New Delhi: The last week of January saw a change in US policy on major international issues – and this time the platform was the 15-member United Nations Security Council.
A week-old Biden administration presented a return to Washington’s traditional approach on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute at the quarterly open debate on the ‘The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question’ on January 26.
The virtual meeting was briefed by senior UN officials, the Palestinian foreign minister and Israel ambassador, but all eyes were on the United States.
US envoy-designate Linda Thomas-Greenfield is still to be confirmed by the Senate, so acting US ambassador to UN Richard Mills was the messenger to convey the changes.
“Under the new administration, the policy of the United States will be to support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state,” stated Mills.
Ahead of this meeting, there had been two significant development in the region. Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas announced a calendar of elections this year – legislative on May 22, presidential on July 31 and National Council on August 31.
On the Israel side, there was an acceleration in developing around 2,700 settlement houses in West Bank.
There was no specific reference to the election announcement or new settlement housing. But Mills did bring in a critical view of settlements in a sentence urging both Israel and Palestine to bridge the trust deficit by taking specific steps. “In this vein, the United States will urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult, such as annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence, and providing compensation for individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism.”
Mills then announced that the US would restore aid to Palestinians and re-open the Palestinian embassy. “President Biden has been clear in his intent to restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people and to take steps to re-open diplomatic missions that were closed by the last US administration.”
US had closed down PLO’s diplomatic mission in Washington in 2018 on the grounds that Palestinian leaders had not engaged with Washington’s peace effort and tried to get International Criminal Court (ICC) to begin an investigation of Israel. The Trump administration also closed down its US consulate general in Jerusalem which dealt with Palestinian affairs by merging it with the newly relocated US embassy to Israel in the divided city.
The anticipation of the Biden administration’s approach having a more positive impact was evident from the statements of most of the participants.
Arab League secretary-general Ahmed Aboul Gheit hoped that new US government would correct “unhelpful measures and policies and relaunch the political process”. Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki stated that it was time to “repair the damage left by the previous United States administration”.
In his intervention, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilead Erdan, spent a considerable amount of time arguing that Iran should be one of the main topics to be discussed in a debate on West Asia.
Slamming the Palestinians for refusing Israel’s offers, he asserted that the Palestinian government’s call for a peace conference was a mirage. “Don’t be fooled by this; it is only another distraction. Abbas knows a conference will not bring peace. The only way to achieve real peace is through direct, bilateral negotiations,” he said in his speech.
He also disparaged President Abbas’ announcement of elections, indicating that it was only done to curry favour with the new Biden administration.
India’s permanent representative to UN, T.S. Tirumurti welcomed the announcement of the elections and urged that all steps are taken to “ensure that these elections are held smoothly, fulfilling the democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people”.
Tirumurti also supported Palestine’s proposal to “hold an international peace conference with the participation of all relevant parties to achieve the vision of a sovereign and independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security with Israel”. He also had stated that India’s support for the peace conference was in the context of a comprehensive solution to the conflict by achieving the two-state solution “through direct negotiations between the two parties”.
At the briefing on Libya for council members by the acting special representative and head of United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Stephanie Williams, India – as the new chairman of the 1970 Libya sanctions committee – should have also been briefing the council.
However, India was not able to present a briefing as chair. Sources stated that the chair’s report is usually factual and finalised through consensus between the 15 members. With some of the members taking a polar opposite stance on a few issues, there was no agreement on the chair’s statement..
However, India, in its own statement at the meeting, asserted that the credibility on the sanctions regime in Libya depends on its strict compliance. “Blatant violations of the arms embargo are a serious threat to peace and stability in Libya and need to be condemned. This Council should also look at options to address the issue of management of frozen assets,” said Tirumurti.
He also stated that lasting peace in Libya could only come after there was complete departure of foreign fighters. “We are well past the deadline of 90 days set by the Libyans themselves when they signed the Ceasefire Agreement for departure of all foreign fighters.”
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres had also called for foreign fighters to “leave the Libyans alone” .
US envoy Mills specifically named “Russia, Turkey, and the UAE, to respect Libyan sovereignty and immediately cease all military intervention in Libya”.
Tirumurti also reminded that India had been one of the original countries to have raised red flags when the western countries pushed through resolutions 1970 and 1973 on Libya in 2011. “We had then conveyed our reservations on the way these two resolutions were rushed in the Council. India had called for a calibrated and gradual approach and stressed on the importance of political efforts to address the situation. Ten years down, enduring peace still remains a dream in Libya and the Libyan people continue to bear the brunt of actions taken by this Council and the international community”.
The other major debates last week were on covid-19, where several countries expressed concern that the gap in vaccination between the rich and developing world could impact international peace and security.
The Security Council also unanimously extended the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus till July 31, 2021. The resolution specifically raises concern about Turkey opening part of seaside resort Varosha on Cyprus’s east coast.
With the start of a new month, the United Kingdom will take over the presidency of the Security Council. While the programme of work for the month will be decided on Monday, there is expected to be two signature events on climate change to be chaired by UK prime minister Boris Johnson and UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab. However, these are not likely to take place in the first week of February, as the invitations for high-level participation has not yet been circulated to UNSC members.
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.