IAN WILLIAMS2020 MAY
The United Nations Headquarters closed to the public “out of an abundance of caution” because of the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in New York, March 11. (TAYFUN COSKUN/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2020, pp. 31, 65, 74
United Nations Report
By Ian Williams
WHEN GIVEN THE NEWS that notoriously do-nothing President Calvin Coolidge had died, the writer Dorothy Parker memorably riposted, “How could they tell?” Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians and others in the Middle East could legitimately have a similar reaction to the news that the U.N. in New York was shutting down because of COVID-19. So what?
However, while such a reaction is understandable, it is not very constructive. Indeed, gratuitously eroding the world body’s standing in this way is tantamount to singing from Israel’s hymn sheet. In the current geopolitical climate, it is only U.N. resolutions that keep Israel from getting clear title to its looted land.
For decades, AIPAC and the Israeli government have pursued a dual strategy, to delegitimize the U.N.’s authority and its decisions, particularly under current Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon, while pursuing a charm offensive to win over potential allies in the world body. Their target delegations range widely—but most of them want to stay on the good side of Washington at all costs. Even so, for many years an overwhelming majority of member states stuck firmly to international law in the face of American pressure. Even now, most U.N. decisions, resolutions, and declarations favor the Palestinians.
However, enforcing those is a different matter, as history shows. When laws are regularly flouted, they slip into desuetude; frequent recidivism establishes the norm. In the face of force majeure, the one recourse the helpless have is to be repetitive, to keep reminding everyone what the law is, and that it is being broken. This can make the complainant tiresome to everyone else—especially when those being continuously reminded know it is true but are unwilling or unable to enforce it.
But even with eroding support, the record shows that all is not lost. The Security Council decision against the Indonesian occupation of East Timor was regularly reinforced by the General Assembly at the same time the U.S. wielded its veto against any effective action in the Security Council. Although Portugal and Brazil kept the issue alive in the General Assembly, the relentless monomaniac pressure from Indonesia eroded the vote but, by the end, the abstentions almost had a majority. Although the resolutions would have had a technical legal authority, it would have diluted their moral and political force had it gone to a vote. It took unexpected local events, the overthrow of the regime in Indonesia, to restore the rightful global order so that the Timorese could have their referendum and regain their independence.
It is in this context that we need to look at the absence of resolutions on Trump’s so-called peace plan. As it stands in the U.N., the position is clear and long established: the territories including East Jerusalem are occupied and any solution must be based on the 1967 ceasefire line. And, as a corollary, Israel settlement activities in those territories are illegal and the Geneva Conventions and international law apply. Of course, this includes the activities and judgments of the International Court of Justice. Sadly, to push for a vote on Trump’s plan might have eroded the Palestinian case diplomatically, if there had been enough backsliders. The shameful—or shameless—recall of the Tunisian ambassador for showing signs of a backbone did not augur well.
But even so, the U.N. provides the ammunition for those with courage. In particular, the referrals to the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Commission’s list of war crime profiteers in the Occupied Territories offer plenty of scope. You would never guess from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fulminations against “this renegade, unlawful, so-called court,” that the U.S. had been a signatory to the Rome Convention establishing the ICC.
When the Rome Convention was being negotiated, U.S. delegates played an important role in drafting the resulting text. The negotiators were sincere in their support for the concept, as indeed was President Bill Clinton, but they had to take into account his customarily invertebrate attitude to the American exceptionalists in Congress. To pander to them—and to be fair, to other countries with similar mindsets—the resulting text restricted prosecutors in the investigations they could conduct. Above all, the U.S. did not accept that its nationals could be tried elsewhere. American negotiators played what was becoming a traditional role—as they did for example in the Law of the Sea—actively engage in the deliberations, securing compromises in the documents, but then backing out.
Unsurprisingly, Bill Clinton who had the diplomatic game down to a fine art, signed the treaty at the tail end of his presidency and left it to John Bolton to do the actual withdrawal. Israel also signed, but then also withdrew from the organization that both countries now claim has no legitimacy!
Logic is, of course, for losers. So, it was fine for Israel to kidnap Adolf Eichmann from Argentina and bring him to Israel to be prosecuted for genuine crimes committed in Europe. The U.S. could arrest President Manuel Noriega of Panama and take him to the U.S. to be prosecuted under U.S. law. And, of course, the U.S. can insist that the Canadians arrest a Chinese executive and the British extradite Julian Assange on charges of breaking laws, which do not apply to those countries.
The absence of pushback from Canada and the UK has been significant since it implies acquiescence by major powers to U.S. diktats. It is worth remembering that Margaret Thatcher’s ambassadors resolutely voted for Middle East resolutions at the U.N. that were contrary to the vetoes of her chum President Ronald Reagan. It might be argued that this was futile, since the U.S. veto meant the resolutions had no legal force. However, this assumption neglects the very important role of the moral force of a united world community’s condemnation, despite the idiosyncratic support of one lobby-hobbled nation. The sight of the U.S., isolated, standing alone against the rest of the world, even its allies, sent a powerful signal.
However, since Oslo breached global solidarity on the issue, far too much ground has been conceded as countries’ diplomatic stands have eroded under the twin pressure of Israeli lobbies at home and Washington’s pressure abroad. Tony Blair shifted British positions to abstention when the U.S. vetoed resolutions and Canada and Australia went even further, sometimes supporting the U.S. positions.
It was hardly surprising that many EU countries followed suit. It was not that they actually voted to legitimize Israeli depredations, rather, that their lack of condemnation sent a signal. And, in the meantime, both Russia and China, having no post-colonial dog in the fight, were themselves engaged in various forms of tail-sniffing with Israel, where they now join the Saudis and their friends.
In this context, Britain is almost as important as it generally thinks it is! It is unlikely that there would be so many defections from international legitimacy if Tony Blair had not shown the way. It also puts into context the ferocity of the Israeli hasbara persecution of the British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who would otherwise, at the very least, have reverted to Britain’s original principled position and almost certainly would have pursued it vigorously and actively.
A welcome development, that predictably “outraged” Pompeo, was the long delayed release of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s database of companies involved in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territory. No less than 32 states voted in favor of the Human Rights Council resolution requesting the creation of the database, and 15 abstained. “But it is important to note that not a single state voted against it,” the HRC points out. But it is equally important to note the growing spineless minority, which is not prepared to condone Israeli behavior but will not overtly oppose it.
The Palestinian issue has been the nemesis of several previous Human Rights Commissioners for their temerity in thinking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applied to the U.S. and Israel as well. There has been heavy pressure for United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to quit, but as a former President of Chile, it is not so easy for Pompeo to give her a pink slip, although the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson was not protected by her former office when she was eased out just as Jordan’s Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein refused to stand for a second term because he would not “bend the knee” to the U.S. However, because of the ideological obduracy of the administration, which quit the council in 2018, it has little leverage.
But there is a message here. Too often the evil that politicians do at the U.N. goes unreported. Governments and diplomats are not held to account for their votes. Are the people of Canada and Western Europe, let alone those of the Arab world, aware of the shameless betrayals of international law and the U.N. Charter that their own governments and allies are practicing? It is long past time for BDS supporters to apply pressure on them. And, perhaps for President Mahmoud Abbas to call out so-called friends.