Why can't the United Nations agree to a ceasefire in Gaza?

8 min read
01 November, 2023

It is an understatement to say that the United Nations, as an idea and in action, is inherently flawed – particularly when trying to keep the peace.

Israel’s war on Gaza and recent ceasefire calls personify this reality, highlighting persistent deficiencies in the rules-based international order.

Yet even as the UN General Assembly successfully passed a resolution demanding a ceasefire and humanitarian pathways for civilians in Gaza, the world is witnessing a UN system gridlocked by great power competition and geopolitical interests.

The permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) embrace this competition, with traditional backers of Israel like the United States stuck in a war of words with its rivals, Russia and China.

"The world is witnessing a UN system gridlocked by great power competition and geopolitical interests"

Dysfunction at the UN

The United Nations hosted multiple sessions following Hamas’ 7 October attack on southern Israel, including five UNSC debates and three UN General Assembly (UNGA) debates between 8 to 30 October. The United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia constitute the five UNSC permanent members.

The UNSC sessions aimed to develop a common language for a law-binding resolution that could help address the conflict. As the first UNSC open debate on 25 October highlighted, such conversations are proving difficult as the permanent members and ten elected security council members continue to hold drastically different views on the source of and ways to resolve the fighting.

As such, there is no UNSC resolution. Western states, not limited to the United States and much of Europe, continue to focus on Israel’s right to defend itself and strong condemnations against Hamas while presenting varying degrees of interest in ending the fighting.

Many non-western states, constituting the “global south,” prefer language condemning all instances of harm against civilians. These members, led by the Arab and Islamic world, are demanding a ceasefire, with some rejecting the right of an occupier to defend itself against those it illegally occupies.

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A substantial majority of UN member states ultimately expressed strong support for Palestinians trapped under devastating Israeli shelling and airstrikes in Gaza during the UNGA debates. They deplored Israeli government-backed settler attacks in the occupied West Bank.

Most importantly, however, these states highlighted that the conflict did not begin on 7 October, noting Israel’s illegal occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) as the root cause.

The contrast between these two camps was prominent during the 27 October UNGA debate. Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Munir Akram, gave an impassioned speech following Canadian efforts to introduce an amendment to a Jordan-sponsored resolution that would have added language condemning Hamas’ attack, demanding the group release all hostages, and reiterating Israel’s right to defend itself – without mentioning Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Akram made clear that Canada’s amendment “does not feel the need to name Israel for killing 7,000 Palestinians, only Hamas. Is this balance?” He added: “Israel needs to be named if we are to be fair; if you are equitable, if you are just”.

As many as 190 Palestinians were killed when Israel bombed the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza on 31 October. [Getty]

He noted that Israel “cannot face the fact that the crime originated with the Israelis. The Israeli occupation is the original sin in this case – it is not what happened on [October] 7”.

Pakistan’s representative received a thundering applause as the UNGA voted down the amendment. The UNGA resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian pathways, without naming any actors, subsequently passed. Only 14 countries voted against the resolution out of 181 members, including Israel and the US, with 55 abstentions due to varying concerns that focused on their desire to condemn Hamas and terrorism.

Many states that abstained said they supported a ceasefire, making Washington an outlier in the debate. Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute, noted the importance of this vote in an interview with The New Arab, saying plainly that “the US position on a ceasefire is as isolated as Russia's position on Ukraine is internationally”.

"The US has vetoed resolutions critical of Israel and its occupation 46 times since Israel's foundation – the most of any country"

Great power politics overrule the 'rules-based order'

The UN debate personifies a core shortcoming of the liberal international order, also known as the rules-based international order, developed after the Second World War. This system, with the United Nations at the core, was designed to prevent conflict between states and preserve stability through sovereignty.

Yet those who designed the system also gave themselves the ultimate trump card - veto power for the permanent five members of the UNSC.

This decision cemented the role of great power politics in the UN system, carving out a space for the most powerful countries in the world to dictate international politics in their favour. As such, each permanent member has yielded the veto to disastrous effect.

Before 7 October, Russian efforts to block serious human rights and diplomatic efforts in places like Ukraine and Syria constituted the most egregious use of veto power at the UNSC. Washington has now done the same in Gaza, opting to adopt Russia’s approach.

US President Joe Biden’s administration is aggressively projecting Israel’s concerns about aid diversion, the need to fight terrorism, and dubious interpretations of international law to block any law-binding action against Israel.

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Russia did and continues to do the same in both Ukraine and Syria with aid corridors, indiscriminate attacks on “terrorists” and “Nazis,” and strikes on civilian infrastructure.

These parallels are indicative of geopolitical interests superseding the rules-based international order. Russia and the United States are applying international law and conflict resolution efforts when in their national interest – not in support of altruism or the international system.

In the case of Palestine and Israel, the United States has consistently been on the wrong side of the rules-based international order. Indeed, Washington has vetoed resolutions critical of Israel and its occupation 46 times since Israel’s foundation – the most of any country.

Washington has always centred Tel Aviv’s security as a core national interest, defining Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East” to garner values-based domestic support for its stances contradicting international law.

Israel has killed over 9,000 Palestinians in Gaza in daily bombardments since 7 October. [Getty[

The Biden administration’s actions must be understood within this context. Biden regularly states that Israel and the United States share an “unbreakable bond.” Washington elites view Tel Aviv as the core US partner in the region in terms of history, values, and power – particularly an extension of the latter.

As the Abraham Accords show, this belief is now manifesting itself in the form of Washington’s regional offshore balancing approach – namely empowering one or multiple states against Iran to free resources for other theatres like East Asia.

“The US certainly can - and should - press for a ceasefire. Israel's Defence Minister stated just last week that Israel cannot afford to say no to the US. The problem is that Biden doesn't want a ceasefire,” Parsi notes.

"The US position on a ceasefire is as isolated as Russia's position on Ukraine is internationally"

The result: stagnation and conflict

The unfortunate reality is that without serious reform within the UN system, like an end to the veto and full UN democratisation, the status quo will remain. This is a result of political considerations in major capitals like Washington, London, and France, alongside a lack of legally enforceable action against an Israeli government that is hellbent on invading Gaza and causing “damage and not accuracy”.

The United States holds a unique level of influence within the Palestine-Israel conflict that is unmatched, utilising its offices to negotiate between both parties for decades, even if mostly in Israel’s favour. The Biden administration is now using this historic role to privately seek some restraints on Israel’s ground invasion and military assault, while publicly endorsing Tel Aviv’s actions.

“By giving Israel a shining green light publicly, Biden misses the opportunity to restrain Israel from taking actions that can be detrimental to US interests. Biden has instead decided to fully support Israel, even though a land invasion can trigger a devastating regional war that would suck the US into it,” Parsi told TNA.

“Obama's clear and public opposition to Israel bombing Iran created clear rifts inside the Israeli government in which a strong faction argued against such a dangerous move precisely because it would create tensions with the United States.” In this context, it is crucial to note that “clear and public” pressure on Israel worked to prevent major bloodshed – a point not lost on the international community.

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US officials may be increasingly tempering their language in support of Israel as domestic and international condemnation has increased alongside the death and destruction in Gaza. Such rhetoric, however, falls incredibly short of the public effort necessary to stop Israel’s ongoing devastation of Gaza.

In this context, Biden could be hoping to get the best of both worlds – avoiding a politically costly public spat with Tel Aviv while convincing Israel to commit to a less noticeable military operation against Hamas.

It is a risky approach that fails to consider the harm such a stance does to global human rights standards and civilian lives, let alone the fact that no Israeli operation against Hamas will be quiet and could also have regional consequences.

As most states outside the West make clear, world powers and their friends should not skew the rules-based international system to their benefit. Utilising the system in such a way only bolsters the case many make against the “weaponisation” of human rights.

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. 

Follow him on Twitter: @langloisajl