What is UN Article 99 and why has Guterres called for it to be used?

The UN Secretary General is dismayed at the continuing failure to secure a lasting truce in Gaza

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Reuters
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On Wednesday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter, a rare move to hasten UN Security Council action on the war in Gaza.

The article, which has not been used in decades, comes after repeated failures at the 15-member UN Security Council to pass a resolution calling for an immediate truce.

More than 16,000 Palestinians have died in the Israeli bombardment since war erupted on October 7 after a surprise attack into Israel by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people.

Article 99 simply says that “the secretary general may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security”.

It is the latter part that is key – the UN takes the risk of a major regional crisis extremely seriously, where a civil war or conflict between two countries looks as if it may spread, as is the case with the Israel-Gaza war, which experts fear is dragging in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

Article 99 makes the secretary general clearly a political rather than a purely administrative official
Former UN secretary general Kofi Anan

This risk is referenced at the end of the letter, which says the war has “potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region".

“Such an outcome must be avoided at all cost.”

Official UN documents describe Article 99 as having a preventative function – raising awareness at an international level that an already severe crisis could get worse.

Mr Gutterres’s letter to the President of the Security Council, Jose Javier de la Gasca Lopez Dominguez, began by condemning “more than eight weeks of hostilities in Gaza and Israel have created appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory”.

Gaza's Nasser Hospital overwhelmed with wave of casualties

Gaza's Nasser Hospital overwhelmed with wave of casualties

He then went on to condemn the “brutal” Hamas attack on October 7, before explaining how health facilities had collapsed in Gaza and that more than 80 per cent of the enclave’s population of 2.3 million had been displaced.

Halts to the fighting so far, including a six-day truce that came to an end on November 30, have revolved around negotiations between a number of countries acting as intermediaries between Hamas and Israel.

So far, those pauses have been largely transactional, rather than based on long-term effort to resolve the long Israel-Palestine conflict.

When was Article 99 last used?

Mr Guterres’s invocation of Article 99 urges countries to refocus on a lasting halt in hostilities, but the use of the article is rare, something that has drawn criticism from critics of the UN.

Some point to the failure to invoke Article 99 as Rwanda’s security situation collapsed ahead of the 1994 genocide there, which occurred despite experts warning it could happen.

But the article, seen as key in mobilising UN action, has been described by former secretary general Kofi Annan as making the “secretary general clearly a political rather than a purely administrative official” by requiring him or her to “act politically”.

Previously, celebrated UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold described the article in similar terms, describing it as “more important than any other”.

First invoked by Mr Hammarskjold in 1960 in response to mounting violence in the Congo, its invocation helped pave the way for a 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, which struggled to maintain order as the country became dragged into the Cold War. UN intervention also missed the worst period of violence in the Congo’s history, during a series of wars in the 1990s thought to have killed about five million people.

More recently, Article 99 was invoked by secretary general Javier Perez de Cuellar towards the close of the Lebanese civil war in 1989, a highly complex conflict that killed about 150,000 people, involving an Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon, as well as fighting between Israeli and Syrian soldiers.

The crisis also nearly dragged in France and the US, when terrorist group Hezbollah killed nearly 300 US and French troops with suicide bombs in 1983.

The UN had been involved in operations in Lebanon since 1978, but the highly dangerous peacekeeping mission was hindered by lack of co-operation from Israel and the warring groups.

Mr Perez de Cuellar said he invoked the article, “in order to contribute to a peaceful solution of the Lebanese crisis”, and the resulting fact-finding mission to Lebanon almost certainly helped support the subsequent peace agreement, the Al Taif accords.

“The Security Council met the same day, expressed its deep concern at the further deterioration of the situation in Lebanon and issued a statement appealing to all the parties to observe a total and immediate ceasefire,” says a document on the crisis in the UN’s archives.

Updated: December 08, 2023, 6:06 AM