It was Friday afternoon, February 18 at the UN Security Council stakeout shortly before 3 pm. Watching Ambassadors and their staff members coming down the stairs at the UN leading to the Security Council, one had the sense something significant was happening. Not only did the crowd arriving include Ambassadors from the 15 nations on the Security Council, but a large number of Ambassadors of nations not currently on the Security Council, along with other members of their delegations, hurried into the Security Council chambers.
This was not a usual situation for the Security Council. Clearly more than a few nations judged that the meeting would be important. The Security Council was to vote on a draft Resolution condemning Israeli settlements being built on Palestinian land occupied by Israel. This meeting was also unusual in that 130 member nations had agreed in advance to co-sponsor the draft Resolution. To have such a large number of nations sponsoring a Security Council resolution was rare.
Israeli settlement activity had been formally declared illegal in the 2004 decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the court charged with determining legal disputes that is connected with the United Nations.(1)
Also this was to be the first Security Council resolution on the Palestine Question to be brought up during the US Presidency of Barack Obama. President Obama had put on record that his administration opposed Israeli settlement activity.
Though the meeting had originally been set for 3 pm, the many Ambassadors who had come for the meeting stood around talking for almost an hour. The reason for the delay was not evident. Only several days later did I learn the reason for the hour long postponement of the formal meeting.
The original draft Resolution had been prepared several weeks earlier. One hundred and thirty nations were listed as co-sponsors of the original draft Resolution S/2011/24. (2) Only a few days before the meeting to vote was to be held, however, the UN Secretariat for Security Council Affairs informed the SC Presidency that co-sponsors could only be listed on the resolution if they first applied to participate under Rule 37 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council. Only then would it be possible for a UN member who was not a member of the Security Council to co-sponsor a resolution under Rule 38 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure.
This interpretation of the Rules was only brought to the attention of the Security Council Presidency a few days before the vote was to take place. In this short period of time, only 80 of the 130 co-sponsors were able to be listed as official co-sponsors of the draft Resolution. These circumstances leave the question why the UN Secretariat for Security Council Affairs did not bring these requirements to the attention of the Brazilian presidency sooner since the draft Resolution had been available for several weeks before it was to be voted on.
At last at 3:57 pm the formal meeting began.(3)
The Brazilian Ambassador to the UN acting as the President of the Security Council for February, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, opened the meeting. To introduce the draft Resolution, Nawaf Salam, the Lebanese Ambassador to the UN, spoke. He explained how the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had declared settlements illegal in its 2004 advisory opinion on the wall. He quoted from the decision:
“(T)he Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law. (see A/ES-10/273, para 120)”.
Under paragraph 6 of article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention an occupying power is forbidden from altering a territory it is occupying or from seizing any of the occupied peoples’ land or possessions. Hence all settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territory is illegal, including newly planned settlements.
The Lebanese Ambassador also referred to prior Security Council resolutions such as SCR 446 declaring Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian land illegal, and to other agreements like the Road Map which required that Israel freeze its settlement activity. Also the Lebanese Ambassador referred to the large number of nations sponsoring this draft Resolution, a number he said was “unprecedented.”
Ambassador Viotti, the Brazilian Security Council President called for a vote on the draft Resolution.
Those watching the meeting live on UN TV waited to learn how the US would vote. There were 14 votes in favor of the Resolution. (4) One vote, that of the US, a permanent member of the Security Council, was cast against the Resolution.
Ambassador Viotti explained that, “The draft Resolution has not been adopted, owing to a negative vote of a permanent member of the Council.”
After the vote, the US Ambassador, Susan Rice, explained the reason for her veto. She said that a Security Council resolution condemning settlements would prevent Israel from negotiating with the Palestinians. Passing the draft Resolution would only lead to more settlements, she warned. The Security Council was not the place to take up this problem, according to Ambassador Rice.
Speaking in favor of its vote supporting the draft Resolution, was the United Kingdom’s Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant. His statement was also made on behalf of France and Germany, both of which had voted in favor of the draft Resolution.
Speaking next, Vitaly Churkin, Ambassador for the Russian Federation, explained why he had voted in favor of the draft Resolution. He said that Israel’s settlement activity was unilateral activity that prejudged final status issues and thus made the possibility of a negotiated settlement between Palestine and Israel ever more difficult. Also Ambassador Churkin referred to the importance of the Security Council mission he had proposed to the Middle East to contribute to advancing the peace process.
Baso Sangquo, the South African Ambassador to the UN expressed his regret that the draft Resolution had not been approved. He said that Israel must abide by its international obligations in order to be negotiating in good faith in the peace process and thus the continuing settlement activity by Israel undermined peace efforts.
In her statement about why she had voted in favor of the draft Resolution, the Brazilian Ambassador said that “the peaceful resolution of the Question of Palestine is arguably the single-most important objective for peace and stability in the world.” She saw the continuing expansion of settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territory as the most important obstacle to a solution to the question. “It is therefore only natural that the Security Council deals with this issue in a manner consistent with its primary responsibility for international peace and security.” Therefore Ambassador Viotti expressed the importance of welcoming the international community, including the Security Council to be involved in the matter.
Explaining three of the reasons why Brazil had co-sponsored the draft Resolution, she said that first, “the continued disregard for international obligations relating to settlement construction poses a threat to peace and security in the region.” Second, halting settlement activity should not be regarded as a concession, but as “lawful conduct under international law.” The third reason she gave was that “unilateral action shall not prevail. “(I)nternational law is always in the interest of peace. The Security Council cannot settle for less.” Ambassador Viotti said that the inclusion of more countries in the peace process “would bring fresh air into the peace process.”
Statements in favor of the draft Resolution were also presented by Portugal’s Ambassador, Jose Filipe Moraes Cabral, by Li Baodong, China’s Ambassador, Columbia’s Ambassador Nestor Osorio, Mirsada Colakovic, the Ambassador for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Raff Bukun-olu Wole Onemola, the Nigerian Ambassador, India’s Ambassador, Manjeev Singh Puri, and Gabon’s Ambassador Alfred Alexis Moungara Moussotsi.
Riyad Mansour, the representative for the Permanent Observer for Palestine and Meron Reuben for Israel also spoke.
Ambassador Mansour thanked all those who had helped to bring the draft to a vote in the Security Council. He said that the resolution represented an effort to remove an obstacle to the peace process. “The proper message that the Council should have sent to Israel was that its contempt for international law and the international community would no longer be tolerated.” He worried that the failure of the Security Council to approve the resolution would lead to “more Israeli intransigence and impunity.”
The Israeli Ambassador said that only direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine could resolve the conflict between them.
The meeting ended at 5:02 pm. As the Ambassadors filed out of the Security Council there was little comment to journalists. Only the Lebanese Ambassador and the Palestinian Ambassador stayed to speak at the stakeout.
At the stakeout after the Security Council meeting, Riyad Mansour, the representative for the Permanent Observer for Palestine, was asked if the Palestinian Authority (PA) would now take the issue of the Israeli settlements to the General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace Resolution.(5) Such a resolution provides for the General Assembly to act on an issue when the Security Council is prevented from acting due to a veto by one of its permanent members. He responded that this would be one of the alternatives considered by the PA in determining what would be their next step.
Lebanon’s Ambassador Salam stressed that the draft Resolution was only restating what was declared illegal activity by Israel under international law, namely the Geneva Conventions, and the decision by the International Court of Justice. (6)
What is striking about the meeting was that such overwhelming support was demonstrated by members of the UN for an action attempted by the Security Council. The use of the veto by the US Ambassador to prevent the draft Resolution against Israeli settlement activity from being adopted, demonstrated the failure of the Security Council to be able to support or enforce international law. The US Ambassador said by her vote that it was necessary to support Israel’s breach of international law with its continuing confiscation of Palestinian land in violation of Israel’s obligation as an occupying power. The meeting demonstrated the stark contradiction between the obligations of international law as documented in the decision of the ICJ condemning any settlement activity on the part of Israel in the Occupied Territory of Palestine and the fact that a veto in the Security Council can be used by a single member nation like the US to protect itself or another member nation in its violation of international law.
The ICJ decision speaks not only to the violation of international law in the case of Israeli actions in Palestinian Occupied Territory. It also refers to the obligation of other nations to uphold international law on this issue.
At a time when the issue of reform of the Security Council is on the agenda of the UN the flaw in the creation of the Security Council represented by the veto power of the five permanent members stands out prominently as a power badly in need of oversight.
Articles describing the PA’s reaction to the February 18 Security Council meeting explain how the US veto delegitimizes any illusion that the US is able to play a role as an honest broker in negotiations between Israel and Palestine. (7) There are also reports that the PA recognizes the need to turn from relying on bilateral negotiations between Israel and Palestine to solve the problem and instead to turn to the international community for the support needed to find a solution.
The main message of the Security Council meeting of February 18 is that there is overwhelming support for the condemnation of Israel’s failure to adhere to international law in its settlement activity. Similarly, the meeting demonstrated that it is an abuse of US obligations as a member of the Security Council to protect Israel from the condemnation of its obligations under international law.
1.International Court of Justice, “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in Occupied Palestinian Territory”, Advisory Opinion July 9, 2004.
2.Draft Resolution S/2011/24 February 17, 2011
3. UN Security Council Meeting, Friday, February 18, 2011,S/PV.6484, Transcript of meeting.
4. Security Council Meeting,18 February 2011
“The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question”
Running time: 01:05:10
5. Riyad H. Mansour, Palestinian Observer, Security Council Media Stakeout,
18 February 2011
Informal comments to the media by H.E. Mr. Riyad H. Mansour, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, on the situation in the Middle East including the Palestinian question.
Running time: 00:10:34
6. Nawaf Salam, Lebanon, Security Council Media Stakeout,
18 February 2011
Informal comments to the media by H.E. Mr. Nawaf Salam, Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations, on the situation in the Middle East including the Palestinian question.
Running time: 00:10:32
7. See for example, Saud Abu Ramadan, “US Veto on anti-Jewish settlement resolution outrages Palestinians, Xinhua, 2-19-2011