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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 23:04 GMT
UN impotence over Mid-East crisis
UN Security Council
Only one resolution was passed in 16 months of violence
By BBC United Nations correspondent Greg Barrow

The fax machines begin to whir in the offices of all the major media organisations based at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

Rolling off the machines is the latest letter from the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the United Nations.

Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Nasser al-Kidwa
Al-Kidwa: The Security Council should take a position
Since the start of the second intifada on 29 September, 2000, the observer mission has sent 89 separate letters.

All are addressed to the United Nations Security Council, informing its president of the latest round of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.

More often than not, the letters call for action from the Security Council in the form of a new resolution addressing the violence in the Middle East.

Despite the urgency of the problem, the council has managed to adopt just one resolution in the 16 months since the second intifada began.

In his offices in Manhattan, Nasser Al-Kidwa, the ambassador of the Palestine observer mission, shakes his head.

He now has a thick file of letters and appeals to the Security Council, but very little else to show for his diligent work drafting, and faxing letters to all and sundry.

Call for intervention

Despite the many setbacks, he remains convinced that the Security Council still has a duty to intervene when it comes to the Middle East.

"What is wrong with the Security Council - the representative of the international community on issues related to international peace and security - coming and saying how things should develop, taking positions and saying this is right, or this is wrong?" He says.

"I think this is the normal thing for the council to do, and this can only help the parties to proceed."

People across the Arab world... see the UN as an organisation that no longer represents the international community

Phyllis Bennis
There is always a pattern to the progress of resolutions relating to the Middle East, when they are put in front of the Security Council.

Normally, it is an Arab nation, or a regional Arab grouping, which puts the resolution forward.

Almost inevitably, the United States, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, indicates that it will not welcome the passage of the resolution.

If the resolution looks like it has widespread support on the 15 member council, the US threatens to wield its power of veto to prevent it being adopted.

If the resolution comes to a vote, that is generally what happens.

US 'too influential'

As Israel's closest ally on the Security Council, Washington has consistently made sure that any attempt to internationalise the Middle East problem is defeated at the earliest possible stage.

Phyllis Bennis, the author of Calling the Shots, a book about the power Washington wields at the United Nations, says there are pitfalls in this approach.

"People across the Arab world are beginning to see the United Nations as an organisation that no longer represents the international community," she says. "Instead, they see the UN as a vehicle under the domination of the United States."

The Security Council should... be certain that it doesn't take some steps that would be counter-productive to the peace process

US Ambassador John Negroponte
The US has a different explanation. It supports Israel's concerns that any involvement of the UN would favour the Palestinian cause in the Middle East, and it has remained adamant that the Security Council should keep its nose out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We think the key point is progress in the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians in the region," said John Negroponte, the US Ambassador to the United Nations.

"We've always taken the view that the Security Council should act with a great deal of caution with respect to the Middle East peace process, to be certain that it doesn't take some steps that would be counter-productive to the peace process," Ambassador Negroponte said.

No balance of power

It sounds like a reasonable approach, but Ms Bennis argues that the peculiar dynamics of the balance of power in the Middle East make a local solution to the problem, almost impossible.

"It doesn't work when you're talking about an occupied land, and an occupied population, on the one hand, and the illegal occupying country on the other," she says.

the council's really abdicating its responsibilities with respect to the Middle East

Jamaican deputy ambassador Curtis Ward
"Israel is by far the wealthiest country in the Middle East. It's by far the most powerful military force, and, most importantly in this area, it has the full and uncritical backing of the sole superpower in the world."

There is, of course, a responsibility of other Security Council members to try to steer the Middle East onto the Council's agenda.

Some have fought hard, but ultimately fruitlessly to do so.

In a report published at the end of last year, Singapore, which occupies one of the 10 non-permanent seats on the council, said the Middle East issue was one of the least successful files addressed by the Security Council.

"This needs no elaboration," the Singaporean report said. "The Council could not find a role for itself to fulfil its primary responsibility to handle a serious threat to international peace and stability."

Sensitive issue

Given the extreme sensitivity of the issue, most Security Council members are unwilling to speak publicly about their frustration with this failure.

There are, however, exceptions. Jamaica has just ended a two-year term on the council, and its deputy ambassador, Curtis Ward, now feels free to comment.

"There's no logical explanation for the council not to be engaged in this issue," he said.

This issue, in particular, highlights more than any other the need to reform the veto system

Curtis Ward
"We've seen that when there's political will among the permanent five members of the Council, it can take quick, effective, and decisive action, so the council's really abdicating its responsibilities with respect to the Middle East."

Ambassador Ward's views reflect those of many among the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council.

These nations that are rotated off the council every two years are the lesser gods sitting in a body where only the five permanent members, Britain, France, China, Russia, and the United States, wield the power of veto.

This is how the council was set up in the aftermath of World War II, giving the victorious allies the most powerful position.

But more than half a century on from then, Ambassador Ward believes that the council's failure to address pressing issues such as the Middle East, demonstrates clearly the need for reform.

"This issue, in particular, highlights more than any other the need to reform the veto system," he said.

"I'll tell you why. We've had to challenge not just the use of the veto itself, but even the mere threat of the veto.

"We've seen where the mere threat of the veto created a situation where Council members withdrew from even presenting a draft resolution for discussion because one member, one permanent member of the council, said that anything that comes in the form of a resolution will be vetoed, regardless of the contents.

"So, on this particular issue, it significantly highlights the need for reform of the veto," Ambassador Ward said.

See also:

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