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10 Years After Israel’s Brutal War on Gaza, The UN Is Still Failing Palestinians

The United Nations has a dangerous history of failing to uphold Palestinian rights -- but pressure inside and out of the institution can change that.

Phyllis Bennis

KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA, PALESTINE - 2018/11/12: Palestinian children inspecting the effects of the Israeli shelling of the Makaniki workshop in Khan Younis. The israeli air force carried out air strike in the Southern Gaza strip area of Khan Younis on the night of 11 Nov causing damages to the building and human casualties. (Photo by Yousef Masoud/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Accord­ing to the Pales­tine Cen­ter for Human Rights in Gaza, dur­ing the week begin­ning Decem­ber 27, 2018, a dis­abled Pales­tin­ian man was killed by Israeli snipers, and 25 oth­er civil­ians were wound­ed, includ­ing five chil­dren, a jour­nal­ist and two para­medics. Those 26 Pales­tini­ans are among the 2 mil­lion or so, 80 per­cent of them refugees, still liv­ing in the Gaza Strip under mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion, with insuf­fi­cient water, food, and med­i­cine amidst destroyed homes and infrastructure.

The refusal of the United Nations, largely because of U.S. pressure, to implement the obligations that Fr. d’Escoto identified during the horrific weeks of Cast Lead a decade ago, created a dangerous precedent of impunity for Israeli violations of international law and human rights.

Many of the con­di­tions they cur­rent­ly face can be traced back to Israel’s war on Gaza exact­ly 10 years ear­li­er.

Two days after Christ­mas 2008, vio­lat­ing a cease­fire that had bare­ly held for more than six months, Israel launched what it called Oper­a­tion Cast Lead. The 22-day mil­i­tary assault killed more than 1,400 Pales­tini­ans in the Gaza Strip, over­whelm­ing­ly civil­ians and includ­ing hun­dreds of chil­dren, and injured thou­sands more. More than 2,000 chil­dren were orphaned. Vast swathes of homes, schools, fac­to­ries, agri­cul­tur­al land, hos­pi­tals, mosques, and UN offices across the crowd­ed, impov­er­ished strip of occu­pied ter­ri­to­ry were bombed to rub­ble. Crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture, includ­ing water, sewage treat­ment and elec­tri­cal gen­er­at­ing capac­i­ty, was destroyed.

Just hours into the assault on Gaza, the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Nations Gen­er­al Assem­bly (UNGA), Fr. Miguel d’Escoto, tried to imme­di­ate­ly sum­mon the Assem­bly in response to the cri­sis (Full dis­clo­sure: This author spent worked for Fr. d”Escoto’s office as a spe­cial assis­tant dur­ing the Oper­a­tion Cast Lead War). He faced push­back from those who believed that the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil should be allowed to act first, and was unable to con­vene an offi­cial meet­ing. His speech that night, how­ev­er, set the stage for a cam­paign through­out the weeks of Cast Lead to keep the Gen­er­al Assem­bly at the cen­ter of the UN response to Israel’s atrocities.

Fr. d’Escoto affirmed that Israel’s bomb­ing of Gaza is sim­ply the com­mis­sion of wan­ton aggres­sion by a very pow­er­ful state against a ter­ri­to­ry that it ille­gal­ly occu­pies. Time has come to take firm action if the Unit­ed Nations does not want to be right­ly accused of com­plic­i­ty by omis­sion. … I remind all mem­ber states of the Unit­ed Nations that the UN con­tin­ues to be bound to an inde­pen­dent oblig­a­tion to pro­tect any civil­ian pop­u­la­tion fac­ing mas­sive vio­la­tions of inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an law – regard­less of what coun­try may be respon­si­ble for those vio­la­tions. I call on all Mem­ber States, as well as offi­cials and every rel­e­vant organ of the Unit­ed Nations sys­tem, to move expe­di­tious­ly not only to con­demn Israel’s seri­ous vio­la­tions, but to devel­op new approach­es to pro­vid­ing real pro­tec­tion for the Pales­tin­ian people.”

By the next day, Decem­ber 28, the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil act­ed – sort of. The U.S. made clear it would veto any res­o­lu­tion hold­ing Israel respon­si­ble for its mas­sive vio­la­tions, and instead the Coun­cil adopt­ed only a press state­ment, with­out any enforce­ment capac­i­ty. The state­ment expressed seri­ous con­cern at the esca­la­tion of the sit­u­a­tion in Gaza and called for an imme­di­ate halt to all vio­lence.” In oth­er words, the Coun­cil did nothing.

But beyond the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil there was anoth­er cru­cial organ of the UN sys­tem – the Gen­er­al Assem­bly (GA). By far the most demo­c­ra­t­ic com­po­nent of the UN, and with­out a veto mech­a­nism to crip­ple its deci­sions, the GA should be the most pow­er­ful organ of the Unit­ed Nations – except that the UN Char­ter was draft­ed both in reac­tion to the per­ceived fail­ures of the League of Nations, and to make sure the allied vic­tors of World War II, and most espe­cial­ly the U.S., would remain in charge. There­fore, Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil deci­sions are con­sid­ered more pow­er­ful­ly bind­ing than those of the Assembly.

For decades the GA had been hob­bled by the view (con­test­ed by many) that its deci­sions are not as impor­tant as those of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil. It has had lead­ers who viewed their one-year terms as Pres­i­dent of the Gen­er­al Assem­bly as lit­tle more than glo­ri­fied pho­to ops. But just weeks before Israel’s Cast Lead assault on Gaza began, a new Pres­i­dent of the Assem­bly had been elect­ed: Fr. Miguel d’Escoto, the for­mer for­eign min­is­ter of Nicaragua dur­ing the San­din­ista years, a renowned priest of lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy and a com­mit­ted inter­na­tion­al­ist. As for­eign min­is­ter, he led the team work­ing close­ly with Richard Falk, lat­er the UN’s Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on the Sit­u­a­tion of Human Rights in the Pales­tin­ian Ter­ri­to­ries Occu­pied since 1967, as well as oth­ers in craft­ing Managua’s suc­cess­ful Inter­na­tion­al Court of Jus­tice chal­lenge to Washington’s min­ing of Nicaragua’s har­bors dur­ing the con­tra war. Fr. d’Escoto’s view of the cen­tral­i­ty of the Gen­er­al Assem­bly went far beyond that of a talk­ing shop or an agency play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to the U.S.-dominated Secu­ri­ty Council.

Some in the Assem­bly believed that the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, to which the UN Char­ter assigns the task of main­tain­ing inter­na­tion­al peace and secu­ri­ty, would have to take the lead, rather than the Assem­bly. In fact, after its ini­tial press release, it took anoth­er 10 days before the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil man­aged to cob­ble togeth­er a text that Wash­ing­ton allowed to pass – that is, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion agreed to abstain on the 14 – 0 vote, rather than using its veto. On Jan­u­ary 8, the Coun­cil adopt­ed res­o­lu­tion 1860 call­ing for an imme­di­ate, durable and ful­ly respect­ed cease­fire lead­ing to the full with­draw­al of Israeli forces from Gaza.” It also called for efforts to pre­vent illic­it traf­fick­ing in arms and ammunition.”

It was clear from the begin­ning that the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion would not work. An imme­di­ate” cease­fire, aimed at stop­ping the ongo­ing slaugh­ter of civil­ians as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, was nev­er going to be durable”; as long as dura­bil­i­ty” was the goal, imme­di­a­cy would nev­er hap­pen. And, by lim­it­ing the call on arms traf­fick­ing to the pre­ven­tion of illic­it” traf­fick­ing, the res­o­lu­tion allowed Israel to con­tin­ue rely­ing on its U.S. back­ers for an unlim­it­ed sup­ply of the most advanced weapons, includ­ing those pro­hib­it­ed under inter­na­tion­al law for use against civil­ians, such as white phosphorous.

To no one’s sur­prise, the Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion had no effect; the Israeli assault con­tin­ued, and the U.S. made sure Israel faced no con­se­quences from the rest of the world.

In the fol­low­ing days Fr. d’Escoto worked with Non-Aligned and oth­er diplo­mats to con­vene a meet­ing of the Assem­bly to respond. It was a con­tentious process, as there were dis­agree­ments over how much the Assem­bly res­o­lu­tion should go beyond the lim­it­ed terms of the text adopt­ed ear­li­er by the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil. Con­ven­ing offi­cial­ly on Jan­u­ary 15, the Assembly’s dis­cus­sions went on late into the evening over two days. When it was final­ly passed, Res­o­lu­tion A/ES-10/18 called for a cease­fire and for imple­men­ta­tion of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion; it did not go beyond the Council’s demands.

Accord­ing to the UN’s press release, the text adopt­ed this evening, put for­ward by Egypt, was the result of a lengthy debate over both con­tent and vot­ing pro­ce­dure, as it dis­placed a draft put for­ward yes­ter­day by Gen­er­al Assem­bly Pres­i­dent Miguel d’Escoto Brock­mann. The Assem­bly Pres­i­dent with­drew his spon­sor­ship of that draft, after a vote was request­ed.” The Egypt­ian text, unlike Fr. Miguel’s orig­i­nal pro­posed lan­guage, focused large­ly on the need for imple­men­ta­tion of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion – the same one that had failed to stop the Israeli attack days earlier.

How­ev­er, in his open­ing of that Assem­bly meet­ing, Fr. d’Escoto issued a pow­er­ful chal­lenge to the UN diplo­mats that spelled out the oblig­a­tions of the Gen­er­al Assem­bly, regard­less of what the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil might do or fail to do, that still has res­o­nance today: last week an Israeli air strike against one of our schools, a Unit­ed Nations school, killed at least 43 peo­ple. Many of them were chil­dren. And all of them were belea­guered and fright­ened fam­i­lies seek­ing shel­ter from bombs and air strikes. They sought shel­ter from the Unit­ed Nations when their homes were bombed, when they were warned to flee an approach­ing bomb­ing raid but had nowhere else to go, when they faced the most des­per­ate deci­sion any par­ents are ever forced to make – how to keep their chil­dren safe. Those fam­i­lies turned to us, to the Unit­ed Nations, and we failed in our oblig­a­tion to keep them safe.”

He urged his diplo­mat­ic coun­ter­parts not to let these fail­ures con­tin­ue. He also point­ed out the fail­ures of the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil: The Coun­cil called for a cease­fire,” he said, but the demand was under­mined by the insis­tence that it be both imme­di­ate’ and durable.’ This is dou­ble-talk. The oblig­a­tion for an imme­di­ate cease­fire is both uncon­di­tion­al and urgent. Our medi­um-term goal of a durable’ and last­ing peace can­not be achieved with­out address­ing the root caus­es of the con­flict. The res­o­lu­tion called for unim­ped­ed human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance – but it was under­mined by the absence of a demand to end the now 19-month clo­sure of Gaza’s bor­der cross­ings by the occu­py­ing pow­er in a block­ade sup­port­ed by some of the most pow­er­ful mem­bers of the Coun­cil itself. We all knew such a call, with­out imple­men­ta­tion or enforce­ment, would be ignored with impunity.”

The effort 10 years ago to use the demo­c­ra­t­ic and rep­re­sen­ta­tive strength of the Gen­er­al Assem­bly to take posi­tions and actions (such as call­ing on mem­ber states to impose an arms trade embar­go on Israel, sim­i­lar to the Assembly’s calls dur­ing the years of apartheid in South Africa) did not ful­ly suc­ceed. But, 10 years lat­er, Fr. d’Escoto’s speech reminds us that there is still an insti­tu­tion­al mem­o­ry and pos­si­bil­i­ty at the UN which can some­times be reclaimed. It won’t always work, U.S. dom­i­na­tion remains an all-too-con­sis­tent real­i­ty. But, when glob­al social move­ments, and some assort­ment of gov­ern­ments, for what­ev­er rea­sons of their own, bring enough pres­sure to make it hap­pen, the UN can still claim its place in glob­al move­ments against war and oppres­sion. It has done it before, and with enough mobi­liza­tion of those move­ments and pres­sure on those gov­ern­ments, it can do it again.

The refusal of the Unit­ed Nations, large­ly because of U.S. pres­sure, to imple­ment the oblig­a­tions that Fr. d’Escoto iden­ti­fied dur­ing the hor­rif­ic weeks of Cast Lead a decade ago, cre­at­ed a dan­ger­ous prece­dent of impuni­ty for Israeli vio­la­tions of inter­na­tion­al law and human rights. The con­tin­u­ing cri­sis in the Gaza Strip today, includ­ing the two mil­i­tary assaults that fol­lowed in 2012 and 2014, the ongo­ing block­ade, and the killing of hun­dreds of unarmed pro­test­ers dur­ing the Great March of Return by Israeli forces can be traced back to those fate­ful weeks at the UN.

Ten years lat­er, those oblig­a­tions remain unful­filled, as Fr. d’Escoto closed his remarks: We, the Unit­ed Nations, must call for an imme­di­ate and uncon­di­tion­al cease­fire and imme­di­ate unim­ped­ed human­i­tar­i­an access. We, the Unit­ed Nations, must stand with the peo­ple around the world who are call­ing, and act­ing, to bring an end to this death and destruction.”

The com­plete state­ment of Fr. Miguel d’Escoto Brock­mann is avail­able here.

This post first appeared at Pales­tine Square.

Phyl­lis Ben­nis is a fel­low of the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. Her most recent book is the 2018 edi­tion of Under­stand­ing the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli Con­flict: A Primer.
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