UNSC Watch: From Gaza to Libya, Security Council Churns Out Long-Delayed Compromises

The last week's events once again demonstrated the serpentine path that high diplomacy traverses on a global stage.

New Delhi: The United Nations Security Council last week witnessed the first formal statement on violence in Gaza and a long-delayed statement from India as Libya sanctions committee chair, which again demonstrated the serpentine path that high diplomacy traverses on a global stage.

The working week for the UNSC began with a briefing by the International Criminal Court prosecutor on Libyan fugitives. It ended with a briefing on the UN’s mission in the north African country and implementing the sanctions regime. The rest of the week also had an African theme – discussions and debate on Sudan, Sahel and conflict resolution in post-pandemic Africa.

Twelve days after violence broke and a day following cessation of hostilities, the UN Security Council finally issued a press statement on May 22 (Friday), which were the first public remarks released by the top UN body in charge of international peace and security.

The Council had met four times – thrice privately and an open discussion – since the fighting broke out. The United States had already scuttled the last two attempts to have a statement released on behalf of the Council on the grounds that it would not help de-escalate the situation.

At the May 16 open debate, it was clear that the majority of the member states wanted the UNSC to issue a joint document on the Gaza violence. China, president of the Council for May, announced that based on a discussion that a draft would be drawn up and circulated at the earliest. There was, however, not much traction again due to US objection.

The fourth meeting of the UNSC on the Gaza crisis was held on May 18 behind closed doors under the ‘any other business’ category. There was again no outcome.

Two days later, France, which had stated at the open debate that Council should give a united call, submitted a draft resolution. Blocking the French move, the US said it “will not support actions that we believe undermine efforts to de-escalate”.

With the Security Council stymied, the president of UN General Assembly, Turkey’s Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), conveyed a day-long debate (May 20), which saw the first ministerial speakers at the GA Hall in over a year. Most of the speakers expressed frustration that the Council had not taken a more pro-active role and spoken out over Gaza.

Unlike most other states, India had not explicitly asked for the Council to take a pro-active position in any of its statements at meetings in the UNSC or General Assembly.

As former Indian ambassador Talmiz Ahmad explained recently, India’s statements in the UN on the Gaza crisis has been “loaded more heavily in favour of Israel”. “It is unhappy about the violence in general, but specifically condemns Hamas. It speaks about a Palestinian state but does not mention east Jerusalem as its capital, which used to be the mantra as far as India is concerned..,” Ahmed told The Wire in the latest episode of Nation Security Conversations.

By noon, news arrived that Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas, had agreed to a ceasefire, brokered by Egyptian President Abdel Fatta Al Sisi.

At the end of 11 days of fighting, over 250 people were dead, including 243 Palestinians. At least 66 Palestinian children were killed in the missile strikes. In Israel, twelve people were killed, including an Indian caregiver in Ashkelon.

The UNSC press statement came a day later on Saturday, after the US removed its hold. Drafted by France, China, Tunisia and Norway, it called for “full adherence” to the ceasefire, mourned the loss of lives of civilians and stressed the immediate need for humanitarian aid to Palestine.

A press statement issued by the president of the Council is a negotiated text, which requires approval from all member states. However, it is not considered a decision of the UNSC.

While complicated negotiations took days for the Council to respond to an ongoing crisis, it may stretch to months in case of a hotspot, which doesn’t require immediate attention but is still a sensitive issue for permanent members.

India is the chair of the Council’s 1970 Libya sanctions committee, which oversees the implementation of the UN sanctions regime. The chair has the responsibility to brief the UNSC every two months. But till last week, Indian permanent representative T.S. Tirumurti has not been able to make a presentation in the previous two Council meetings on Libya in January and March this year.

Statements by the sanction committee chair have to be agreed upon by consensus. Since September 2020, Russia has not allowed the chair to make a statement if it mentions the interception by EU’s maritime forces of a merchant vessel, Royal Diamond 7, carrying jet fuel from Sharjah to Benghazi.

Russia has argued that jet fuel is not listed under the UN embargo. The sanction committee’s Panel of Experts asserted that aviation fuel fell under the aegis of “military material” and, therefore, was in violation of UNSC resolution 1970.

On May 21, Tirumurti finally gave a briefing to the Council as chair of the sanction 1970 committee. It took a “lot of hard work” to get the green light from all members, including Russia and the western countries, as per diplomatic sources.

The compromise was that Tirumurti would not mention the Royal Diamond 7 incident because India’s term as chair began only from January 1, 2021, while the interception took place on September 10, 2020.

From India’s perspective, a key outcome of the Security Council last week was the presidential statement on the impact of COVID-19 on Africa. It was issued in conjunction with a high-level open debate, where India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar participated virtually.

The presidential statement acknowledged “ongoing discussions in connection with efforts for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines under relevant WTO framework”. Last October, India and South Africa had submitted the proposal to the WTO’s TRIPS Council to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on COVID-19 Vaccines.

While the US has reversed its previous position and supports the waiver proposal, the European Union opposes any such relaxation.

Highlights for this week

The last week for China’s presidency this year will likely see the adoption of resolutions to renew the mandate to renew the UN mission in Iraq, and South Sudan sanctions regime.

On Monday, China has organised an open debate on the safety and security of peacekeepers. The following day, Security Council will hold its annual discussion on protecting civilians in armed conflict.

During this week, there are also discussions on UN mission in Somalia, Syria, and Palestine. The Council’s calendar also includes a closed-door briefing by the North Korea sanctions committee on Thursday.

Estonia will take over the rotating presidency of the Council from June 1.

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.