The sharp limits of UN solidarity with Palestine

The sharp limits of UN solidarity with Palestine
5 min read
29 Nov, 2016
Comment: The presence of the US as a permanent member of the UN Security Council has blocked the laws that would bring justice and liberate Palestinians, writes Tom Charles
Palestine has gained much in legal and moral credibility and sympathy via the UN [AFP]

Today marks the 39th United Nations annual Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. It is a day that reflects the contradictory dynamic between the UN and the Palestinians: the institution is both the source of their dispossession and remains their best hope for salvation.

On 29th November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, partitioning Palestine. In 1977, a decade after Israel had completed the full occupation of Palestinian land, the General Assembly passed Resolution 32/40 B, declaring the day of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Day of Solidarity

Every 29th November, the UN holds an annual exhibition on Palestinian rights, or a cultural event in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the UN. The idea is that UN Member States will be encouraged to support and publicise observance of the Day of Solidarity.

This year at the UN, the morning will see a Special Meeting of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People featuring speeches by high ranking UN dignitaries and a representative from the NGO community.

In the afternoon the General Assembly will consider the "Question of Palestine", including four routine, non-binding annual resolutions on the mandates of the Committee: the UN Division for Palestinian Rights, the special information programme on the question of Palestine and on the peaceful settlement of the conflict.

The evening sees the launch of an exhibition entitled "Palestinian Embroidery: Threads of Continuity, Identity and Empowerment" along with a Palestinian "Dabke" dance performance.

Acts of solidarity are also observed with events and speeches at UN Offices in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna, as well as by a number of UN information centres and UN offices around the world. 

Far cry

Such sophisticated international gatherings would have seemed incomprehensible in 1948 when Israel was established by means of ethnic cleansing and terror. The expelled Palestinians believed it was only a matter of time before their homeland would be theirs again. They could not have imagined that symbolic gestures such as the Day of Solidarity would become the limit of the UN's support for them.

In 1948, Palestinians could not have imagined that symbolic gestures such as the Day of Solidarity would become the limit of the UN's support for them

The UN has retained a prominent role in Palestinian political life ever since Resolution 181. In 1948, Resolution 194  enshrined the right of return and compensation for Palestinian refugees. In 1967, Resolution 242 called for Israel to withdraw from the territories occupied during its war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

General Assembly Resolution 3379 in 1975 declared the Zionist ideology to be "a form of racism and racial discrimination" although this was later repealed as part of peace negotiations.

Read more: Symbolic 'solidarity' is moral defeat: A Palestinian view

The UN has repeatedly and routinely called for Israel to observe the fourth Geneva Convention, with the Security Council describing Israeli settlements as a "flagrant violation" of the Convention.  

In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial arm of the UN, gave its opinion on the legal consequences of Israel's wall built on Palestinian land. It declared that Israel must dismantle its wall and pay damages to the people affected by it.

And in 2011, 14 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council supported a motion calling on Israel to end illegal settlement building on Palestinian land.


Palestine has gained much in uncontroversial legal and moral credibility and sympathy via the UN. But, the acid test remains the impact on the ground. As a tool for delivering international cooperation and peace, the UN can only be judged by results.

But instead of justice, the Palestinians have suffered further aggression and a slow but effective implementation of the original Zionist goal: to cleanse Palestinian land of its indigenous population.

Israel has rarely missed an opportunity to implement its core strategy of population transfer, through its wars, its creeping colonisation in the form of settlement building: a regime that combines occupation, apartheid and colonisation. In response, the UN has not implemented one single sanction on Israel.

The UN is only as effective as its strongest members allow it to be

The problem for the Palestinians is that, like its predecessor the League of Nations, the UN is only as effective as its strongest members allow it to be.

The League of Nations failed to stop fascism because the United States, Russia and Germany were not members, while Britain and France were fading powers. With the UN, it is the presence of the US as a permanent member of the Security Council that has blocked the implementation of laws that would bring justice and liberate the Palestinians.

The General Assembly has proved slightly more independent of American hegemony, with the 2015 adoption of Palestine as a non-member UN state. The observer status was granted to Palestine with a resounding vote of 119 to eight. The eight were the US, Australia, Canada and Israel, along with the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and Tuvalu.

Tangible impact

The symbolic gestures of the international community have not helped Palestinians living under occupation, in exile or those made refugees multiple times over.

A political awakening in the US, with education about how American taxpayers fund Israel's crimes could make the UN Security Council a tool for justice in Palestine, or encourage the General Assembly to bypass the Security Council and impose sanctions.

That possibility appears as distant as ever. And increasing the scale of symbolic gestures is unlikely to help. 2014 was declared by the UN as the International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. On the ground, Israel massacred thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and went unpunished.

Until symbolic soft power is met with a willingness to apply international law through the UN, Palestine will continue to be failed by an international power system dominated by the US.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.