The United Nations Fails in Palestine, Again

In a November 6 press conference on the Middle East, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres characterized the situation in the Gaza Strip as “a crisis of humanity.” Gaza, he noted, “is becoming a graveyard for children.” In the space of one month, it had also become a cemetery for more UN staff than have been killed in any other conflict in the organization’s history.

Given that Guterres was describing, in detail, a calamity of apocalyptic proportions, one might have expected him to at least specify who had been eradicating the lives of children in the Gaza Strip with wild abandon for an entire month, and to unreservedly condemn the killing of unprecedented numbers of his staff. Yet the Secretary-General pointedly refrained from doing so, “mourning” them instead, and has yet to call for an investigation into the deaths of 89 UN employees, or demand that those responsible be held to account.

Double standards in naming of perpetrators

Even when confronted with war crimes and crimes against humanity, there is an argument to be made that world leaders actively working to prevent further escalation of an armed conflict and promote a cessation of hostilities should abstain from statements that are likely to make engagement with key parties complicated if not impossible. Yet Guterres does not fall into this category. “I reiterate,” he stated in the same press conference, “my utter condemnation of the abhorrent acts of terror perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October,” and for good measure repeated unsubstantiated Israeli allegations that “Hamas and other [Palestinian] militants use civilians as human shields.” Not less importantly, the Secretary-General once again refused to call for an immediate and comprehensive end to all hostilities.

Despite the killing of more than ten thousand Palestinians and wounding of tens of thousands more in the most intensive bombing campaign in the history of the conflict-ridden Middle East; despite repeated Israeli attacks against medical facilities and personnel, schools, and UN facilities; despite the displacement of perhaps a million people and threats of ethnic cleansing emanating from the highest levels of the Israeli government; and despite Israel’s imposition of a comprehensive siege on an entire society comprising the severance of food, water, medicine, fuel, and electricity, Guterres would, a full month after the war erupted, not go beyond calls for a “humanitarian ceasefire” and solicitation of USD 1.2 billion for emergency relief.

Strong words for invasion of Ukraine, weak statements on war on Gaza

The Secretary-General’s timidity, to put it mildly, stands in sharp contrast to his response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. On the very first day of that invasion, Guterres did not mince his words, and called out a permanent member of the UN Security Council for conduct that “conflicts directly with the United Nations Charter”, is “wrong” and also “unacceptable.” “Putin: stop the military operation,” Guterres demanded. “Bring the troops back to Russia,” he added.

Judging by the statements of other senior UN officials it is evident that instructions have been issued by the Secretary-General’s office to not directly or explicitly accuse Israel of responsibility for its actions or the realities it is creating, except in the most general terms. Expressions of shock and horror are permitted, but largely to the extent one would be horrified by the impact of an earthquake or hurricane rather than war crimes perpetrated by an identified state. Thus Volker Türk, the non-descript UN Human Rights chief, on 23 October issued a lengthy statement that, rather than clearly identifying human rights violations and the parties responsible, and then presenting concrete proposals for remedy and accountability, was published under the appropriately anodyne heading,  “Türk says humanity must come first, urges humanitarian ceasefire.” The UN’s Under-Secretary-General of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), Rosemary DiCarlo, for her part remains enveloped in an impenetrable cloak of invisibility. While more outspoken than his peers, United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini’s statements have also not graduated beyond “humanitarian ceasefire,” and left us guessing about the identity of those who have killed dozens of his staff, often along with their families, and bombed numerous installations belonging to the agency he runs.

Cowardice or political caliculus?

While the paralysis of the UN Security Council has a clear explanation given the determination of the United States to veto resolutions critical of Israel and the intensified polarization within the Council more generally in recent years, what can only be characterized as the UN Secretariat’s dereliction of duty is a more complex phenomenon. In part it’s personal: Guterres is a former European prime minister, DiCarlo a former US State Department functionary, and all too often it shows. Guterres additionally served for ten years as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and often appears to approach matters from the vantage point of his previous position – one which he references to the point of tedium.

A further complication is the quality of senior staff recruited by Guterres. Türk, for example, pales in stature next to his predecessors, individuals like Mary Robinson, Michelle Bachelet, Navi Pillay, and Prince Zeid, who were appointed because they had already made their mark on the global stage. Turk by contrast had only made his mark on Guterres, his former boss at UNHCR. DiCarlo, unlike those who came before her a virtual unknown in diplomatic circles, was called out of retirement not to fulfil the highly demanding job of Under-Secretary-General of the DPPA, but to ensure its main responsibilities would be exercised by her boss and his personal staff. In many cases the primary qualification to join this cohort appears to be either fluency in Portuguese or unquestioned personal loyalty rather than professional expertise. There is a reason morale at the UN has under Guterres plumbed previously unknown depths.

It would appear there is also a hefty dose of political cowardice at play. Guterres has throughout his tenure consistently shied away from explicit condemnation of Israeli conduct, for the simple reason that he is terrified of alienating Washington. Memories of Boutros-Ghali’s fate run deep, even among those serving their second and final term. It will also not have helped that when Guterres made the elementary observation that the current crisis has a context and did not emerge in a vacuum, Gilad Erdan, Israel’s clownish Permanent Representative to the UN, demanded his immediate resignation, and along with his staff donned a yellow Star of David at the Security Council.

A setback for a rules-based international order

Showing genuine emotion, the Secretary-General expressed “shock” at the “misrepresentation” of his previous statement by Israel and its apologists. Similar distress about the need for a cessation of hostilities would do much to restore morale within the UN and its credibility among the international community. But statesmanship and a commitment to the promotion of the UN’s mandate is unfortunately at a premium in today’s world body, particularly among those whose job it is to uphold the principles of the UN Charter.

It has been observed that the current crisis in the Middle East has dealt a fatal blow to the rules-based international order, the international system constructed by Western powers as an alternative to international law and the UN Charter. The UN leadership’s response to this crisis, and particularly its refusal to demand a measure as simple as an end to hostilities that according to the Secretary-General has transformed the Gaza Strip into a “graveyard for children,” may yet leave a stain on the world body from which it will be unable to recover. It would be a tragic development, induced by yet another failure by the world body to constructively address the question of Palestine, the international question par excellence which has been on the UN’s agenda from virtually the moment it was established.

Mouin Rabbani is a researcher, analyst and commentator specializing in Palestinian affairs, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the contemporary Middle East. He served as head of political affairs in the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria in 2014-2015. He was previously head of Middle East at CMI-Martti Ahtisaari Peace Foundation and Senior Middle East analyst and Special Advisor on Israel-Palestine with the International Crisis Group. Rabbani is Co-Editor of Jadaliyya and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies.

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