Part of our regular series of background briefings on the UN in the news.
14 of the UN Security Council's 15 members recently united in condemnation of the United States, following President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. However, the American veto meant that a resolution reaffirming the Council's views on the subject was not passed. General Assembly condemnation and funding threats followed. In our latest UN briefing we look at the issue and ask, “what happens now?”
What is the controversy about?
The international community considers Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem to be in contravention of international law and has consequentially refused to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel until the status of East Jerusalem is resolved. Numerous Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have confirmed this position. Prior to 2017, no UN member state had sought to stray from this view through UN resolutions and, as a consequence, no state had sought to locate their embassy in Jerusalem. Prominent supporters of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, such as the UN, EU, Germany and UK have taken the view that any decisions about the status of Jerusalem must be jointly agreed by both parties to the conflict – the Israelis and the Palestinians – as part of a negotiated final status agreement for the borders and capitals of two sovereign independent states.
However, in May 2017, in response to an ongoing controversy regarding the UN culture and science agency UNESCO’s decision to award world heritage status to the Palestinian city of Hebron, the states of Vanuatu and the Czech Republic chose to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In the United States the situation is complicated by the fact that while the President is exclusively responsible for foreign policy decisions, the US Congress attempts to play a larger role in foreign policy by creatively using legislation. A common tactic is “executive waiver” legislation: a binding law which requires the President to commit to taking a particular foreign policy decision or else write a formal letter to Congress at regular – usually six monthly – intervals explaining why they cannot do so. One such piece of legislation is the “Jerusalem Embassy Act” of 1995 which requires the President to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or provide an explanation every six months.
On 6 December 2017, United States President Donald Trump declined to make such an explanation and so set in motion the process of the US becoming the third state in the world to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the first to move their embassy there. In explaining the decision to the UN Security Council US Ambassador Nikki noted that this decision was equally linked to domestic politics as it is international relations (recognition of Jerusalem being an important issue for many evangelical Christians) saying,
What does the veto mean?
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the United States has the ability to veto resolutions that come before the Council and so, even though the vote was 14-1 against the United States, the draft resolution was not adopted. However, as the draft largely restated existing United Nations policy, many commentators believe this veto achieved little. The official position of the United Nations remains that, in the words of the Secretary-General:
Using the veto (for the first time since February 2011, also over Israel) will come at a diplomatic price for the United States. Russia, which has used the veto repeatedly in relation to Syria, has found that blocking action can diminish a state’s standing in the world, at a time when big powers are already seeing their influence being challenged at the UN.
However, as Ambassador Haley made clear, the US was not embarrassed to use the veto. Indeed, many supporters of the current US administration found the incident to be cathartic, following their dismay at the decision by the previous administration almost a year ago to the day not to veto a resolution condemning Israel for building illegal settlements on occupied territory.
What happened next?
A week later, the UN General Assembly also debated the issue. While the General Assembly cannot issue binding resolutions like the Security Council it represents all member states and so plays an important role in reflecting global political opinion. Despite explicit threats of funding cuts to both the United Nations and individual states that voted against the US, the vote went heavily against America, with 128 members including Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Japan voting to condemn the move and only 9 votes in favour (Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and the United States themselves).
Subsequently Guatemala joined the US in proposing that their embassy move to Jerusalem and there were some incorrect reports that the US would withhold funding to the UN. They have not yet done so, although $65 million in voluntary funding to one agency (UNRWA - the main agency providing humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees in Jordan and the Palestinian territories) has been put on indefinite hold with potentially very damaging results to the humanitarian situation in the region.
Does the UN have an anti-Israel bias?
This question is often raised by commentators in relation to UN discussions and resolutions on Israel-Palestine. In addressing this question, it is important to differentiate between the institution of the United Nations and its member states. The UN is an organisation of states and does not operate in a political vacuum. Decisions by the UN's intergovernmental bodies, such as the Security Council, General Assembly and UNESCO General Conference will inevitably reflect the politics of their member states, and are distinct from statements made by UN officials, such as the Secretary-General. By conflating the two, as Ambassador Haley unfortunately did in her explanation of her veto, states and commentators do the UN a disservice. This is just one reason why threatening to withhold funds to the UN or its agencies or programmes would be counterproductive.
Certainly, member states do take a disproportionate interest in Israel, particularly at the Human Rights Council where Israel is the only country to have a standing agenda item devoted to it (something UNA-UK has long campaigned against) and where around 50% of resolutions that specifically condemn one nation single out Israel.
But there is an important distinction to be made between disproportionate interest and unwarranted interest. The Human Rights Council’s interest in Israel is doubtless disproportionate, but it does not follow that it is unwarranted. Countless independent expert reports suggest that there are human rights violations worthy of critique relating to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Countering this politicised selectivity by raising the bar for other countries many of which hypocritically refuse to accept human rights resolutions regarding any state except Israel on spurious "sovereignty" grounds, would serve the interests of human rights.
It is also worth considering that there is a performative element to actions at the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council, like the General Assembly, passes non-binding resolutions. It therefore provides a useful safety valve. States can use Human Rights Council resolutions to express concern and assuage domestic constituencies without affecting their bilateral relationships with Israel. Some of Israel’s strongest critics in the Human Rights Council and General Assembly – such as China, Russia, Egypt, and the UAE – are at the same time deepening and strengthening their trading and diplomatic relationships with Israel. Nor does the relationship between Israel and the Human Rights Council particularly seem to hurt relationships across the wider UN system where Israel engages widely and successfully.
What about Palestine's attempts to be recognised as a UN member state?
Palestine has responded by announcing that it would now seek full membership of 22 international bodies including the UN. This is an issue UNA-UK has been following for some time. Palestine currently has a compromise status of “non-member observer state”, placing them halfway between full membership and non membership.
Full membership requires the agreement of both the General Assembly, where the threshold of two-thirds in favour could well be achieved, and the Security Council, where the US veto would come into play.
The US Congress also passed laws in the 1990s requiring it to withhold all funding from the United Nations if they were to accept Palestine as a member. UNESCO was affected by these laws after its member states admitted Palestine to the body. The US provides 22% of the UN’s regular budget, after it negotiated a cap on its dues.
What options does the UK have for action?
The issue of recognition is a complicated one which affects not only Palestine but Western Sahara, Kosovo, parts of Somalia and many other places besides. The UK's current position is that Israel and Palestine need to reach agreement first, before the issue is brought to the UN. It abstained in the 2012 UN General Assembly vote that granted Palestine non-member observer state status.
UNA-UK believes that the UK should set out the objective criteria under which they would consider state recognition and why it is that they feel Palestine does not currently meet the criteria. Further, given that statehood is largely a matter of international consensus, and over 70% of the world’s nations (including, most recently, Sweden) already recognise Palestine as a state, the United Kingdom would be well served by aligning itself with global opinion. UNA-UK has consistently called for the UK to take steps towards the recognition of Palestine and at very least to not participate in attempts to block the UN from recognising Palestine.
In the meantime, the rift between those, mostly western, powers who fail to recognise Palestine and the rest of the world risks exacerbating already tense relations between the permanent members of the Security Council and the wider UN membership. It is therefore vitally important that the UK acts to rebuild bridges with those such as the Group of 77 (G77) and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which represent popular opinion among non-permanent and non-Security Council members.
What can the UN do?
In its response to the Security Council vote, Russia made the point, echoed by the Palestinian President, that this action disqualified the US from acting as a fair and neutral broker in future peace talks between Israel and Palestine, and put itself forward for this role. However, the reality is that no major or formerly major power has ever been truly neutral where the issue of Israel and Palestine is concerned. Only the United Nations possesses the global authority and institutionally assured impartiality required to mediate between the two sides. It is therefore incumbent upon the UN Secretary-General to make good on his promise to conduct a “surge in diplomacy” and step into the breach left by the United States withdrawal by acting as convener for any future peace talks in the region.
Photo: UNGA votes on resolution A/ES-10/L.22, infographic from UNA-UK magazine, US Permanent Representative to the UN Nikki Haley casts her veto Credit: UN Photo