On December 5 UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, wrote to the 15 members of the Security Council invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter. This article states 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.”
In his letter, Guterres called on the Security Council to vote in favor of a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. He said that the weeks of fighting had “created appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory” (the UN persists in regarding the Gaza Strip as territory occupied by Israel, despite the fact that Israel totally evacuated the enclave in 2005). He warned that “an even worse situation could unfold, including epidemic diseases,” and concluded: “The international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said this was the first time Guterres had felt compelled to invoke Article 99 since taking office in 2017, and he hoped the Security Council “will be moved to push and put in place a humanitarian ceasefire.”
Soon after Guterres’s letter was published, a resolution drafted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was submitted to the Security Council. It demanded an immediate ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
To pass, a Security Council resolution needs at least nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the five permanent members – US, Russia, China, France or Britain. When put to the vote on December 8 the UAE resolution received 13 votes in favor, the UK abstained, and the US exercised its veto.
While in the drafting phase the US had proposed substantial amendments to the text, including a condemnation of “the terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel, including those on 7 October 2023.” The UAE did not add this to the text.
Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward said her country abstained because there was no condemnation of Hamas. “Israel needs to be able to address the threat posed by Hamas,” she told the council, “and it needs to do so in a manner that abides by international humanitarian law so that such an attack can never be carried out again.”
Deputy US Ambassador to the UN, Robert Wood, told the council that the draft resolution was a rushed, unbalanced text “that was divorced from reality…We do not support this resolution’s call for an unsustainable ceasefire that will only plant the seeds for the next war.”
Guterres was right to draw attention to the dire and deteriorating living conditions within the Gaza Strip, but his proposed solution – the Security Council voting in favor of a ceasefire – is misconceived on practical grounds, if on no other. “Ceasefire” is universally defined as an agreement between two armed forces to stop fighting. The Security Council cannot impose one. The UN could certainly request Israel, a sovereign member, to lay down its arms unilaterally, but how can the Security Council, in Dujarric’s words, “put in place a humanitarian ceasefire”? What influence does the Security Council have on Hamas that could induce it to stop firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel?
In reality what Guterres is seeking is for Israel to cease its efforts to eliminate Hamas, thus allowing the terrorist organization to retain its control of the Gaza Strip, continuing into an indefinite future its unremitting intention of destroying Israel.
Instead of throwing a lifeline to Hamas by way of a ceasefire, Guterres should be urging the Security Council to encourage an increased flow of humanitarian aid into the Strip. At present the provision of aid is haphazard. Agencies send what they can when they can, A special UN agency could be established, charged with coordinating the efforts of the UN, governments, non-governmental agencies and charities to bring much enhanced relief to the civilian population, adequate to provide for its needs.
Among the partners providing the humanitarian cargoes are the US, the EU, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Program (WFP), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The work of these agencies needs to be coordinated and enhanced by recruiting other partners willing to contribute to a major humanitarian effort, so that the flow of aid can be brought up to the level required. Here is where Guterres should be devoting his efforts.
As for Israel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are taking the greatest care to avoid violating internationally accepted laws of war. Information released to the public daily demonstrates the steps they are taking, over and above what is strictly required of them, to minimize the effect on the civilian population of their anti-Hamas campaign. They are even distributing maps indicating exactly where they next intend to attack Hamas – while on December 7 Israeli military spokesman Elad Goren told reporters that the Kerem Shalom border crossing will open “in the next few days “as another inspection station to expedite the entry of more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.
There is another button Guterres could be pressing – urging the Security Council to demand that Hamas and its allied terrorist groups release all hostages immediately, on pain of being charged in the International Criminal Court as war criminals. Taking hostages is accepted universally as a war crime under international law, and if found guilty its perpetrators can be arrested and tried in over 170 countries world-wide. Perhaps a word from the UN’s secretary-general underlining the legal consequences of holding hostages would help bring about their release.
Deputy US Ambassador Wood said recently, “we remain focused on the difficult and sensitive diplomacy geared to getting more hostages released, more aid flowing into Gaza, and better protection of civilians.” These are the issues that should also be Guterres’s top priorities in the on-going Israel-Gaza conflict .
Meanwhile the faster the IDF can finish the job of disempowering Hamas and its allies, the faster Gazans can take the first steps towards recovery, and a future free from the baleful influence of the Islamist terror group which has deprived them of freedom and prosperity for seventeen years.