The UN has Failed to Address the War on Gaza

After 40 days of devastating war against the people of Gaza by Israel the United Nations Security Council on November 15 finally adopted Resolution 2712 (2023). Drafted by Malta, with 12 votes in favor and three abstentions that came from Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The resolution called for the protection of civilians, allowing unhindered humanitarian aid to enter all parts of Gaza, stopping attacks on hospitals and civilians, and calling for the unconditional release of hostages. The passage of the resolution comes on the back of four failed attempts, two by the Russian Federation, one by the US and one by Brazil. However, the resolution fell short of calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and kicking off a process to resolve the conflict.

This resolution followed a stronger but non-binding General Assembly resolution on October 27 approved by 121 states, opposed by the US, Israel and 12 other countries calling for an immediate humanitarian truce. Now, with more than 15,000 killed in Gaza in the past two months, over 70 percent of them women and children, the UN has failed to stop the carnage of civilians. The Secretary General Antònio Guterres continues to merely call for a “humanitarian ceasefire” rather than a permanent ceasefire and end to hostilities. His role as a moral voice has again been called into question.

Dissent within UN agencies about how the war should be handled

Mounting internal dissent has drawn attention to the fractures within the UN’s most powerful bodies and its humanitarian agencies. The recent controversy over Cindy McCain’s awarding an annual prize for public service to Israel, while also heading the World Food Program has also raised ire, and questions about the political allegiances of the heads of UN agencies and the key departments of the Secretariat who are largely citizens of the permanent three countries: the US, France, and the UK.

The UN has failed to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The United Nations has failed to address this conflict though international law and failed to enforce many Security Council’s resolutions, particularly against Israel. The Secretary General’s weak statements on the conflict have undermined the UN’s role as a moral voice and arbiter and have influenced the statements by other senior officials. Most of Guterres’ statements have been toothless and defined by double standards, such as the condemning of Hamas for the October 7 attack calling it an act of terrorism, while failing to even name Israel, and its military, as a perpetrator responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, including those of his own staff. Furthermore, Guterres has emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense, has failed to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and take initiative towards developing a vision for a peace process consistent with international law.

An anatomy of the Secretary-General’s Response

The first time Guterres mentioned a humanitarian truce was following the Baptist Hospital Massacre on Tuesday, October 17. On October 24, the Secretary-General delivered a statement in the Security Council session that was held at the ministerial level under the chairmanship of the Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mauro Vieira. Finally, he dared to put what happened on October 7 in context when he said: “What happened on October 7 did not happen in a vacuum.” He added: “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation. They have seen their land steadily devoured by settlements and plagued by violence.” The Secretary-General, then, was asked by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, to resign. “You have lost your moral compass, and you cannot remain Secretary-General, even for another minute,” Erdan said.  After this attack, the Secretary-General retreated greatly and began to soften his tone, and has not repeated his earlier statements that the conflict “did not happen in a vacuum.”

Furthermore, Guterres then met with the families of some of the kidnapped Israelis in his office, and his representative, Tor Wennesland, the coordinator for the Peace Process in the Middle East visited Israeli families where the events took place. The Secretary General and his representative failed to visit Gaza, or the families of the thousands of civilians killed nor the families of Palestinians arbitrarily detained. The Secretary-General adopted the Israeli narrative in his statement on November 6, where he accused Hamas of “using civilians as human shields,” which gives Israel the needed excuse to attack schools and hospitals.

Reactions from other UN leaders

In contrast much more reasonable statements were issued by the Human Rights Commissioner Volker Türk who in his first statement called for the immediate cessation of military operations and attacks that are expected to cause disproportionate death and injury among civilians or cause damage to civilian properties.

Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian, most recently described what was going on in Gaza as “apocalyptic.” “Such blatant disregard for basic humanity must stop,” he also said.  His representative in Occupied Palestine, Lynn Hastings, appealed several times for ending the attacks on hospitals and called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. Israel recently decided not to renew her visa.

Catherine Russell, Executive Director of UNICEF told the UNSC that “more than 5,000 Palestinian children died in just 46 days – that is, more than 115 children per day over a period of six weeks.” She added that : “children constitute 40 percent of deaths in Gaza. This is unprecedented, making the Strip the most dangerous place for children in the world.”

The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Teadros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told the Security Council that he understands the feelings of anger, sadness and fear of the people of Gaza who have already suffered 16 years of siege and now face the devastation of their families, homes, communities and lives. He stated that the situation on the ground is impossible to describe. He said more than 10,800 people had been killed in Gaza, 70 percent of whom were women and children.  “A child is killed every 10 minutes in Gaza on average,” he said.

Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, one of the few UN senior officials to visit Gaza and see things for himself, said his organization lost 111 staff.  He described that as “shocking,” but he went on to talk at length about the destruction taking place in Gaza. “The continuous bombing by Israeli forces on Gaza is also shocking.  The level of destruction is unprecedented,” he said.

On November 16, independent UN human rights experts called on the international community to prevent genocide against the Palestinian people, condemned grave violations committed by Israel and called for an immediate ceasefire. “We are deeply disturbed by the failure of governments to heed our call and to achieve an immediate ceasefire,” they said in a joint statement.  

The ICC gives little weight to allegations of war crimes committed in Gaza

Karim Khan, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who came to the Rafah crossing to condemn Hamas in the harshest terms and left without condemning what is happening in Gaza or promising to pursue war criminals, as he did in Ukraine. He also visited Israel for three days upon an invitation from some captives’ families and issued stronger statements against what Hamas did, promising to investigate the crimes and went to Ramallah, while only giving vague statements regarding the atrocities committed in Gaza yet spoke about the Settlers’ violence.

Virginia Gamba, the Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, removed Israel from the list of shame for the past four years.  She visited Saudi Arabia on November 3 during the war on Gaza. We did not hear from her until October 18, in a dull joint statement that talked more about what happened on October 7, and then she disappeared completely despite the fact that the issue of the deaths of children is her principal concern.

UN needs to attempt to regain credibility

While the inconsistency and mixed response of the UN is not new or unique to the conflict in Gaza, the gravity and the extent of the atrocities committed would have required a much stronger and much more principled response from the UN leadership. It also begs the question, as to how statements can differ so radically, when the UN Charter, international law, UN norms and standards should be the basis for UN positions on the war on Gaza. The UN was founded on the principle of peaceful resolution of conflict, rather than armed conflict. It’s about time for Secretary-General Guterres to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and be straightforward in condemning the killing of civilians and his own staff. For the UN to regain any credibility it needs to act more forcefully to stop the killing of civilians – failure to do so will further erode its credibility.

Abdelhamid Siyam is a UN accredited journalist for the Arabic daily Alquds Alarabi.

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