According to the Palestinian 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 two 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.
Many of the conditions they currently face can be traced back to Israel’s war on Gaza exactly ten 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. 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 ten 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 ten 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, ten 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.