UN diplomat Craig Mokhiber retires in frustration. Until recently, he headed the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. His own organization is ‘failing’ in Gaza, Mokhiber wrote in a farewell letter to that commissioner last week.
Mokhiber, an American human rights lawyer, recalls that the UN was also unable to do much about the mass murders of Tutsis in Rwanda, Muslims in Bosnia, Yazidis in Iraq and Rohingya in Myanmar. He now puts the deaths of Palestinian civilians in the same category. “Once again we see a genocide taking place before our eyes and the organization we serve seems powerless to stop it.”
Brazilian Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira was equally disillusioned when, after four attempts, the UN Security Council could not agree on a call to stop shooting. “The eyes of the world are watching us and will not miss our dire inability to act,” Vieira said.
Five countries with veto power
Brazil currently chairs the Security Council, the most powerful part of the UN. The council was founded in 1946 to maintain peace and security in the world, for example by deploying peacekeepers, imposing sanctions or, in the most serious cases, taking joint military action.
The council has fifteen members. Ten countries rotate their seats, five countries became permanent after the Second World War: the US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom. The world looks different now, but those five permanent members still have veto power. If they do not agree with a call or plan, it will not go ahead.
This paralyzes the council on issues in which one of those five countries has its own interest. In recent years, for example, the Security Council was unable to do anything about wars in Syria and Ukraine because Russia was obstructive. “We can close down the United Nations this way,” Ukrainian President Zelensky once said. He called for reform of the Security Council. Many countries, including the Netherlands, agree with him that it could use an update.
US does not allow criticism of Israel
In recent weeks, Russia, China and the US have vetoed resolutions on the violence in and around Gaza. The most supported proposal, drafted by Brazil, called for “humanitarian pauses.” But the US vetoed it because it said nothing about Israel’s right to defend itself. Louis Charbonneau, UN expert from human rights organization Human Rights Watch, has little confidence that a new resolution will succeed, “as long as the US in fact protects Israel and does not allow any criticism of the Israeli bombings.”
The UN is ‘trapped in political theatre’, wrote the leading magazine on international politics Foreign Policy. Yet there has also been success, says political scientist Anjali Dayal, who studies the UN at Fordham University in New York. “In order for major powers to want to become part of the system after the Second World War, they had to get something in return. So they got the veto. You can decide whether a war is reasonable or not, they were told,” she describes. “It has kept them involved over the past 78 years and thus prevented a direct confrontation between those superpowers.”
Now that the Security Council has failed to reach an agreement, another UN body can take over: the General Assembly. It contains all 193 countries. No one has veto power. The statements they vote on are not binding and mainly express what the world thinks. Last week, 120 countries called for a humanitarian truce in Gaza. The Netherlands abstained from voting because there was too little attention for Israel’s right to self-defense.
Food aid in Gaza
And then there is the UN executive branch. That matters a lot, especially in Gaza. Most citizens there have been largely dependent on UN food aid for decades, because the strip of land through Israel is virtually cut off from the rest of the world. The UN agency there, UNRWA, is almost an alternative government in the Gaza Strip and is one of the most important employers.
For example, UNRWA runs 22 hospitals and 284 schools. Many Palestinians are now looking for a safe place there. In search of food, civilians broke into warehouses last week where UNRWA stores grain and flour, among other things. The UN agency is “the last remaining lifeline” for civilians in Gaza, UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said. Seventy UNRWA employees have already died there.
Secretary General Guterres and his envoys are also trying to calm things down with diplomacy behind the scenes. In the past, such efforts have had some success – for example, Guterres helped broker a grain deal between Russia, Ukraine and Turkey last year, allowing Ukraine’s grain crop to enter the global market. Guterres, Dayal says, has now been “very, very vocal” about safe returns of Israeli hostages and the need to protect Palestinian civilians.
Israel reacted furiously when he condemned the murders of Israelis by Hamas, but also drew attention to ’56 years of suffocating occupation’ that Palestinians face. “He was very balanced, but the Israeli government apparently only wants to be applauded,” Charbonneau says. “One atrocity does not justify another atrocity.”
‘Possible war crimes’
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has now stated that he fears that war crimes may have been committed during Israeli attacks on the Jabalia refugee camp. But Guterres has no army to enforce his demands to stop the fighting. He has to rely on his powers of persuasion and on individual countries that exert influence. “The UN cannot act as a kind of world government, nor would most people want that.”
The UN is therefore as imperfect as the countries that make it up. The dictatorial Cuba was elected to a human rights council last month, and the equally dictatorial Iran was given the opportunity this week to chair a meeting of that UN council in Geneva. This is possible because member states vote on those items, and many countries are not that concerned about human rights.
Still, a flawed UN is better than nothing, says Anjali Dayal. Without the UN the world would be even worse off. “Powerful states can still do whatever they want, but there are ways to alleviate problems and hold people accountable. The alternative is for powerful states to do what they want – and then nothing happens.”