U.S. Blocks UN Security Council Vote Calling for Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza

AMY GOODMAN: We stay in Washington now with Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis Bennis is with the Institute for Policy Studies, a fellow there, specializing in Middle East and United Nations issues. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power and also Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

Phyllis, can you talk about what happened at the United Nations this weekend?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, as we’ve seen so many times before, Amy, we have an instance of the United States preventing the Security Council from taking any action in the crisis in Gaza, whether it would be an actual move to impose a ceasefire, but they even went further than that to prevent even a statement from being issued, the sort of the lowest level of response from the Security Council. The UN diplomats essentially said exactly what Condoleezza Rice said two years ago at the time of the Israeli attack on Lebanon, when she went before the council and said, “We don’t want a ceasefire yet,” essentially telling the world, “There is not enough dead people yet. We want more dead people before we will call for a ceasefire.” And that has been the consistent position of the Bush administration, including President Bush himself on his weekly radio address, and it was the same position taken this weekend.

This was now the second time that the council has discussed the issue. Unfortunately, despite some discussion among non-aligned countries on the council and off the council about the importance of forcing the debate to be public, demanding a public meeting, having the resolution as a proposal on the table and force the U.S. to publicly use its veto, that—there wasn’t enough courage in the council to even make that happen. So, all of this happened behind closed doors in what are known as informal consultations, meaning the council members just talk among themselves, they come out, and one or another or several spokespeople say, “Sorry, we couldn’t reach agreement.” And then they put their own different national spin on it.

This is the moment when I think we’re going to see a much more likely response from the General Assembly, which is, of course, a much more representative part of the UN, much more democratic. There is no veto. And the president of the General Assembly, Father Miguel d’Escoto, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua, has been very strong in his statements that the failure of the Security Council is a systemic problem at the United Nations and that in the face of that failure, with a crisis like what’s going on in Gaza, there is an absolute need for the General Assembly to act. And I expect in the next several days we will see action from the General Assembly. The Security Council is scheduled to meet again today. I don’t anticipate that the result will be any different than what we saw over the weekend.

AMY GOODMAN: The UN General Assembly president, Father Miguel d’Escoto of Nicaragua, did something unusual: he went to the microphone of the UN Security Council. Can you talk about the significance of this?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: This was a very interesting move, because traditionally—it’s not a rule, but by tradition—the General Assembly president does not participate in the discussions of the Security Council. In general, I must say that the past presidents of the General Assembly, who are appointed as individuals—they’re not there to represent their country, they’re there as an international diplomat—they have taken very soft positions. They’ve not really functioned as political actors in the UN context. The experience that we’ve had just in the last couple of months that Father Miguel has been the president, he has taken a much more assertive position, has taken much more responsibility as the president of the General Assembly, the most important part of the United Nations, in fact, because it represents every member state.

So his going to the council, walking into the room, coming out and talking to the press, was quite unprecedented and very important, as was his statement where he identified the failure of the council as a systemic problem of the United Nations and talked about the international law violations that are part of the Israeli invasion—certainly, this was before the ground invasion, but even with the air attacks—the obligations of an occupying power that are being directly violated by these military assaults. And for the president of the General Assembly, arguably the highest ranking official of the United Nations, to say that was very important, and it really exposed the failure of the Security Council and the impact of the United Nations being so controlled in this situation by the United States.

That’s something that I think many at the UN and many around the world are looking to for major change with Barack Obama’s presidency. He has claimed that he has a far greater commitment to internationalism and to the rule of law and to the United Nations, making again the U.S. ambassador to the UN a cabinet-level position. These are all symbols that, perhaps, we will see some change in the U.S. posture towards the UN.

AMY GOODMAN: There have been massive protests all over the world. Thousands of people marched in New York, among many other cities, this weekend against the Israeli attack on Gaza, holding up signs around the issue of divestment from Israel. Can you talk, Phyllis, about the significance of this movement?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, you know, this has been an extraordinary movement, because we’ve seen both the rise of an existing movement, which globally has been calling for some years now for a policy known as BDS — boycott, divestment and sanctions—as a way of bringing nonviolent economic pressure on Israel to enforce international law. That’s now been joined by a huge number of people who had not been engaged in this issue before but were so outraged by what they saw on television of the civilian consequences of this horrific Israeli attack. And we’re now seeing that being talked about in the same way by some at the United Nations.

It raises the possibility that what we might see is a parallel to the movement that grew in the months and the year or so in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, where you had the United Nations on the same side as this global civil society movement. And I think that there is some great hope among civil society activists, those who are—such as the activists inside Israel who sat in on the tarmac of the military airfield to try and prevent the planes, the bombers—made, of course, in the United States—the work here in the US of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, focusing on the US military aid. All of that is now being joined by statements coming from various parts of the United Nations, from the special rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Territories, Professor Richard Falk, who of course has been on Democracy Now!; Father Miguel d’Escoto, the current president of the General Assembly—have referred to the role of civil society, and, in fact, Father Miguel has referred to the importance of the UN following the example of civil society in considering these kinds of sanctions, perhaps military sanctions, against Israeli violations. So it’s a very important collaboration that we’re now seeing on the rise again between civil society and social movements and the United Nations.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.