Test of diplomacy
With Israel’s killing spree continuing and its ground operations expanding in Gaza, a catastrophic humanitarian crisis has been unfolding. The Israeli leadership has defied growing international calls for a cessation of hostilities. Emboldened by unconditional US support, Israel has intensified its bombing campaign across the Gaza Strip resulting in heavy loss of Palestinian civilian lives. Over 8,000 Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes since the war began, 70% of them women and children and over a hundred people have been killed in Israeli raids in the West bank.
Diplomatic efforts have failed to bring the war to an end or even secure a pause in the violence. The UN Security Council has been the arena of bitter diplomatic battles rather than a forum for unified action to halt the bloodshed. The open debate on the Gaza situation last week laid bare sharp disagreements among member states, pitting the US, Israel and their handful of allies, opposed to a ceasefire against the rest, with many members urging an immediate ceasefire. This polarisation paralysed the world body responsible for the maintenance of international peace and stability.
Speaking during the debate, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the humanitarian situation as dire, warned of the risk of war spiralling throughout the region and called again for a ceasefire. He denounced “the clear violations of international humanitarian law” being witnessed in Gaza. His comment that the Hamas attack did not happen in a vacuum but after “56 years of suffocating occupation” produced an angry response from Israel’s envoy who called on Guterres to resign and announced his country would stop issuing visas to UN officials. This wasn’t the only clash in the world’s highest diplomatic forum. The Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki took aim at western countries for failing to show any concern for Palestinian civilians being massacred in Gaza. He also called inaction by the Security Council “inexcusable.” This was echoed by Arab ministers who addressed the Council. The Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers bemoaned the Security Council’s failure to call for an immediate ceasefire. As did Qatar’s foreign minister who called it “deplorable.”
Pull-quote: The UN Security Council has been the arena of bitter diplomatic battles rather than a forum for unified action to halt the bloodshed.
- Maleeha Lodhi
It was the US who resisted calls for a ceasefire and instead sent weapons to Israel and deployed more military assets in the region. This encouraged Tel Aviv to continue on a path of escalation. The US opposed two resolutions calling for a ceasefire, moved earlier by Russia and Brazil. But under mounting pressure from the international community, it put forward its own resolution. Other than recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, this called for a humanitarian pause to allow the delivery of assistance. A rival resolution was proposed by Russia that urged an immediate and durable ceasefire and for Israel to rescind its decision to forcibly relocate Gazans to the south of the strip.
The Security Council failed to adopt both resolutions in its session on October 25. The US resolution, which had no ceasefire provision, faced a double veto, from Russia and China. Explaining its action, China’s envoy Zhang Jun said the US draft resolution contained divisive elements and did “not reflect the world’s strongest calls for a ceasefire [and] an end to the fighting.”
“At this moment” he added “ceasefire is not just a diplomatic term. It means the life and death of many civilians.” The Russian resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire was unable to secure the required nine votes, with the US and UK opposing it and several members abstaining in the vote.
Given the deadlock in the Security Council, the focus shifted to the UN General Assembly often referred to as the world’s parliament. It met in a special emergency session on October 26 to discuss and vote on a resolution proposed by Jordan on behalf of the Arab group. Pakistan was one of its co-sponsors. This called for "an immediate, durable & sustained humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities." It demanded unhindered humanitarian access to deliver urgent assistance to civilians in Gaza. It also called for the rescinding of Israel’s order for Palestinian civilians to evacuate all areas in the Gaza strip north of the Wadi Gaza and relocate to southern Gaza. It rejected “any attempts at forcible transfer of the Palestinian civilian population.”
The resolution was adopted on October 27 by an overwhelming majority of 120 in the 193-member body, with 14 countries opposing it. Unlike SC resolutions, GA resolutions are non-binding and have no legal force but they carry political and moral weight. Its adoption showed that the majority of the international community want an end to the violence with the US increasingly isolated. Only four European countries voted ‘no’ with the US; many voted for the resolution.
This will mount pressure for de-escalation but will not halt the war. It raises the question of whether the deadlock in the Security Council means diplomacy has failed or is any diplomatic action possible before more carnage takes place in Gaza. For this to happen, the US will have to review its blind support for Israel and accept that its present one-sided stance is a recipe for unprecedented disaster in the Middle East that can push the region towards a wider conflagration.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha