As a thunderstorm rolled across Manhattan, and the thunder of Israel’s bombardment resumed with new vigor, the U.N. Security Council met at midnight on Sunday to adopt a presidential statement on the situation in Gaza. The Security Council called for full respect of international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians. It also offered its “full support” to international efforts to secure an immediate cease-fire and urged Hamas and Israel to implement the council’s past resolutions on Gaza.
This was just one piece of the U.N. response. In the Middle East, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lent his support to Egyptian and U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire. In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council mandated a full investigation into allegations of war crimes. In New York, the secretary-general’s special advisers on genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect issued a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire, supporting an investigation into war crimes and demanding accountability. On the ground in Gaza, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency does what it can to shelter the displaced and provide humanitarian assistance. All too often, the United Nations has itself been abused and targeted – abused by Hamas, which has stored weapons in U.N. compounds; targeted by Israel despite the protections owed to it by international law and despite declaring its locations in detail.
Whatever might be said about the effectiveness of this response, it cannot be said that the world body is sitting idly by in the face of civilian destruction. Having learned some of the lessons from international failures to protect civilians in Rwanda and Bosnia, and more recently in Sri Lanka, much has changed in the United Nations’ approach in the past decade. With the U.N. General Assembly’s commitment to the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) in 2005, to the secretary-general’s action plan to put “Rights up Front” in the organization’s work, the protection of civilians has become a core priority. Indeed, some 100,000 personnel are deployed in missions across the world charged, among other things, with protecting civilians from harm. Compared with its response to past crises in the region, the United Nations’ rapid and multifaceted response to the crisis in Gaza, squarely focused as it is on the question of civilian protection, testifies to these underlying shifts.
But it also exposes some of the limits to what can be achieved. Critics have pointed to the things that the United Nations has not yet done: There is no arms embargo or discussion of broader sanctions, no no-fly zone, no referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court, no special envoy, and there are no human rights monitors. The Security Council stopped short of demanding a cease-fire, and the parties have conspicuously ignored its calls thus far.
Gaza offers a sober reminder of the limits of what outsiders can do in the face of deeply entrenched conflict and that the Security Council and other key institutions do not sit above the political milieu, but are very much part of it. When it comes to Gaza, the council has few obviously good options available to it and a difficult political terrain to traverse. It also needs to be careful to avoid making matters worse.
The best way to protect civilians is to end the armed conflict. Negotiating a cease-fire is therefore crucial. But neither of the parties is yet serious about agreeing with the other on terms. Both have their reasons for prosecuting this fight. Reeling from its costly setbacks in Egypt, Hamas faces serious economic and political challenges, which it believes can be addressed by striking at Israel. Most significantly, the loss of trade in and out of Egypt gives new urgency to the strategic goal of lifting the Israeli blockade. For its part, the realignment of Egypt combined with Saudi Arabia’s well-known animosity toward Gaza’s radicals has apparently prompted Israel to believe that it has a rare opportunity to deal a significant, or perhaps even decisive, blow against Hamas.
There is little sign yet of either side judging that the costs of fighting outweigh the benefits. As a result, neither side has yet offered terms that the other could realistically accept, and neither has shown much willingness to negotiate seriously. The bitter history of crisis diplomacy shows only too well that when the parties want to fight, because they believe it serves their immediate interests, there is relatively little that outsiders can do to stop them. Only when this balance begins to change, whether because Hamas proves more resilient than Israel expected or more vulnerable, will they show a serious interest in negotiations.
Outsiders can sometimes help conflicts become “ripe” (to borrow a term from George Mason University’s I. William Zartman) for negotiation earlier than they otherwise would. For example, they could make it more difficult or costly for one or more of the parties to fight, altering the balance of costs and benefits in favor of negotiation. But in this case none of the measures sometimes used to achieve this look promising at this point. An arms embargo would make little immediate difference (and could signal that the world expects a drawn-out conflict), given that both sides have ready access to arms and ammunition. Unless imposed over the whole of Israel, a no-fly zone would succeed only in forcing Israeli aircraft to launch air attacks from a greater distance, reducing their accuracy; a broader no-fly zone would undermine Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system, resulting in additional civilian casualties. General sanctions do not have a good track record of being decisive in the immediate term, whilst more targeted sanctions against individuals would be premature ahead of an investigation into their culpability.
Even if one of these options was potentially viable, it is unlikely that there would be sufficient consensus in the Security Council to adopt it. Just like the Middle East region itself, which is deeply divided on Gaza, the council has found it difficult to reach a common position on Gaza. That is hardly surprising, given the balance of political allegiances at play and the sheer complexity of the situation. Gaza is hardly unique in this regard. Three years into Syria’s civil war, the Security Council is still struggling to find common positions on how best to protect that country’s civilians.
Obviously, it is one thing to agree on a principle such as civilian protection, or R2P; it is another thing entirely to figure out how best to realize that principle in practice and how to build sufficient consensus around particular measures. Some situations, such as in Gaza, do not have straightforward solutions. But that does not mean that nothing can be done to protect civilians. Things can, and are, being done on multiple tracks.
During his term as U.N. secretary-general, Ban has focused heavily on the question of accountability. Exploring ways of enhancing accountability would be one way of breaking the cycles of escalation and impunity that have led both sides of this conflict to treat civilian life so cheaply. The Human Rights Council’s investigation is an important first step in this regard. It is imperative, however, that the parties cooperate with the investigation and that its findings lead to those alleged to be responsible for war crimes, on both sides, being held accountable. Only when civilian life is made more expensive will the parties take genuine steps to protect it. That is one way in which the United Nations might usefully put its responsibility to protect into action.
Alex J. Bellamy is a professor of international security at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, director (international) of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and nonresident senior adviser at the International Peace Institute in New York.
Note: Updated Oct. 9, 2023.