The stench that wafted across world politics last Friday was unbearable. It originated from a place where there was once an old slaughterhouse. The place now houses the 39-storey United Nations building, one of the most photographed world monuments. The building overlooking the East River has an architectural aura, but, by no means, is its glassy exterior symbolic of the sordid state of affairs inside, with matters peace and justice often undermined by powerful nations.
Last Friday was one such day. Underscoring the impotency of the United Nations, its new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, shattered the hope for peace in West Asia when he ordered the removal of a report critical of Israel from a UN website, just two days after the document was released. By timidly displaying his inability to stand up for justice and stand by Rima Khalef, who, as the head of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), commissioned the report, Guterres seems to have compromised his socialism with which he wooed the people of Portugal to become prime minister in 1995. While Khalef resigned in disgust, the wounded Palestinians, the victims of Israel’s apartheid system, cried: ‘Et tu Guterres’.
The secretary general’s surrender is so disheartening that it pushes peace activists to long for the old abattoir at Turtle Bay, for the blood of the slaughtered cattle would have smelt like jasmine, in comparison to the smell of putrid power politics of the UN system. It is now becoming clear that the new UN Secretary General succumbed to pressure from the United States and withdrew the report, although the report’s authors, Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, widely respected for their global justice activism, insisted that this was only a research paper that did not reflect the views of ESCWA or the UN. Palestine’s UN envoy Riyad Mansour told reporters on Wednesday that “bullying tactics and intimidation” led to UN withdrawal of the report that accused Israel of practising apartheid.
A UN spokesman, however, said the organisation did not have a problem with the content of the report but rather with Khalef’s failure to follow procedure prior to publication.
“The secretary-general cannot accept that an under secretary-general or any other senior UN official that reports to him would authorise the publication under the UN name, under the UN logo, without consulting the competent departments and even himself,” he said.
Whatever the explanation for the removal of the report, Guterres appears as gutless as his predecessor. The present controversy reminds us of the Richard Goldstein report on Israel’s 2008 Gaza war. It was commissioned by the then Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The report accused both Israel and the Palestinian resistance group Hamas of war crimes. In indiscriminate Israeli attacks, some 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, perished -- half of the victims being children.
Later Goldstein withdrew his report solely on the basis of Israel’s claim that it had no policy of targeting civilians. Independent analysts ascribe the death of the report to US and Israeli pressure on Goldstein.
In another UN retreat under pressure, Ban last year withdrew Saudi Arabia from a list of nations that had committed war crimes against children, after the oil-rich kingdom warned it would stop its funds for UN programmes.
Such pressure and bullying tactics were also evident in recent US statements defending Israel.
America’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley dismissed the ESCWA report as “anti-Israel propaganda” and said, “The United States stands with our ally Israel and will continue to oppose biased and anti-Israel actions across the UN system and around the world.”
On Monday, a week after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the US might withdraw from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, Haley slammed the council for its “anti-Israel agenda”. She told the Council: “The so-called ‘Agenda Item 7’ discredits the standing of the only UN body specifically designed to address the state of global human rights by allowing nations to distract from their own abuses back home by churning out anti-Israel propaganda. As a result, the United States will not participate in discussions under Agenda Item 7 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, other than to vote against the outrageous, one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions that so diminish what the Human Rights Council should be, and we encourage other Council members who purport to be defenders of human rights to do the same.” If Haley, in her zealous frenzy, is determined to protect and reward Israel’s atrocities and cannot accept the ESCWA report, then she should at least read Jimmy Carter’s 2006 best seller ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’. Carter, like all US presidents since 1948, was no enemy of Israel. Defending his book, Carter said Israel’s policy in the West Bank represented instances of apartheid worse than what was in South Africa.
“When Israel does occupy this territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200-or-so settlements with each other, with a road, and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing the road, this perpetrates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa,” Carter said.
Falk and Tilley in their ESCWA report explain more than what Carter saw. They recommended the international community to intensify the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) campaign against Israel until it abandons its apartheid policy that dehumanises the Palestinians.
It is to the UN system that the Palestinian people turn to realise their dream of freedom. But the world body has been, in effect, an accomplice in the crime against the Palestinians. It started with Resolution 181 which partitioned Palestine in 1947 in what was seen as a travesty of justice, giving the 30 percent Jewish population, mostly European immigrants, 55 percent of the land and the Palestinians who formed the 70 percent of the population 45 percent. Since then, the UN has been virtually offering its facilities for the United States and Israel to continue their might-is-right policies.
The existence of agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to help the displaced Palestinians will not absolve the UN of its complicity. Guterres should have resisted the US pressure, for it is better to serve the world body as a true soldier of peace for one term rather than serving two terms as an agent of injustice.