The war in Gaza has blurred the line between the United Nations’ diplomatic and humanitarian roles

The killing of over 100 people receiving aid in the Strip is the latest example of the effects of the organization’s paralysis. Countries in the Global South have criticized the West’s double standards in relation to the conflict in Ukraine

Palestinians carry bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint, February 19, 2024.
Palestinians carry bags of flour they grabbed from an aid truck near an Israeli checkpoint, February 19, 2024.Stringer (REUTERS)
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

Two wars in two years. The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza have given rise to the most demanding and exhausting period for the United Nations since the beginning of the century. Then, the war in Iraq shocked the world and lit the fuse once and for all on the new global disorder of jihadist terrorism. The old mechanism of the right of veto has rendered the Security Council — the body in charge of ensuring world peace and security — inoperative.

Thus, while the initiatives for Ukraine have been showing signs of fatigue for months (Russia has blocked them all), those it has put forward for Gaza have also been doomed to failure: the United States vetoed a permanent humanitarian ceasefire resolution for the third time last week. The Global South has criticized the West’s double standards in both conflicts, while continued fighting in the Strip is preventing humanitarian aid from reaching those who need it most. The killing of over 100 people in the enclave during a distribution of flour last Thursday was the umpteenth demonstration of the practical consequences of the organization’s paralysis.

Dirk Salomons, professor of international relations at Columbia University, talks about the reason why the UN was founded in the first place. After 45 million deaths in World War II, it was agreed that the only way to prevent such a thing from happening again was to guarantee peace through an international organization The responsibility would fall on the five victorious Allied nations and each would have a permanent seat on the Security Council and the right to veto proposals.

At the time, two of the five Allies, Great Britain and France, were world powers, with empires that spanned the globe. Now they are world dwarfs. Russia is seen as a criminal mafia enterprise, and China has no ambition to become an arbiter of other countries’ conflicts. The United States, once the last World War II power standing, lost all credibility after Iraq, as did many of its allies. The Council, or what remains of it, is fatally divided, totally impotent, and has lost its influence.

Salomons illustrates the paralysis of the UN executive body, whose operation is based on the geopolitics of the mid-20th century, not the 21st. Today’s world is seeing a growing prominence of the Global South, as demonstrated by the third diplomatic path of Lula da Silva’s Brazil — a negotiated solution in Ukraine, and its unequivocal denunciation of Israel’s violence in Gaza — and the genocide lawsuit against Israel brought by South Africa in The Hague. Brazil and South Africa, two of the so-called BRICS nations, have already altered the traditional distribution of key roles. Few southern countries were members in 1945.

Financing problems are not unrelated to the paralysis of the organization. As of Wednesday, only 70 member states had fully paid their share of the regular budget, and the United States, the club’s largest contributor, was not among them. Peacekeeping and humanitarian operations are financed separately, which is why the people of Gaza especially blame the withdrawal of funds for the UNRWA (a UN agency that helps Palestinian refugees) by a dozen countries, of which the U.S. in the lead. These countries have stopped giving finance to the agency following accusations of collusion with Hamas that Israel made a month ago.

Silence around Ukraine, clamor for Gaza

Like two sides of the same coin, while the war in Gaza grabs headlines, the one in Ukraine is almost invisible in the day-to-day life of the UN. This is illustrated by the more than discreet commemoration of the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, on February 23 (the invasion occurred in the early hours of the following day). There were plenty of speeches in the General Assembly, but no initiative to stop the war.

Diplomatic fatigue or a shift of focus to Gaza? Richard Gowan, for decades a senior official at the institution and today at the NGO International Crisis Group, specialized in conflict prevention, responds: “I think Gaza is an important factor, but not the only one. Members were already less focused on Ukraine long before October 7 [the date of the Hamas attacks on Israel], and many non-Western states were tired after a year of intense debates and votes on Ukraine.”

Gowan concedes that the war in Gaza “has clearly shaken the diplomatic dynamic in New York. Many UN members, including Arab states, which previously voted in favor of Ukraine in the General Assembly, are unhappy that the U.S. and some major European powers have not shown similar sympathy for the people of Gaza,” he explains.

The resolutions of the General Assembly, the body to which the Security Council refers the proposed resolutions — which it has done in both cases, Ukraine and Gaza — are purely symbolic and non-binding. This also fuels impotence, to the extent that Kyiv is bypassing the UN as a mediator.

The irrelevance of the UN as an arbiter of the international community — not at all of the role of its agencies on the ground — is the idea that all the experts consulted for this report agree on. “The wars in Ukraine and Gaza have dramatically demonstrated how the UN, created in and for the world of 1945, is incapable of resolving the many complex security challenges we face today. Wars have turned the United Nations into an organization of disunited nations like never before,” explains John Kirton, professor of international relations and global governance at the University of Toronto.

The G20 as a possible alternative

The necessary reform of the Security Council, and specifically of the veto mechanism of its five permanent members, is the elephant in the room. However, there is international consensus about it. António Guterres himself made it clear in his inaugural General Assembly speech in September last year. As has President Joe Biden, whose administration nevertheless uses the veto to stop any resolution that compromises Israel. But in the meantime, the organization is dragging its feet in the case of Ukraine and seems to be shackled when it comes to Gaza.

“There are no short-term prospects for serious reform of the Security Council or the UN in general, to give the growing Global South, led by democratic India, Brazil and South Africa, the greater voice they seek and deserve,” notes Kirton. For the Canadian expert, the G20, “a club of 20 equals, dominated by democracies, in which the countries of the Global South are fully balanced with those of the Global North,” has in practice replaced the UN as the center of global governance, “in the face of the many, old and new, forms of security threats that the world faces.”

A Copernican revolution is underway in international relations. The trail of blood and destruction due to the two conflicts — and many other forgotten ones — currently has no end in sight. But while it has just been substantiated, for the moment, as Salomons points out, “the political role of the UN in Ukraine and Gaza is marginal, and the impressive appeals of its secretary general barely resonate.”

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