,” in Gaza. He called for an end to the occupation – without naming Israel –  and for the creation of a “fully independent, democratic” and “sovereign Palestinian State.” But how the UN plans to concretely pursue these goals remains unclear. 

Dawn Clancy is a reporter and UN correspondent for PassBlue based in New York City. Her work focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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