Gaza is exposing the self-interest that's been undermining the UN

The organisation is letting its foundations, purpose and ethos become neutered

Nick Donaldson
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The United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution calling for humanitarian pauses, as well as urgent aid for Gazans, as war continues to engulf the besieged territory. Unlike Assembly resolutions, those from the UNSC are legally binding. One might expect the resolution to therefore be implemented but in reality, some parties opt not to adhere or enact them, with varying responses from the international community.

UN flags were flown at half-mast on Monday to mark a day of mourning for the more than 100 UN aid workers killed in Gaza since Israel launched its retaliation for the Hamas attacks of October 7. In the face of what is fast becoming one of the deadliest conflicts in recent history, global leaders, including the US and UK, continue to ignore the many arms of the UN that have called for a ceasefire and de-escalation. By doing so these countries not only risk further escalation in the Middle East, but also risk fatally undermining the very institutions and international rights structures that they purport to uphold.

The UN and the Geneva Conventions were born out of the ashes of the Second World War, wherein the scale of atrocity instilled a shared sense of humanity across nations. Determined to prevent a repeat of the past, global leaders came together to establish international human rights standards during wartime. It had been hoped that the UN would be effective, not only in providing humanitarian aid during conflicts, but in fostering a new world order capable of preventing wars before they emerge.

There are competing priorities within the structures of the UN. It operates under a code of impartiality, but there is nothing neutral about a body that has, for the better part of the past century, granted five countries selected in the 1940s the power to veto resolutions, regardless of if they had been passed by a majority of the Assembly. The structure and framework of the UN has allowed the foundations, purpose and ethos of the United Nations as an international body to become neutered by political self-interest.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN declared that the Security Council resolution would have “no meaning” – and Israel has previously ignored UN Security Council resolutions. If these legally binding resolutions can be ignored without consequence, then what purpose do they serve?

And yet, we need the UN. It is the only international body that provides a space for global leaders to meet, talk, and – with any luck – understand one another a little better. As a humanitarian organisation, the UN has proved effective. Where it loses traction is in achieving political consensus, and – more importantly – in forcing political change.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said that Gaza is becoming “a graveyard for children”. In a rare joint statement, the heads of several UN departments, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the head of the World Health Organisation, and the UN aid chief, collectively called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire”, adding that: “An entire population is besieged and under attack, denied access to the essentials for survival, bombed in their homes, shelters, hospitals and places of worship. This is unacceptable."

But little changes. The US, and countries such as Germany, the UK and Australia have rebuffed calls for a ceasefire. By ignoring the calls from the UN, these leaders relegate the institutions to nothing more than a talking shop, and the longer that political leaders prevent the UN from acting, the more faith in these institutions will ebb away.

The country with the most influence over Israel is the US. On the surface, the Biden administration continues to fully support Israel, but when that support comes at a political cost, we may see a shift. New polling from Reuters/Ipsos indicates that public support for Israel is waning, with a majority of respondents now supporting a ceasefire. A U-turn could be on the horizon, but as the death toll steadily rises and the humanitarian crisis worsens, it may be too late.

Global leaders, including the US and UK, continue to ignore the many arms of the UN that have called for a ceasefire and de-escalation

Hamas’s attack on October 7 was the bloodiest in Israel’s history. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has internally displaced 1.6 million people, destroyed 45 per cent of the enclave’s housing infrastructure, and resulted in more than 11,000 deaths – all in little more than a month. The targeting of civilians and the taking of hostages are breaches of international law, as are collective punishment, forced displacement and targeting both civilian infrastructure and healthcare facilities.

International humanitarian law does not take sides. It is intended to safeguard all citizens regardless of creed, gender, religion or ethnicity. If citizens in Gaza can’t rely on their rights, then why should any of the rest of us? If Israel can claim to be abiding by international law, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, what prevents other countries from following suit?

There are international mechanisms and legal proceedings that can be actioned in addition to the UN Security Council resolution. The International Criminal Court has been urged by family members of those killed by Hamas to examine the attacks. The ICC has also received appeals from human rights groups that oppose Israel’s military response in Gaza, requesting they investigate war crimes. There is precedent for such legal action; the ICC opened an investigation into potential war crimes in Israel and Palestine in 2021.

Arab League and Organisation for Islamic Co-operation countries, which met in Riyadh last week for an extraordinary summit, have called for the ICC to conclude its report and for the establishment of specialised legal teams to gather and document evidence in Gaza in preparation for future legal proceedings. There is scepticism as to whether or not Israel would co-operate with the ICC or accept any of its judgments.

What comes after this conflict is already being discussed at the political level. This feels premature against a backdrop of continuing violence – mass graves are not fertile ground to grow a lasting peace. But when the “after” does arrive, it will not purely be the political future of Palestine on the table. After the First World War, we had the League of Nations. The Second World War resulted in the creation of the UN. As conflict and war returns to Europe and the Middle East, in tandem with major global threats such as climate change, we may need a new – or at the very least – reformed UN, one that countries respect enough to listen to.

What happens in Gaza could have enormous, lasting consequences. A lack of a sense of urgency to intervene weakens the global community and could embolden other actors to open additional points of conflict – not only in the Middle East, but in Europe, where Russia’s war in Ukraine continues unabated, and under the cover of the escalations in Gaza. The reports of healthcare facilities and refugee camps in Gaza being targeted bring us to an inflection point. The time left to intervene is dwindling, as the Palestinian enclave sinks further into a state of destruction and as we watch day-in day-out the death toll rising, people starving and disease spreading.

With each minute, we edge closer to the eleventh hour, where the absence of global co-operation or a basic sense of humanity will significantly disrupt the course of our shared futures, creating a riptide in international rights and the future of diplomacy.

Published: November 17, 2023, 6:00 PM