The United States, in a dramatic reversal of its own policy, announced last week that it now thinks the Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank do not violate any international law. The United Nations, through its Security Council and other fora, has always maintained that these Jewish settlements on lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war were a clear violation of international law. The US State Department itself in a legal opinion issued in 1978 said such settlements were illegitimate.
All that legal talk is now out the window, well into the political dustbin. The Palestinians have cried foul, the UN has issued its customary condemnation and some European States have expressed their disagreements. Otherwise, life goes on.
Ironically, this reversal of an agreed decision that has been a central element of the United Nations position on the question of Israeli settlements has come from a member of the United Nations that was the principal architect behind its creation. As a recognition of its importance as a global leader, the US was made a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council with the right to veto.
The US decision on Israeli settlements was interpreted as ‘another gift’ to the beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is not the first such ‘gift’ from the US to Bibi, decried the New York Times. Contravening agreed and established United Nations resolutions, the US last year had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there. The reaction from the rest of the world was a big yawn and some unhappy shrugs.
That makes one wonder, is the UN really becoming a bit of ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’?
All major UN decisions, including the ones on Israel and Palestine, have been taken with US participation, sometimes through its persuasion. A good example of such persuasion is the 2015 Paris Climate Change Treaty. Former US President Obama was a key voice behind the Treaty and even worked behind the scenes to persuade China and India, both among top polluters, to sign on to it and to its agreed benchmarks on carbon emissions. The Trump Administration is now out of the Treaty. Not only that, it is openly questioning the very basis of the Treaty, casting doubt on the ‘science’ of climate change.
To top everything else, under the current US Administration, multilateralism, the raison d'etre of the United Nations, has come under attack. The UN was created in the wake of the Second World War on the simple premise that when countries of the world join hands, they can not only defeat fascism but also win peace, restore justice and reduce poverty. This year in September, President Donald Trump in his address at the UN General Assembly told world leaders they should better focus on their national interest. “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots,” the President said.
“The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors and honor the differences that make each country special and unique,” he elaborated.
It was not difficult to discern that by globalism the President meant multilateralism, and it was a clear dig at the UN. As the world’s largest multilateral body, the United Nations sets global standards on cross-boundary issues, often described as ‘problems without borders’. These standards codified either through UN resolutions or International Treaties. When the world’s most powerful nation begins questioning the very foundation of this process, rogue States find it encouraging to flout international norms.
Take, for example, Turkey’s recent decision to invade neighboring Syria with the stated goal of curving a part of its territory to create a safe zone for Syrian refugees now sheltered in Turkey. They just marched into Syria, and the world watched in horror as bullets started flying, forcing people to flee. In fact, a close cohort of the entire operation was Russia, another Security Council Member, which remains Turkey’s principal supplier of tactical weapons. A week prior to this, the US, in an apparent green signal to Turkey, had withdrawn its own troops from the region, clearing the path for Turkish tanks to roll in.
It was another body blow to the United Nations as the world’s peacekeeper.
When powerful nations see no reason to respect international law, even smaller and relatively weaker ones feel emboldened to behave the same way. Take the case of Myanmar and its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. Its security forces killed thousands, burnt hundreds of villages and then drove out more than a million people into Bangladesh. The UN called Myanmar’s action a textbook case of ethnic cleaning and a crime against humanity.
Big deal, scoffed Myanmar leaders and just ignored at that pious talk.
If countries, small and big, can flout international law at will, the world could become a lawless jungle. The United Nations was created to prevent this from happening. In today’s globalized village, the only way for the countries of the world to combat common – and cross-boundary issues – is through multilateral ways. In other words, through a forum like the United Nations. This simple idea was reiterated by the President of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, this year in April. it is critical to end the false concept that multilateralism undermines the sovereignty of State. “No country, however powerful, can resolve global challenges alone,” she said.
One such area where global effort is a precondition for any modicum of success is global warming. While the UN has a global compact on this issue, the countries of the world are failing miserably to live up to the commitments they made in Paris four years ago. We have less than 12 years to act before global warming becomes irreversible, scientists have warned. The failure of the international community to act forcefully– work collaboratively – has deeply frustrated and worried people all over the world. There is a wave of growing anger among the world’s young people. After all, it is their future at stake.
This frustration has best been expressed by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old climate activist from Sweden. This year in September, Greta spoke to world leaders at the United Nations. With tears welling up and quivering in anger, she chided the world’s mighty leaders for stealing her dreams and her childhood with their empty words. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”
Greta scolded the world leaders most brazenly but in no way did she think the UN – as the place where world leaders meet – to be irrelevant. Asking world leaders for action, she was arguing for making the UN a more effective platform and convening mechanism for addressing global problems. She urged all countries, rich and poor, powerful and weak, to join hands and wage the fight of their lives with the UN at the center.
Two days prior to her address at the UN, Greta was in downtown New York to be part of a protest march in support of climate action and the Paris Treaty. Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly young students, had come to lend support. There she told them, the world leaders have so far ignored their pleas. But time has come to make them pay attention, the world’s young people can make them wakeup.
I was at that downtown meeting. Watching boys and girls, some of them as young as eight or nine, some of them holding hands of their parents, others in small groups, I felt a sense of reassurance. The UN was created for a better world, and these young people understand there is no mechanism better equipped than the United Nations to help usher in that promised day.
23 November 2019