It is astounding that the president of the United States, the so-called leader of the free world, could fly to Israel to offer more military support to a regime that has no qualms about committing mass slaughter of civilians in Gaza. President Joe Biden’s offer of more military assistance worth billions of dollars to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has deeply dismayed not just the Palestinians in Gaza who are being killed by the thousands by US weapons, but also the millions of people and several human rights organisations around the world who believe that Israel’s actions in Gaza could amount to genocide.
To add insult to injury, Biden offered a puny US$100 million – a tiny fraction of the amount in military aid to Israel – to the more than two million Gazans whose houses are being bombed and who are now being denied basics such as food, water and electricity by the occupying Israeli state. This goes to show where the US’s priorities lie.
What the US president failed to recognise is that the Palestinians would not need this humanitarian assistance if Israel had not imposed a blockade on Gaza. The blasé attitude of the US government (and indeed of the Western media, which appears to have become a mouthpiece for US and Israeli propaganda) towards the slaughter taking place in Gaza clearly shows that there is a hierarchy among the world’s war victims. So, there is deep sympathy and support for Ukrainians who are being bombed and made homeless by Russia but Palestinians being killed and being denied food and water are seen as deserving of their fate.
The hypocrisy of the US government is now clearly on full display. How could Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine amount to a war crime but the assault on Gaza – the world’s largest open-air prison – and the denial of food, water and electricity to a people whose every move is controlled by Israel not be seen as collective punishment, which is also considered a war crime? As someone on Twitter stated, the world has finally seen the true face of the United States government – it has lost its moral authority to preach human rights and democracy to the world.
While the actions of Hamas cannot be condoned (killing Israeli civilians and taking them hostage are war crimes), there is little effort on the part of the US to understand why people who have been caged for decades might revolt against their captors. There is little attempt to acknowledge that Palestinians were turned into refugees on their own land by the Israeli state. And there is a huge blind spot when it comes to demanding accountability from Israel, which many have described as an “apartheid state”.
Even before the current crisis, Gazans had no control over their water and electricity supplies, which are controlled by Israel. Palestinians could not move freely within their territory or travel abroad. It is ironic that the Jewish people, who suffered unspeakable atrocities during the Second World War, are now inflicting similar atrocities on non-Jewish people. (Although it must be said that a sizeable number of Jews within Israel and elsewhere have vehemently opposed Israel’s actions in Gaza.) Palestinians have essentially lost their right to full citizenship. They are being punished for demanding freedom and dignity. Let us look at it this way: If a victim of domestic violence kills her abuser, would she be deemed a murderer or would a court rule that it was an act of self-defence? If slaves stage a rebellion against their owners, would they be accused of insubordination? When colonised people take up arms to fight for their freedom, are they terrorists or freedom fighters?
It is ironic that the Jewish people, who suffered unspeakable atrocities during the Second World War, are now inflicting similar atrocities on non-Jewish people.
What’s worse, the United Nations Security Council, which was created in 1945 specifically to prevent wars from occurring or escalating, has not been able to pass a resolution condemning Israel for its actions and calling for a ceasefire because the United States – one of the five permanent veto-holding members of the Security Council that contributes up to 20 per cent of the UN’s budget – vetoed a proposed resolution even though the majority of the Security Council members supported it. The question we must ask as members of the international community is: What is the point of having a UN Security Council when it cannot prevent wars?
The power of the P-5
The UN Security Council was established in 1945 after the Second World War. The Council consists of 15 members, 10 of which are rotational non-permanent members elected for two-year terms. The non-permanent members may have a say in decisions made by the Security Council, but the ultimate decision rests with the five permanent veto-holding members, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China—also known as the P-5. So, if one of the P-5 members decides to go to war, to support war criminals or to supply arms to a warring faction or state, there is nothing the rest of the members can do about it. Any resolution condemning these actions can be vetoed by a permanent veto-holding member.
The UN Security Council is, therefore, not a club of equals. The ten non-permanent members of the 15-member Council do not pose a serious threat to the five veto-holding members of the Council although membership does give these countries the illusion of being influential. Take the case of Rwanda. This tiny Central African country was elected as a rotating non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 1994, the very year the horrific genocide took place in that country. (Which goes to show how ineffectual non-permanent membership in the Security Council is.) The Security Council did little to prevent the genocide that ravaged the country and left about a million people dead. The P-5 looked the other way while Rwandans were being massacred. And Rwanda, the non-permanent UN Security Council member, sat back and watched the genocide unfold before the world’s eyes.
Another glaring example is the Iraq war. In March 2003, the United States and Britain invaded Iraq—without unanimous UN Security Council approval—on the pretext that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction” and had links to the terrorist organization Al Qaeda. (Both claims were found to be untrue.) The UN Security Council could do absolutely nothing to prevent the invasion of Iraq; it could not even impose sanctions on the United States and Britain, which, as veto-holding members of the UN Security Council, had imposed UN sanctions on Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Although the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had publicly expressed his disappointment about the decision by the US and Britain to go to war with Iraq, and had even declared that the war was “illegal”—as it had not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council and violated the UN Charter—there was not much he could do. The war went ahead despite widespread anti-war protests on every continent around the globe. (Similar protests in Western capitals and in the Arab world have failed to convince both Biden and Netanyahu to stop the war against the Gazan people.) The George W. Bush and Tony Blair administrations did not listen to the voices of the millions of people who were opposed to the war, even as the death toll in Iraq reached alarming proportions.
How wars benefit the P-5 and the UN
The fact is that the UN Security Council’s permanent veto-holding permanent members have never really been committed to world peace because wars keep their military industrial complexes going. It is not lost on many people around the world that the permanent members of the UN Security Council also happen to be the biggest arms manufacturers in the world. The United States remains the biggest arms exporter in the world, followed by Russia, France and China, with Britain not very far behind. These countries have a vested interest in conflicts and in selling arms to non-arms manufacturing countries in Asia, Africa, and the rest of the world. They have no moral authority to preach peace to the world when they themselves benefit financially and geopolitically from war.
When wars occur in far-off places, arms manufacturers in these countries have a field day. Wars in former French colonies in Africa keep France’s military industrial complex well-oiled. Wars in the Middle East are viewed by British and American arms manufacturers as a boon for their arms industries. If there were no wars or civil conflicts in the world, these industries would have fewer or no customers.
The United States remains the biggest arms exporter in the world, followed by Russia, France and China, with Britain not very far behind.
Wars and other disasters also provide the UN an opportunity to fundraise for refugees and internally displaced people. The UN’s campaign in Yemen, for example, is not about ending the Saudi-led war against the Houthis, but about raising donations for the millions who are suffering as a result of the crisis. The UN, including the UN Secretary-General, views Yemen as a humanitarian crisis, not a political crisis. (Biden’s offer of assistance to Gaza also ignores the political dimension of the humanitarian crisis.) No sanctions have been imposed on Saudi Arabia for going to war in Yemen because Saudi Arabia is a strong ally of the US and a big importer of US-made weapons. Any resolution to sanction Saudi Arabia would no doubt be vetoed by the US. And because humanitarian crises fill up UN agencies’ coffers, UN humanitarian agencies are less focused on ending the political crisis—which would inevitably end the humanitarian crisis.
Reforming the UN Security Council
The crisis in Gaza has underscored the need for the UN Security Council to be more democratic and inclusive. While giving just five nations permanent seats and veto-holding powers at the Security Council might have made sense when the UN was founded, in a world where most of the world’s population is concentrated in Asia and Africa, and where new regional powers are emerging, it is time to expand the Council, and include in it countries that are seriously committed to peace and stability rather than to wars and conflicts.
The UN Security Council, as currently constituted, mainly represents the interests of the winners of the Second World War, even though the world has changed considerably since then in terms of geopolitics, demographics, and economic influence. Emerging economies such as India (the second most populous country in the world after China), Brazil, and Nigeria (both regional powerhouses) not only hold sizeable populations, they are also becoming important economically. Some of these countries even have nuclear capability. They and others should have a say in UN Security Council decisions. Moreover, today’s most deadly wars are being waged by insurgents or terrorist groups, which have become transnational. So, new forms of international cooperation are required.
Countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (regions that hold the majority of the world’s population) must demand to be included as permanent members of the Security Council. Most UN Security Council resolutions have to do with conflicts in Africa, yet African countries have little or no say in the passing of these resolutions, whether they be about imposing sanctions on a country, sending in peacekeepers to conflict zones or deciding whether or not a country should be invaded.
Most importantly, membership should be allocated to those countries that have no vested interest in the arms industry and which have not waged war on other countries since the Security Council was established in 1945—countries that are genuinely committed to world peace. And in order to eliminate the threat of nuclear war, absence of nuclear capability should be a condition for permanent membership.
However, if reforming the UN Security is not possible (because the P-5 will veto such a decision), then perhaps it is time to disband the Council altogether. There is no point in pretending anymore that there is a body in the UN that actually cares about preventing wars and human rights violations and has the clout and the will to do so.
Israel’s assault on Gaza has shown, once again, that the UN Security Council is ineffective when it comes to protecting the human rights of all people and preventing wars. Wars will continue as long as they serve the economic or geopolitical interests of the five permanent members of the UN, especially the United States.
There is no point in pretending anymore that there is a body in the UN that actually cares about preventing wars and human rights violations and has the clout and the will to do so.
The tragedy is that this war could fuel a wider war in the Middle East and beyond that might be hard to contain once it is unleashed. If that happens, the US must be held accountable for aiding and abetting an unjustified war that led to escalation of conflict in the region and resulted in colossal casualties and human rights violations.