The United Nations at 75, Phyllis Bennis


The following article was published in the May 2022 special issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL, focusing on the 75-76 anniversary of the United Nations Charter.

The United Nations at 75

Phyllis Bennis


Potential for Change?

It’s an old story that the United Nations can’t fulfill much of its complicated global mission because the United States prevents it from doing so. Beginning with Washington’s covert spying on delegations heading for San Francisco for the UN’s founding conference in 1945, US domination has been central to the United Nations.

Sometimes it’s subtle. During the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency (1993-2000), “aggressive multilateralism” was the foreign policy slogan.  And yet those years saw the US using the global organization as a fig leaf to provide legitimacy for Washington’s unilaterally-imposed “no-fly zones” in Iraq and preventing all efforts to end the years of US-led but officially “UN” sanctions on Iraq despite their killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children. It was under the Clinton administration that the US, facing Security Council opposition, decided to simply ignore the UN Charter’s requirement of Council approval for the use of military force and instead ask NATO’s high command, which has no legal authority for such a decision, to authorize the US attack on Kosovo.

Other times it’s more overt.  In what became known around the UN as the “Yemen Precedent” in 1990, Washington canceled all aid to the impoverished country after telling the Yemeni ambassador on a hot mic that his Security Council vote against US war on Iraq would be “the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.”  It was Clinton’s main cheerleader for multilateralism, UN Ambassador and later Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who in 1995 stated openly that “the UN is a tool of American foreign policy.”

In the run-up to the 2003 US-UK war against Iraq, Washington and London were desperately trying to get the Security Council to support a resolution explicitly authorizing their war.  But the Council was split –permanent members France, China and Russia were strongly opposed, along with the “Uncommitted Six,” non-permanent members Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Chile, Mexico and Pakistan.  The war-backers simply couldn’t round up the votes.   So a number of governments attempted to pass a “Uniting for Peace” resolution in the General Assembly instead. Using the Korean War-era precedent, Uniting for Peace allows the Assembly, when the Security Council is unable or unwilling to act, to take up issues of peace and security that would under ordinary circumstances fall solely within the authority of the Council.

In response, George W. Bush’s ambassadors and other representatives sent letters to virtually all members of the General Assembly warning them of unnamed consequences if they should consider supporting such a resolution against the war.  One of those letters, the one sent to the government of South Africa, threatened, “Given the current highly charged atmosphere, the United States would regard a General Assembly session on Iraq as unhelpful and as directed against the United States. Please know that this question as well as your position on it is important to the U.S.”

It was perhaps the great Pakistani scholar and anti-imperialist fighter, Eqbal Ahmad, who said it best.  On the eve of the Iraq war in 1991, he spoke at a nationally broadcast teach-in in New York. Challenging the political and media hype describing the United Nations as mobilizing the world for war, Ahmad called out Washington for its “use of a multilateral instrument to carry out a unilateral war.”


Trump’s election campaign slogan, “make America great again,” was a [slightly] coded reference to returning to his imaginary United States of the 1950s. This was an era when African-Americans had few rights and the law kept them in what Trump and his followers believed to be their rightful place, when a woman’s place was that of a plaything for white men, when Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other people of color hardly existed, and when immigrants, especially non-white immigrants, lived only in the shadows.

And when the place of the United States in the world was on top.

So when Donald Trump took the General Assembly podium for his first address to the United Nations just months after becoming president, it was no surprise that his theme had little to do with international cooperation.  His focus was on national sovereignty. His disdain for the global organization – as well as for multilateralism, international cooperation, or international law in any form – was already well known. During his campaign, he had dismissed the United Nations as “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”  (Of course capped by his signature “So sad!”)

When he came into office, he proposed a budget with a $54 billion increase in military spending – accompanied by massive cuts to pay for it – among them a call for slashing all spending on diplomacy by 30% — almost one-third.  That included huge reductions in funding for the United Nations and its related agencies, including a call to “eliminate the Global Climate Change Initiative” and “cease payments to the United Nations’ (UN) climate change programs.”  So from the first days of his presidency it was clear that raw nationalism – certainly not the UN – was central to Trump’s view of his own country and its place in the rest of the world.

Among his first actions were the abandonment of existing treaties; withdrawal from diplomatic processes long underway; and the slashing of funds for foreign aid, multilateral institutions, indeed for diplomacy itself.  He pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal, despite the agreement of all 16 US intelligence agencies that Tehran was in full compliance with the JCPOA.  He withdrew from the Paris climate accord, despite the fact that it had no actual enforcement capacity anyway.  He formally withdrew from membership in UNESCO, in response to the cultural organization’s recognition of Palestine as a member-state.   He halted Washington’s annual payment to UNRWA, the UN agency created in 1949 and charged with providing basic food, medicine and education to Palestinian refugees displaced and dispossessed in the creation of Israel.

It was all about America First – and those First in line in Trump’s America would be white people, especially white men, and supporters of Israel, whether evangelical Christians, Jews, or others. (It should be noted that Trump’s embrace of Israel and especially the Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu did not extend to an embrace of Jews as Jews.  He brought a crude anti-semitism to the White House, rooted in the same white supremacy as his extremist racism.)

In many ways Trump’s nationalist, unilateralist rhetoric regarding the UN was largely performative. It wasn’t as if the earlier US legacy at the UN was one of cooperation and commitment to diplomacy over power.  After all, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court had already been “unsigned” by George W. Bush (and was never re-signed by Barack Obama).  The US was already the last remaining UN member state that refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the only other hold-out, Somalia, had finally ratified it in 2015). The US already had a long history of opposing UN efforts to demand immediate ceasefires if Israel was carrying out a military assault. (Both Bush Jr and Obama had followed that pattern in recent years.)  And of course, the US had already proudly claimed the UN as a tool of its own foreign policy.

But there was a long way to go on the performative side, discarding any attempt to appear committed to the UN Charter, or to the institution itself, or to international law over all.

Instead, in his inaugural 2017 UN speech, Trump’s leitmotif was explicitly that of national strength and sovereignty – far from the usual rhetorical commitments in that venue to global cooperation and multilateralism. “Our success,” he intoned, “depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. …Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny. And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.”

God aside, he also touted the Marshall Plan – and even there, Trump managed to transform the usual “three pillars” of the Plan, the goals of prosperity, peace, and democracy and the rule of law.  For the US president, this was somehow transformed into “those three beautiful pillars — they’re pillars of peace, sovereignty, security, and prosperity.”  Somehow democracy and the rule of law disappeared in Trump’s version of the Marshall Plan’s goals, and sovereignty was put in to take a bow.

The language didn’t change with Trump’s later speeches.  In 2018, he delivered essentially a campaign rally speech. “Today, I stand before the United Nations General Assembly,” he began, “to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made. In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” That line brought down the house – and the usually staid diplomats burst out laughing.

But not all of it was funny. Trump made clear that “As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority. The ICC claims near-universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country, violating all principles of justice, fairness, and due process. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”

And in case anyone wasn’t sure what that meant, he clarified: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

Trump also used his 2018 speech to show his appreciation for some of his fellow authoritarians, singling out for special praise India, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Poland.  And this time around he clarified, in case anyone had any doubts, that US support for the United Nations, as well as foreign aid in general, has nothing to do with ending global inequality, no connection to the needs of impoverished countries strangled by generations of colonial exploitation, no link to the goal of ending poverty. Instead, he reminded the assembled diplomats, “the United States is the world’s largest giver in the world, by far, of foreign aid.”  In case anyone was uncertain about exactly what that meant, Trump was glad to explain. “But few give anything to us,” he complained. “That is why we are taking a hard look at U.S. foreign assistance. …We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart.  Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”  So much for independence and sovereignty.

In 2020, in his speech at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic’s global devastation, Trump used the General Assembly debate as an opportunity to bash China and urge an international mobilization against Beijing.  And along with boasting about the US economy, Trump took the chance to swagger about the US military spending that makes up about 53 cents of every congressionally-mandated federal dollar.  “In three short years,” he said, “we built the greatest economy in history, and we are quickly doing it again. Our military has increased substantially in size. We spent $2.5 trillion over the last four years on our military. We have the most powerful military anywhere in the world, and it’s not even close.”

Given that more than 140 million people in the US are living below the poverty line or just one $400 emergency away from poverty, one might have thought he would have considered another bragging point. In the context of a UN address one might have also questioned whether anyone in his administration had even considered a potential shift in US spending priorities.  That might have meant bragging rights for poverty alleviation at home, or for providing billions of dollars around the world to ensure access to clean water across the Global South or basic health care in the 100 poorest countries.  But there is no evidence any such discussions ever took place.

President Biden:  Obama 2.0?

And then Joe Biden gets elected.  In a hard-fought close contest (with his clear victory still being challenged by Trump-backing white supremacist extremists), he took office in January 2021 with a set of foreign policy goals that amounted to returning to the Obama-era style of “normal imperialism.”

Biden made clear throughout the campaign and as soon as he took office, that his priorities did not include foreign policy.  Top of the list would be dealing the Covid pandemic and with the economic crisis it created.  After that, infrastructure and maybe dealing with the racial justice reckoning already underway would be next. And until various international events made it impossible to ignore, he largely kept to that plan.

Biden campaigned and took office in a very different political context than his predecessors. A key factor was the new divide within the Democratic Party, in which an increasingly influential progressive wing, made up largely of younger people of color, won seats in Congress and played key roles in mobilizing voters – particularly African-American women – to get him to the White House.  They challenged Biden’s own centrist wing and for the first time in decades the White House and the centrist leadership of the party had to pay attention.

The result was visible in an early set of policy initiatives that reflected the demands of newly-empowered social movements – dealing with the expansion of labor rights, health care and food assistance, ensuring that the poorest sectors had access to Covid-driven financial assistance, paying some attention to the massive and growing inequality, and to some degree immigration and environmental justice initiatives.  For many activists, campaigns targeting the Biden administration were framed around demands to be bolder, to do more – not demanding an end to terrible programs.

It’s important to recognize that those early policy initiatives welcomed by progressive movements were almost all on domestic issues.  In some areas they were better, stronger, more progressive than anticipated – particularly so in comparison to the Obama-era versions when Biden was vice-president.  They weren’t all great, and some stalled in the first months of the new administration – but they were better than many had anticipated.

When it came to foreign policy, however, there was not such a potentially rosy picture. Biden had made clear that his international agenda was limited.  Returning to the Iran nuclear deal was the one explicit goal that would require serious strategic planning and spending political capital. Other issues – returning to the Paris climate accord, rejoining the WHO, even re-starting some funding of UNRWA — would not require huge investments. Mobilizing against China, resulting in a further deterioration in the relationship between the two powerful countries and threatening a dangerous escalation towards war, was really a continuation of Trump’s own anti-China framework. And maintaining a strong anti-Russia component in Biden’s rhetoric raised the danger level significantly.

It was clear that the Biden administration’s view that it had to take seriously the demands of social movements pushing for more progressive policies to protect domestic workers, unemployed and impoverished communities, the environment, racial justice, labor rights and beyond, did not extend to parallel movements focused on fighting against war, against military spending and for diplomacy. And the progressive champions within the Democratic Party – in Congress, in state offices, etc. – were and are generally more consistently focused on the domestic needs of their constituencies than on foreign policy.

Of course, all of that changed in the first few weeks and months of the Biden administration, when (as is so often the case) foreign policy challenges erupted and could not be ignored. Trump started his last year in office with the illegal assassination in Iraq of Iranian political and military leader General Qasem Soleimani. Biden launched his first military strike just a few weeks into his first year in office by attacking Syria, targeting a base allegedly used by an Iraqi militia supposedly backed by Iran.  In both cases, it meant illegally attacking Iraqi or Syrian targets (or an Iraqi target in Syria) to send a message to Iran. Trump was eager to boast about his huge military budget; Biden followed suit, proposing a $13 billion escalation in already bloated military spending for his second year.

So, what does the future look like for Washington’s role at the United Nations?  It’s clear that in terms of broad ideological commitments, Biden’s view reflects a far more international vision of the world than did Trump’s unilateral America Firstism.  That definitely means a more engaged position vis-à-vis the UN.  It was widely anticipated that Biden would quickly re-join the World Health Organization, reversing Trump’s pull-out of the organization at the height of the pandemic. When he did so, Biden also went a bit further, joining the Covax global vaccine consortium co-sponsored by the WHO and at least nominally supporting efforts to relax patent restrictions on Covid vaccines.   There are plenty of limitations and problems with Covax, but it has at least led to a US contribution, however insufficient, to the international battle against the deadly disease.

Biden appears to be serious about a full withdrawal of the last 2500 – 3500 or so US combat troops from Afghanistan – a war launched without United Nations approval. But it remains unclear what happens to the 16,000 or so US military contractors, the unknown number of Special Forces and CIA and other paramilitary intelligence agents operating in Afghanistan, and most importantly, the drone attacks and airstrikes that make up the majority of the US-caused civilian casualties.  The United States never allowed the UN to play the role its Charter requires, authorizing – or refusing to authorize – the use of military force. So, the global organization has no official say now about how and whether the war ends.  If the airstrikes continue, even if it’s in the context of supposedly going after ISIS, making it part of the “war on terror” that Washington wants to continue, rather than the “Afghanistan war against the Taliban” that is supposedly ending, will the UN take action?  It isn’t likely.

And while virtually no one in or around the United Nations seems to think Afghanistan should be on the UN’s agenda, the US has to deal with a very different scenario regarding Palestine-Israel.

Less than a month after Donald Trump was sworn into office, the Israeli press was celebrating “the beginning of a new era at the UN.”  The excitement was in response to Trump’s newly-appointed UN Ambassador Nikki Haley preventing the appointment of a Palestinian diplomat – ironically Washington’s long-time favorite, pro-Western and former World Bank official Salam Fayyad – to be the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to head the Libya assistance mission.  For Israel, winning U.S. support for excluding an individual Palestinian from a UN position was worthy of celebration. Even former US Ambassador to the UN Dan Shapiro called the Trump/Haley move “stunningly dumb.”

For the United Nations, decisions like those of Antonio Guterres to accept US demands without challenge weakens any claim the institution might make to be guided in its policies and practices by international law, let alone international morality. Such accommodations certainly undermine the authority and respect for the Secretary General, but they also delegitimize the United Nations as a whole. When US threats to de-fund voluntary UN programs are allowed to distort UN decision-making, the organization as a whole is weakened, the legitimacy of the UN Charter is undermined, and international law is diminished. When the United States behaves in this manner it indirectly gives permission to other political actors to follow suit, and exerts immense pressure on the UN Secretariat and Secretary General to give ground.

Certainly US pressure and threats on issues such as the appointment of Fayyad are not new to the United Nations, and giving in to them is not particular to the latest secretary general. In June 2016, then-Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon removed Saudi Arabia from a list of governments the UN had determined were responsible for violating children’s rights – in this case, Riyadh was held accountable for killing more than half of the 510 children who died in the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen.  But when the Saudis threatened to cut significant funding to several UN humanitarian agencies if they were not removed from the list, Ban acceded, saying that other children around the world would suffer if he did not. He condemned the Saudi pressure as unacceptable, saying it was “one of the most painful and difficult decisions” he had made as Secretary General.  (He was not known for having made a similar statement regarding consistent U.S. pressure on the United Nations.)

Of course, Israel has long been the beneficiary of such US action to pressure UN agencies and officials on policy towards Israel, with the UN consistently giving ground by softening criticism, inhibiting censure, and shelving damaging reports that might move towards holding Israel accountable. The Obama administration boasted of its unconditional defense of Israel at the UN, regardless of the merits of criticisms, and even in contexts where the U.S. was willing to voice its own muted criticisms directed at Israel in discreet language conveyed in bilateral diplomatic channels. The UN and its member states knew that critical commentary on Israel’s behavior would likely result in US censure. In the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and other UN agencies where the US did not have an official veto, many criticisms of Israel still emerged, but direct US pressure in the form of threats and punishments on individual member states still ensured that no action resulted. Under Obama, as under so many presidents before him, Washington continued to protect Israel despite the long history of unfulfilled UN responsibilities toward the Palestinian people.

For Biden, coming to the United Nations with a language and style completely different from Trump’s will be relatively easy.  His campaign and presidential rhetoric is filled with references to US engagement in the world, and he has claimed from the campaign to the present that his foreign policy will be rooted squarely in human rights. But making those commitments real will be far more difficult.

The US has lost influence in recent years – China is likely just a few years away from passing the US as the largest economy; Trump’s xenophobic nationalism and white supremacy have seriously diminished Washington’s already weakened political/moral influence; the US failures in dealing with the pandemic, resulting in the highest number of Covid deaths in the world, have reduced its self-proclaimed role as the world’s indispensable nation.  But it remains the most powerful country in the world militarily and in its domination of the global financial system. Its military and militarization budgets – close to 62% of discretionary spending – demonstrate unequivocally its intention is to remain the superpower.  Dealing with the UN or its member states in a truly collaborative, cooperative, international law-based fashion is not on the agenda for maintaining that domination.

So demands from other governments, from the [occasionally] otherwise-unanimous Security Council, from overwhelming majorities of the General Assembly, for the United States to end its “special relationship” and deal with Israel based on normal diplomacy, are not likely to be heeded.  Faced with the latest round of Israeli assaults on Gaza, what the Israelis cavalierly refer to as “mowing the grass” in May 2021, the new Biden administration followed precedents set by numerous earlier presidents, refusing to call for a ceasefire until Israel was ready to do so.

Those precedents are well known at the United Nations. During Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza, there was an effort in the Security Council to at least call for an immediate ceasefire. Fourteen of the 15 members voted for a call to end the Gaza violence on all sides – just a statement, not even an actual resolution. But even that small gesture was opposed by the US, with Biden’s newly-appointed Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield refusing to endorse the statement that required unanimous approval.

Her rejection of an immediate ceasefire matched that of Israel, whose spokesman Mark Regev told MSNBC that yes, Israel wanted a ceasefire, but “not just yet.”  He told the BBC that a ceasefire would be “premature,” that it was “too early.”   Apparently the assault hadn’t destroyed enough buildings or killed enough Palestinians yet.

It was important that some of Biden’s key Democratic supporters in Washington were not prepared, this time around, to accept the US role of spoiler of a ceasefire. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a close Biden ally and generally a centrist on foreign policy, said “I’m troubled by it. I just can’t remember a shooting war where kids are being killed on both sides where the US hasn’t aggressively pushed for a ceasefire.”  And Chris Murphy, head of the Middle East Sub-Committee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “I just think it’s a no-brainer for the United States to be pushing for a ceasefire.”

In fact, the Biden administration’s reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire until Israel was ready reflects a long pattern at the UN.  In 2006, when Israel was at war in Lebanon, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the ceasefire should be delayed until “the conditions are conducive.” And the war raged on for another month. Three years later, at the height of Israel’s 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza, governments as well as people around the world were urgently calling for at least a 48-hour ceasefire to allow desperately needed emergency humanitarian aid. But Israel rebuffed the desperate calls, and Washington stopped the Security Council from acting. (The assault continued for some days, until Washington eventually allowed a weak ceasefire draft to pass. But not until moments before an emergency meeting of the General Assembly was about to take place, where GA President Miguel d’Escoto planned for a much stronger intervention than the Security Council was willing to organize, to force a ceasefire.)

What’s important to recognize here is that not only is Biden following a longstanding US pattern at the UN of rejecting ceasefires when Israel is the dominant military force and is not interested in a ceasefire. But there’s a major difference this time, in the political environment in which Israel’s brutal war against Palestine and Palestinian lives, in Gaza and beyond, is taking shape. The most important change is occurring largely within Palestine-Israel and the broader region, involving Palestinians themselves. Outrage and resistance to this most recent Israeli escalation (including the efforts to evict Palestinian families from their decades-long homes in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, the attacks on the al Aqsa Mosque on the most holy day of the Ramadan holiday, and finally the 11-day direct assault on Gaza) did not come only from Palestinians living under occupation facing the direct attacks. Instead, opposition and outrage came from a united Palestinian population. After almost three-quarters of a century of Israeli efforts to fragment the Palestinians, this united Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, those living as second- or third-class citizens inside 1948 Israel, and those millions living as refugees in camps throughout the region or in Palestine’s far-flung global diaspora.  That level of unity – that included a joint general strike among other actions – is unprecedented in Palestinian history, and may turn out to be one of the most important results of the recent crisis.

Outside of Palestine and the region, particularly in the United States, the public discussion and media landscape is shifting dramatically. The shift is already evident inside the Democratic Party, most particularly among Democrats of color and young Democrats, the very constituencies so crucial to Biden’s electoral victory.   It’s also visible across African-American as well as Jewish communities across the country, and moving from the progressive media to the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post and beyond, the very core of the mainstream media.

And finally, the discourse shift is reaching the US political/policy echelon as well.  Members of Congress are holding discussions and proposing ideas far different from the once-unchallenged acceptance of absolute US support for Israel. During the recent crisis in Gaza, 20 members of the House of Representatives joined a special session to make powerful statements demanding greater US pressure on Israel. Twenty-nine senators signed a demand for an immediate ceasefire. Twelve Jewish Democrats in Congress, most of whom were not known for supporting Palestinian rights, signed a letter to Biden calling on the administration to urge “an immediate ceasefire and lead efforts to facilitate de-escalation

Outside of Congress, 500 of Biden’s former campaign workers signed a powerful statement condemning Israeli ethnic cleansing and demanding more US pressure. They wrote to the president:

As you tweeted last month, ‘No responsible American president can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ We could not agree more. That is why we ask you to unequivocally condemn Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians. We thank you for your work to end the most recent round of violence between Israel and Hamas. To ensure a lasting ceasefire and a future of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, we ask that you work to end the underlying conditions of occupation, blockade, and settlement expansion that led to this exceptionally destructive period in a 73-year history of dispossession and ethnic cleansing. The resulting status quo is one that international and Israeli human rights organizations agree meets the definition of the crime of apartheid under international law.

Their reference to Israeli apartheid is one more example of the mainstreaming of this once-unthinkable description of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. While Palestinians, supporters of Palestinian rights, South African veterans of their own anti-apartheid struggle, increasing numbers of UN staff and diplomats, and many more have used the term over the last two decades, only in the last couple of years has it moved to the center of mainstream discourse.  In the US, the term is now used by a number of members of Congress, as well as by some in the media and faith leaders including the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and one of the leading Black voices organizing for broad social transformation.  The pace of that shift has been rising exponentially in 2021, and one of the major reasons is rooted in the reports that Biden’s 500 supporters reference in their statement.

The influential US-based Human Rights Watch, which has a long reputation of caution and reluctance in their criticism of Israeli human rights violations and potential war crimes, finally acceded to the undeniable conclusions of the work of their own staff, who had pushed the leadership for years to make the call. Their April 2021 report “A Threshold Crossed” states definitively that Israeli actions and its “objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land” amount to crimes against humanity  — the crime of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territory, and the crime of persecution inside Israel’s 1948 border.

Inside Israel, the important human rights organization B’tselem went further, recognizing that Israel is responsible for an apartheid system in all the land it controls. Even the title of their report, “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy From the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This Is Apartheid,” reflects that broader definition.

And within the United Nations system itself, there are other analyses that go further still.  In 2017, Richard Falk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Virginia Tilley, an expert in apartheid and international law long based in South Africa, issued a report on Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Their report, “Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid,” was prepared at the request of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, and it was notable particularly for its conclusion that Israeli practices amount to the crime of apartheid in all relations to Palestinians. They included not only in the occupied Palestinian territory, and inside Israel’s 1967 border, but additionally in relationship to the Palestinian refugees now living in third and fourth generations in refugee camps across the Middle East and in a far-flung international diaspora – identifying the apartheid treatment as one based on people, not limited to specific territory. Israel is denying the Palestinian refugees’ their internationally-recognized right to return to their homes in what is now Israel while Jews from anywhere in the world, regardless of any ties to the land under Israeli control, are welcomed in that same land, Israel’s actions constitute apartheid on a global scale.

The Falk-Tilley report was also notable for what happened to it. Two days after its release, the UN Secretary General ordered ESCWA to remove the report from its website. In what the coalition of Palestinian human rights organizations called a “monumental moment,” the Executive Secretary of ESCWA Rima Khalaf resigned in response. The pressure was too great, and the Secretary General had caved.

A New Environment

But now there can be little doubt about the understanding of Israeli practices as apartheid, in clear violation of the International Covenant on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. There can be no expectation that Biden or anyone in his administration is likely to take up that language any time soon. But the reports and resulting shift in public and media discourse are having significant impact on how US support for Israel – and in this context particularly US protection of Israel in the UN, ensuring it is not held accountable in the International Criminal Court or elsewhere for its violations of human rights and international law – is viewed, including in Congress.

In the UN context, there are a number of possibilities already under consideration by various member state governments, UN agencies and others. Just after the 2021 Israeli assault on Gaza, the UN missions of South Africa and Namibia co-sponsored a conference focused on “the importance of upholding the principles of self-determination and non-discrimination – justice for the Palestinian people.”  During the discussion of apartheid that followed presentations by the South African foreign minister, Namibia’s deputy foreign minister, the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, and a number of international civil society experts, several proposals emerged.

They included:

  • A call for the UN Human Rights Council to create a new Special Rapporteur position focused on apartheid.
  • A call for the UN General Assembly to pass a resolution calling for the re-building of the Special Committee Against Apartheid, reflecting the global definition of apartheid contained in the International Convention Against Apartheid.
  • A call for the UN to create a Center Against Apartheid within the Secretariat to engage with governments and the global anti-apartheid movements, and to produce and distribute resources around the world to broaden the global reach of those movements in partnership with the United Nations.
  • A call for the United Nations or some group of member states within it to host a “pledging conference” to support Palestinian rights, in which states would pledge not money but commitments for action. Those promised actions might include urging the HRC to create a new Special Rapporteur position, engaging the General Assembly on creation of a new Special Committee Against Apartheid, supporting and helping to organize and fund a new Center Against Apartheid within the UN Secretariat, etc.

If governments are able to produce even some of these moves within the United Nations, it would become just a little bit less damaging, at least on the question of Palestinian rights, if Joe Biden refuses to break with the longstanding defend-Israel-at-all-costs precedents of US engagement with the United Nations.  If his administration could be persuaded to take seriously even some of the features of discourse shift underway in the public and in Congress, maybe they might pull back just a little bit and allow the UN just a little bit of room to do its work.

Certainly, the United Nations is limited in its ability to constrain geopolitical abuse of power, and to enhance the role of international law.  Respecting the centrality of international law in setting UN policy – and US policy towards the UN – is crucial if there is any hope that the UN will eventually fulfill the ambitions and expectations of its strongest supporters in civil society. As matters now stand, these supporters are often caught between being seen as naive idealists cheerleading whatever the UN does, or dismissive cynics who reject the UN as a great power charade that is a waste of time and money and only empowers Washington’s imperial designs. Both of these outlooks are exaggerated, inducing either an uncritical passivity toward the UN or a lack of appreciation of the contributions being made daily by the global organization and its agencies. Neither are sufficient for crafting a new civil society approach of defending the legitimacy and international law basis of the United Nations and protecting it from US nationalist assault, while simultaneously working to strengthen and democratize the global institution.

The legacy of the United Nations is one of being consistently instrumentalized as a tool of US foreign policy. But there are key moments in UN history that defy that general pattern. During the months leading up to and immediately after the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the Security Council stood defiant in the face of US efforts to win UN authorization for its looming war. Its resistance, backed by the millions of people pouring into the streets of capitals around the world demanding that their governments say no to George Bush and Tony Blair, made the UN, for that brief moment, part of the global mobilization that stood up for ending the scourge of war.  Whatever Joe Biden’s own intentions towards the United Nations, our goal must be to reclaim and reinvigorate that resistance part of UN history.


All articles published in the International Review of Contemporary Law reflect only the position of their author and not the position of the journal, nor of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.


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