New Delhi: For the third time in seven days, the United Nations Security Council met and criticised violence against civilians in Gaza and Israel – but continued to struggle to agree on an outcome with the United States blocking consensus.
India, currently a non-permanent member, urged an immediate cessation of hostilities and urged “both sides to show extreme restraint, desist from actions that exacerbate tensions, and refrain from attempts to unilaterally change the existing status-quo, including in East Jerusalem and its neighbourhood.”
The last time the UN Security Council assembled on a Sunday was over four and half years ago. Then, it was an emergency meeting to discuss the Syrian government’s brutal military assaults on the city of Aleppo. The US had accused Russia of “sponsoring barbarism” and war crimes, while the latter defended that the Assad regime targeted only terrorists.
This Sunday, the UN’s 15-member top body met again – as a mid-way compromise. Norway, China and Tunisia had pushed for an open meeting on May 14 to discuss the violence around Gaza. The US, in turn, proposed a later date, May 18, for the debate. The mid-point was Sunday.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of the rising toll from airstrikes which have taken the lives of 198 Palestinians and eight people in Israel, including an Indian national. At least 58 children have been killed in Gaza, with the youngest being six months old. One five-year-old Israeli boy died in the rocket attacks launched by the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the “fighting to stop”, stating that it was the “most serious escalation” of violence in the region.
There were also briefings by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tom Wennesland, as well as from the two direct parties, Israel and Palestine. The speakers at the meeting from outside the council were foreign ministers from Jordan, Egypt, Algeria and the permanent observer from the League of Arab States.
The UNSC had already twice privately, on May 10 and 12, to discuss the crisis in the region. Both times, there was no press statements, whose language is negotiated by consensus.
Non-permanent member Norway proposed the draft text for the press elements for May 12 that expressed concern about the violence in East Jerusalem, especially around the holy sites. The language was standard with a call for an immediate cessation of hostilities, intensification of diplomatic efforts and reiteration of support for a two-state solution.
Sources confirmed to The Wire that the US had been the only country to object to issuing a press statement, as the Chinese foreign ministry had claimed last week. There were not even any negotiations initiated to make any changes to the draft text. The US claimed that any public statement at this point “would not be conducive to de-escalation which they were attempting”, as per sources.
India draws the line at specifically condemning Israeli actions
While India was among the 14 countries that had supported issuing the statement, India’s public remarks on Sunday were silent on the steps that the UNSC should be taking on an urgent basis.
The Wire had reported earlier on India’s statements at the previous private meetings of the UNSC. At the May 12 meeting, India had condemned “all acts of violence”, but specifically singled out rocket attacks from Gaza.
On Sunday, India’s first public remarks also talked of Israeli airstrikes, but tonally there was more weight given to the Hamas rocket strikes – which India specifically said it condemned. While noting that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza had let to civilian casualties, India’s permanent representative to UN, T.S. Tirumurti, refrained from specifically condemning Tel Aviv”
“The indiscriminate rocket firings from Gaza targeting the civilian population in Israel, which we condemn, and the retaliatory strikes into Gaza, have caused immense suffering and resulted in deaths, including women and children,” he said .
Reiterating “strong condemnation” for all acts of “violence, provocation, incitement and destruction”, Tirumurti noted that “immediate de-escalation is the need of the hour, so as to arrest any further slide towards the brink”.
While urging both sides to show “extreme restraint”, the senior Indian diplomat also called on Israel to “refrain from attempts to unilaterally change the existing status-quo, including in East Jerusalem and its neighbourhood”.
He also noted that the “historic status-quo at the holy places of Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, must be respected”. India had expressed concern about the possible eviction process in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, which had triggered the latest round of violence in the region.
Tirumurti concluded his statement by reaffirming “India’s strong support to the just Palestinian cause and its unwavering commitment to the two-State solution”.
China spills the beans on the US
It is unusual for the presiding country of the council to publicly name a country for blocking any outcome, especially when the proceedings have taken place behind closed doors.
However, China’s activist diplomacy on the Palestinian crisis is not only dictated by its current position as president of the UNSC, but also to cock a snook at the US for its trenchant criticism of Beijing for alleged atrocities against the Uighurs Muslim minority in Xinjiang province.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying made this connection crystal-clear.
“…the US, together with a handful of its allies like the UK and Germany, held a meaningless meeting on the so-called Xinjiang-related issues falsely in the name of the UN based on lies and political prejudice. What is the true intention behind this political farce? The US should know that the lives of Palestinian Muslims are equally precious,” she said last Friday (May 14).
This message was endorsed by China’s State Councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi in his public remarks at the UNSC meeting on Sunday.
Wang Yi: The #SecurityCouncil shoulders the primary responsibility for safeguarding international peace and security. Regrettably, simply because of the obstruction by one country, the Security Council hasn’t been able to speak with one voice. pic.twitter.com/t6kTMQWI79
— Chinese Mission to UN (@Chinamission2un) May 16, 2021
“We call on the United States to shoulder its responsibilities and take a fair stand in support of the Council’s due role in alleviating the situation, rebuilding confidence and resolving the political settlement,” said Wang.
The Arab group had pushed mainly for the open UNSC meeting, which took place as pressure mounted as the toll of fatalities rose in the West Bank and Gaza. China’s permanent mission in the UN ensured visibility to its diplomatic outreach with the Arab countries.
US isolated in Security Council
The US’s diplomatic actions, which contrasts with Biden administration’s much-vaunted “re-engagement with international institutions”, faced disapproval not just from the usual quarter.
At the open debate, France stated that the “Council must unite to make a unanimous call for a rapid cessation of hostilities”. “That is now the only priority,” asserted French envoy Nicolas de Riviere.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney emphasised that every day of delay “in assuming our responsibility at this Council, is another day lost in saving innocent lives”.
“So let us send a clear and united message from this Council today that the cycle of violence and bloodshed needs to end now,” he stated.
The US block seems more egregious when compared to the UNSC managing to issue statements and decisions on Myanmar after their six meetings, despite the contrasting position between China and the West.
Non-permanent member Kenya also added its voice to supporting “the efforts of China, Norway and Tunisia for the issuance of a timely, clear and balanced statement by the Security Council that can help de-escalate the violence and support a push for a return to peace mediation”.
Kenya’s African colleague on Council, Niger, also declared that Palestinians had the same right to self-defence as Israel.
Mexico dismissed the US argument for blocking a UNSC statement by noting that “bilateral and multilateral efforts are not mutually exclusive”.
Regretting that the Council did not assume its role as key guarantor of international peace and security, Mexico’s permanent representative Juan Ramón De La Fuente also stated that the UNSC had to “raise a united voice”.
The Caribbean nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines claimed that the UN Security Council was the “only protection” for the Palestinians and “we are failing them”.
Russia also stated that it was important for UNSC to “articulate a concerted response to the current severe crisis”. “There is a basis for this, because all members of the Security Council, as we have seen today, are advocating in favour of ending the forceful confrontation,” said Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershenin.
However, Russia, conspicuously, did not join China – its usual diplomatic partner in UNSC – in calling out the United States.
While every state called for hostilities to end, a handful of member states remained publicly restrained in affirming that the UN Security Council needed to act quickly.
At the end of the three-hour meeting, China stated that there was “overwhelming consensus” that the council “should speak in one voice”. The Chinese envoy said that a press statement would be drafted based on the discussion and circulated among the members for approval “as soon as possible”.
In its statement, the US had made no mention of a role for the Security Council in resolving the situation, which could have indicated that it would soften the position on issuing a press statement.
Facing a barrage of criticism over Washington’s approach to the crisis from a large section of the international community, US permanent member to UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield highlighted US diplomatic efforts in taking with Israel and Palestinian leaders. “The United States remains intensively engaged with Israeli, Egyptian, and Qatari officials, as well as the Special Coordinator and his team – all of whom are working to define and establish conditions for a sustainable calm,” she added.
Thomas-Greenfield also said that if the Israelis and Palestinians sought a ceasefire, Washington would be ready to “lend its support and good offices”.
This week in UNSC
With the violence showing no sign of abating, many of the council member states are expected to keep pushing for issuing at least a press statement.
In the scheduled program, there are open briefings on Libya, Sahel and Sudan. China has initiated an open debate on Wednesday on conflict resolution and post-pandemic recovery in Africa.
There is also an Arria-formula meeting on “The Impact of Emerging Technologies on International Peace and Security”.
This is a weekly column that tracks the UNSC during India’s current term as a non-permanent member. Previous columns can be found here.