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UN Divisions: Palestine and Syria

Oct. 1, 2015

World leaders celebrated a historic moment at the Rose Garden in the United Nations. They raised a Palestinian flag for the first time in UN headquarters' history. The act happened because a great majority of the General Assembly voted for it.

In a speech, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said "At this historic moment in the march of the Palestinian people toward freedom and independence, I say to my people everywhere, raise the flag of Palestine very high, because it's the symbol of our Palestine identity."

Israel and the US opposed the ceremony. It was one example of how the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to play out at the UN.

Seventy years have passed since the UN was born. And the organization continues to stir mixed feelings. Many wonder, why do ordinary people always pay the price, when the politicians and diplomats can't agree? Why can't the UN resolve conflicts that lead to war?

On this final day of our series marking the UN's 70th anniversary, we look at how the Middle East has been a major focus of the organization ever since it was established.

The first UN peacekeeping operation was organized in 1948 to monitor the ceasefire in Palestine. And following the Suez crisis of 1956, the Middle East was where the UN first deployed a peacekeeping force comprising armed personnel.

But there's growing skepticism about the UN's role. The Security Council is the focus of these doubts. It has primary responsibility for issues related to peace and security.

The large numbers of civilian casualties of the conflict in Gaza and the humanitarian crisis of the Syrian civil war pose serious challenges to the Council.

Let's look at how it has been dealing with events in Syria.

The Syrian civil war has created a humanitarian crisis of vast proportions. More than 4 million people have left the country since 2011.

"Syrians are leaving their country and their homes because of oppression, extremism, destruction and fear," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the assembly. "Four years of diplomatic paralysis by the Security Council and others have allowed the crisis to spin out of control."

US President Barack Obama has expressed the need for change. "We must recognize that there can’t be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo," he said.

But divisions among members of the Security Council mean it hasn't been able to take a unified approach to the crisis.

Russia supports the Assad regime. "We think it's an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face," insisted Russian President Vladimir Putin. "We should look at reality."

Permanent members of the Security Council have the power to veto resolutions proposed by other members. There are 15 members and of these five are permanent, including Russia and the US. If just one of the five uses its power of veto, a draft resolution is terminated on the spot.

The US and other Western countries since 2011 have proposed resolutions against the Syrian government. But Russia and China have opposed them. In fact they’ve each used their veto power four times on Syrian issues. The US says Russia is preventing the Security Council from taking action.

Michael Doyle, a professor at Columbia University, is an expert on the Security Council. He says its five permanent members are not living up to the original spirit of the veto system.

"Some people have claimed the veto represents the virtue of the powerful countries, that is, they’re the most responsible, they're the world leaders, therefore, they need a veto," says Doyle. "That’s completely wrong in my opinion. The veto doesn’t reflect the fact that these five countries are virtuous, it reflects the fact they are dangerous."

At present, Security Council members have used their veto powers 276 times. The Soviet Union and Russia have exercised their veto 132 times. The US has vetoed resolutions on 83 occasions.

Russia's use of its veto on Syria is related to the two countries' ties. Syria is a longtime ally of Russia. Before he became Syrian president, the late Hafez al-Assad went to the Soviet Union to train as a pilot. Russia has a naval base in Syria. Moscow is now giving more military aid to the government. But the US is providing support to anti-government forces.

"Russia is using [its veto] to protect the Assad regime, and the Assad regime is one of the very few allies that Russia has in all of the Middle East," says Doyle. "The rest of the Middle East -- parts of which were aligned with the Soviet Union -- are no longer aligned with Russia. Russia is short of allies in the world, and so undoubtedly my opinion is that’s part of what’s going on."

Doyle says China has its own reasons for opposing the West on Syria. "China has always been very suspicious of the interference by international institutions in the domestic affairs of other countries," he says. "There’s some degree of emerging -- 'alliance' is not the right word -- but a bit of an 'entente' between Russia and China, to balance against the large influence of the US and the west, and to pursue common interests where available."


Beppu:We now speak with Alon Ben-Meir. He's a professor and senior fellow at New York University's Center for Global Affairs. Professor, we're seeing how the Syrian crisis is unfolding and how the Security Council is dealing with it -- or not dealing with it, and some people say it's a typical case that shows the ineffectiveness of the Security Council, do you agree with that?

Ben-Meir: I absolutely agree with that. It has failed miserably to deal with this humanitarian crisis that we haven't seen since World War 2. So unfortunately the Security Council abandoned its moral responsibility, and [we see] the irony that it was created to maintain peace and stability but it hasn't been able to live up that commitment. And that is really most unfortunate.

Beppu: I used to be a correspondent covering the UN several years ago, and I do remember that whenever a permanent member cast its veto, as journalists we felt disappointed, some said they felt the countries were betraying the collective efforts to deal with something. Do you think that sometimes these vetoes are abusive?

Ben-Meir: The vetoes over many years since the creation of the UN Security Council have been violated, have undermined, as a matter of fact, the very purpose why the Security Council was created in the first place. When you give one single power -- be that Britain, France, Russia or China that kind of power, basically you're paralyzing the activities and responsibilities of the Security Council. That's why I believe very strongly that some fundamental changes will have to take place in order to make the Security Council far more effective, specifically in dealing with this kind of tragedy we are witnessing now in Syria.


Let's now look at how the Security Council is dealing with the issue of Palestine.

A new flag is flying at the UN headquarters. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was there to witness the occasion.

Three weeks ago, UN members voted overwhelmingly to allow the hoisting of the flag. One-hundred and nineteen countries said yes. The US was one of just eight to say no.

Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, said "Raising the Palestinian flag outside the UN headquarters is not an alternative to negotiations, and will not bring the parties closer to peace."

The raising of the flag is largely symbolic. The Palestinians applied four years ago to become a full UN member state. But they're still waiting. For now, they have non-member observer status.

To change that, the Security Council would need to give its approval. But the US says it would veto anything associated with the declaration of a Palestinian state.

The US has used its veto 83 times. More than half those occasions were related to Middle East affairs. Usually, to shield Israel from anti-Israeli resolutions.

"The US has needed to exercise a veto to protect what it perceives to be its interests in that part of the world," says Doyle. "Israel has still been a close ally. And much of the American public regards Israel not only as a fellow democracy and an ally, but also as a state that’s been beleaguered by terrorists and enemies on its borders."

The Jewish-Arab tensions have a long history. During World War One, the governments of France and Britain struck a secret deal to carve up the Ottoman Empire. Under this deal Palestine would be controlled mainly by Britain. The British suggested they would support Arab states.

But one year later, Britain's Foreign Secretary declared his government would support a Jewish "national home" in Palestine.

In the postwar years, Jews and Arabs both argued they had the legitimate claim to Palestine. The Jews established the state of Israel in 1948. The first Israeli prime minister was David Ben-Gurion.

Israel and Arab states have fought four major wars since then. One of those conflicts, in 1967, saw Israel gain control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and begin building settlements.

UN members have drafted resolutions condemning those settlements. But each time they do, the US casts its veto. Every US administration since the Nixon era has used a veto in support of Israel.

President Obama raised hopes for a new era when he traveled to Cairo in 2009. He called the situation for Palestinian people "intolerable", and suggested he would support a bid for statehood.

In a speech, US President Barack Obama said, "The only resolution is for the aspiration of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security."

But it has been business as usual inside the Security Council chamber. In 2011, the US vetoed a draft resolution condemning Israeli settlements.

David Roet, Deputy Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN, explained it as follows: "The ties between Israel and the US, since day one of Israel’s existence, they are important and they are very, very strong and unbreakable because these are not ties between governments, these are ties between people -- issues of human rights, issues of development, all of those issues, issues of democracy which we share together, and we are very grateful to the US."

Roet says Israel occupies a special place for the US. "We are in some sense biased toward Israel, for security reasons and because of its victimization by Hamas and Hezbollah. The US does appear to have special friends in the world, and it is not as if we are equally attentive to every people in the world who has been victimized. There is the security interests of the state and the American popular sentiment of supporting Israel, and we are usually there to back up Israel -- even sometimes when we would rather not."

Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour says he's proud to see his flag flying alongside all the others. But he says full member status is a natural and legal right -- and shouldn't be up for discussion. "Our friends in the US think our right to be a member at the UN has to be an outcome of negotiation, we have a disagreement over that," he says. "Our admission should be part of the exercise of self-determination of the Palestinian people and should be honored, and [the issue of] negotiations is a different story."


Beppu: Professor Ben-Meir, many people say the US approach to the Palestinian issue shows how much Washington can be out of touch with the majority will of the international community. Do you think American officials are aware of the political cost the country is paying for this apparent pro-Israel bias?

Ben-Meir: I think there's no question the US is fully aware that policies in the Middle East have been dramatically affected by its decisions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the impression is that the United States will support Israel under any circumstances. This may be the case typically because of domestic considerations, but if you look at it carefully, you find there is a difference in government-to-government, and people-to-people.

The government is very unhappy, Mr Obama is very unhappy with Prime Minister Netanyahu, because they feel he has been very intransigent in negotiations, and as a result, not much progress has been made in the last two sets of negotiations, because the United States approach in my view was faulty from the very beginning, and hence we haven't seen the kind of movement we've been hoping to see in this whole negotiating process.

Beppu: What do you think needs to be done to make the Security Council function more effectively?

Ben-Meir: We have to remember when the United Nations was created, going back to 1946, the whole world was different. But since then, when we look at the international community we see dramatic changes. For example, political trends have changed, we have more than 200 countries today, but when the UN was created we had only 50, or 46, I should say. Then you have the demographic dramatic changes. Today the Security Council represents roughly two billion people, when in fact it has to change to be more reflective of the changes that have happened on a global scale.

The structure of the Council will have to be changed, and may have to include other countries. For example, Germany is a powerful country; Japan, Brazil, certainly India. We are going to have to change the structure for the Security Council to be able to represent at least four, four-and-a-half billion of the people. And moreover we have to make sure that not a single country will have the power to veto these types of critical resolution.

Just quickly, Russia vetoed three resolutions to resolve the conflict in Syria when in fact [these vetoes] caused tremendous damage and brought about the deaths of 150,000 people. So we need to restructure the Security Council, we need to bring more countries to be represented, in order to make it more effective and really focus on the duty, the moral responsibility for the Security Council to deal with crises, to deal with peace, in order to advance the interests of the entire international community.

Beppu: Thank you very much. During our 4-day series on the United Nations, we've focused on what the organization is doing to achieve global peace. The founders of the UN in 1945 declared their determination to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Now, it's true that in the past 70 years there has been no world war. But the UN has often been too slow and too ineffective in dealing with issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the crisis in Syria.

It's clear that the member states, especially the permanent members who hold the veto power, should work harder to live up to the organization's founding spirit.