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[Daniel DePetris] Can UN stop bloodshed in Gaza?

By Korea Herald

Published : March 29, 2024 - 05:31

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The United Nations Security Council, the UN’s most important body, is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security. If there is a threat to the peace, the Security Council is supposed to meet, deliberate and adopt measures to curtail aggression and safeguard international law. It’s a weighty responsibility for any country represented on the panel, particularly for the permanent members -- the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China -- most associated with the panel’s procedures.

That’s the ideal, anyway. In reality, the Security Council isn’t some magnanimous organization with a common platform, but rather a collection of individual states with their own self-interests. Arguments ensue, fingers are pointed, and blame is cast -- and the result is often deadlock. The Security Council is less a happy family and more like an estranged one forced to be under the same roof for a few hours on Thanksgiving Day. Sure enough, the insults flow, and the food flies.

This dynamic is nothing new for the Security Council. But the world has witnessed it vividly with respect to Israel’s latest war against Hamas in Gaza, which has claimed more than 32,000 Palestinian lives and turned most of the enclave into ruins. And it may have already pushed some parts of northern Gaza into famine. On Friday, the US tabled a draft resolution at the Security Council that condemned all acts of terrorism, called on all parties to obey international humanitarian law and emphasized the importance of establishing a cease-fire. For President Joe Biden’s administration, the effort was a common-sense approach to back up the ongoing diplomacy US officials are conducting alongside Qatar and Egypt to accomplish a truce and get the remaining hostages out of Gaza.

Yet for others, the US-drafted initiative was a cynical ploy that called for a cease-fire without explicitly doing so. The language the US chose to use -- “Determines the imperative of an immediate and sustained cease-fire” -- was viewed by Russia and China as mealy-mouthed at best and cynical at worst. “The US draft is a thoroughly politicized document, which only aims at pulling on voters’ heartstrings before the US elections by throwing them a ‘bone’ in the form of at least some mention of a ‘cease-fire’ in Gaza,” Russia’s UN ambassador said after casting his vote.

The US delegation was furious after Moscow and Beijing blocked passage. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused both of opposing the resolution because it was drafted by the US. There is some merit to the argument; Moscow relishes its status as the spoiler of US-led initiatives. Yet US officials are kidding themselves if they think they’re in the clear here. It was only weeks ago when Washington vetoed yet another Security Council resolution that demanded an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, rejected the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and demanded the unconditional release of hostages by Hamas -- items that US officials ostensibly want to accomplish.

To the outside observer, none of this makes much sense. Yet to members of that gargantuan UN bureaucracy, these antics are par for the course. Countries quibble over words, the construction of sentences and the meaning of certain terms, even as civilians thousands of miles away are dying from bombs, bullets and starvation. The war in Gaza is hardly the first time the Security Council has been unable to get on the same page. Of the 10 draft resolutions on the war tabled at the panel, only three have been adopted. For the international aid workers trying to get basic supplies into Gaza up to and including the UN secretary-general himself, such a situation is almost unforgivable.

Even so, it shouldn’t be surprising. As much as die-hard supporters of the UN like to paint the organization in the most idealized terms, the body as a whole is governed by realpolitik, conflicting interests and different agendas. While it may be hard to believe, this is a feature of the UN system, not a bug. Indeed, it’s highly unlikely the great powers emerging from the ashes of World War II would have agreed to establish such a system otherwise. No country is going to voluntarily sign away its sovereignty, especially if those countries possess significant military power and large economies. There is no such thing as global governance. As international relations scholars such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz argued long ago, the world exists in a state of anarchy. Individual states can’t rely on anybody but themselves to safeguard their prerogatives.

Viewed this way, we make a big mistake assuming the UN can rid the world of tyranny, war and poverty. Expecting the organization to do so isn’t fair. The UN can do quite a lot to alleviate conflict and address disasters, but none of it is possible unless the states that make up the UN system agree to do so.

What does this mean for the men, women and children who are currently living in crowded, makeshift refugee camps, trekking through rubble to see whether their homes have been destroyed or sheltering on hospital grounds? Unfortunately, nothing good. The war will continue for the foreseeable future, regardless of how productive the Security Council is.

In the grand scheme, the war between Israel and Hamas won’t end in the great hall of the UN Security Council chamber. It will end when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to end it. Given his repeated commitment to send the Israeli army into Rafah, which is now teeming with more than 1 million Palestinian refugees, the smart bet is that operations won’t stop anytime soon.

Daniel DePetris

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)