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Psychologists talk: Is the United Nations capable of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict (or indeed any modern crisis)?

Suntosh Pillay: Having worked in the United Nations for almost 10 years, I was hopeful that you might provide us with unique insights about the role of the UN in resolving major conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestine issue.

Anton Botha: Before I answer your questions, I think I should give a few caveats. Although I worked for the United Nations department of management for nearly a decade in its New York headquarters under Ban Ki-moon and António Guterres, I do not claim to be an expert in foreign relations or international diplomacy. What I share with you is merely the insights of someone who walked the halls of the UN as a former staff member.

Suntosh: Are your perspectives shared by others?

Anton: While many will no doubt disagree with my responses, they nonetheless represent a view from the inside. This is a view I believe to be shared by many of my colleagues. A view best surmised as an enduring belief in the mission of the UN.

Suntosh: So, you do remain hopeful that the UN can be a vehicle for change?

Anton: Well, this is a belief counterbalanced by a deep sense of frustration by what can appear as inaction by an organisation in which so much of our collective hopes and dreams are vested. My other caveat is that the UN is an enormously complex organisation, with a long and complicated history. Invariably, what I share with you will be an oversimplification. But it is my hope that it will at least help shed some light on how the UN operates along with some of its structural challenges. My responses take no sides in terms of the “conflict” being discussed. I am merely trying to help us understand why we are where we are.  

Suntosh: The UN Security Council could not even adopt a press statement on the Israel-Palestine situation, prompting Feridun Sinirlioglu, Turkey’s ambassador to the UN, to ask: “What can justify the Council’s current inaction in the face of such human carnage broadcast live on TV?” Indeed, what can justify such inaction?

Anton: I agree with Sinirlioglu, nothing can justify it, but I do think there are ways to understand it. To do so we need to consider two things, firstly the historical context within which the Security Council (SC) was founded and, secondly, what role the SC is meant to play.

Suntosh: Briefly, what is the crux of that historical context?

Anton: The year was 1945. World War II had just ended, 75 million were dead. Europe and the Pacific lay in ruins. Two cities and 199 000 Japanese citizens were evaporated in an instant. The global consensus was that a repeat of the Great War and its sequel must be avoided at all costs. But how? The world needed benevolent guardians, strong nation-states that could keep each other in check while using their collective power to keep smaller nations in line. The most logical protectors at the time were the victors of the war, the non-aggressors, the defenders of international peace and security.

At the negotiations of the UN Charter, the United States, Russia, England, France and China were proposed as Permanent Members (PM) of the SC, but they were largely suspicious of each other (for example communism vs capitalism) and favoured only collective SC action which would be secured through the inclusion of a veto vote. The other 46 nations at the negotiating table at the time were understandably not enthusiastic about this. The Big Five, however, basically said, no veto, no UN. While it is easy to lay the blame on these nations’ negotiators for bullying tactics, in some ways their hands were tied. They had to go home and get their congresses, parliaments, and councils to ratify this new Charter. For example, Harry Truman made it known that without a veto, the Charter would not be ratified by the US Senate, a branch of the US government he did not control but needed approval from. In short, the world wasn’t in a trusting mood at that moment.

Suntosh: Understandably so, in a post-World War II context. What changed their minds?

Anton: In what can only be described as a “better than nothing” situation with some vague hope for future reform, the smaller founding nations of the UN signed the Charter, including the SC veto, and the UN was born. However, this also laid the foundations for inaction, at a whim, with only the fear of a loss of political capital, goodwill, and a sense of honour and decency keeping the Big Five in check (optimistic to say the least)!

Suntosh: If the UN’s very structure fosters inaction, is the Security Council its albatross?

Anton: There is another major factor that leads to inaction by the SC, and that is the principle of national sovereignty. Essentially, national sovereignty trumps all. Nations have, according to this view, a fundamental right to self-determination. Or, according to the UN Charter, “nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”. (UN Charter, Ch. 1, Article 2, Par. 7). This means there are serious limitations to what the UN can do. To appreciate what this means in practice all you need to know is that North Korea is a full member of the United Nations.

Suntosh: So the UN is precluded from intervening in a country’s domestic affairs?

Anton: Think of it this way, the UN is the body corporate of the world, where neighbours (sovereign nations) get together to see if they can reach agreement on certain things. For the most part, all this body can do when an inhabitant misbehaves is to write them a letter condemning their actions (UN Resolutions) and maybe financially penalising them (UN Sanctions). Because of the rules that govern this “global body corporate” (the UN Charter), they cannot go into members’ homes telling them how to live their lives. However, if one neighbour moves his boundary line or makes life difficult for other neighbours, then the body corporate, with permission from its five most powerful members, can act against that neighbour. The success or failure of this body corporate is then measured only by whether neighbours are living in relative harmony.

Suntosh: However, what if there is trouble inside the house of a body corporate member?

Anton: Yes, this unfortunately says nothing of what is going on inside the houses of our global neighbourhood … domestic violence, drug abuse, sexual exploitation etc. The UN body corporate was created to deal with inter-member, not intra-member, conflict. Shifting roles from body corporate to family counsellor has been tremendously difficult because the rule book says that members are sovereign and you can only really interfere if they ask you to, or if they start posing a threat to neighbours. This is the principle upon which peacekeeping operations are founded; only if invited will the UN go. Otherwise, it’s hands-off unless the PMs of the SC agrees that international peace and security is under threat (i.e. the conflict will spill over to neighbours or there is a threat of international terrorism). No easy feat given that there will always be push back by SC members on what the SC can, and cannot do, given this principle of sovereignty.

Suntosh: What does this all mean for Palestine?

Anton: Palestine is not a sovereign nation state in the eyes of the UN. Not officially at least. They are called an “observer state”. In practice this means that they can make speeches at the General Assembly (GA), but cannot vote, and cannot run for the SC. Israel, on the other hand, is a full member of the UN with equal rights to all other members. If you google Israel’s map, you will notice that there is no Palestine. That is because Palestine is in Israel, much like the Transkei was in apartheid South Africa. Therefore, in the eyes of the UN the Israeli-Palestinian situation is seen as internal.

Suntosh: So the UN needs an invitation to intervene in such an internal conflict?

Anton: Basically, yes. This conflict can only be dealt with upon invitation by the “official” leaders of that country or unanimous agreement by the SC PMs. This is why a “two-state solution” has been called on for decades in order to give Palestine full UN membership.

Suntosh: Is the UN saying its hands are tied?

Anton: The primacy of national sovereignty and the veto is what leads to this inaction. Put another way, the world’s body corporate is not equipped to deal with what is deemed to be a domestic abuse case because the troubled family patriarch does not want outside help. The body corporate in turn cannot agree if it is within their remit to get involved in these domestic disputes.

Suntosh: But there are decades of half-hearted measures by the UN when it comes to the Palestine question.

Anton: Despite indecision being baked into its design and the fundamental problem of sovereignty, to date, the SC has passed 187 resolutions on Palestine. The US has vetoed 53, or about one-in-five, resolutions involving the Palestinians since 1976 (in fairness, the UK and France have sometimes joined them). The latest such veto coming hot off the heels of the recent flair-up of tensions in the area.

Suntosh: Death and destruction continue unabated. At least 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, were killed in the Israeli bombardment between April-May 2021.

Anton: There is no denying that more could have been done to censor the current behaviour of Israel; a position supported by most member states. A notable exception here is the US, which holds a veto. Here powerful domestic political forces by pro-Israeli lobby groups play a significant role in shaping the US’s foreign policy stance. This, along with wanting a reliable ally in the Near East and the arms trade adds up to compelling, although not virtuous, reasons for the US to continue their support.

To be fair, the US is not alone when it comes to this kind of obstruction, the same could be said of Russia’s veto over resolutions on Assad’s Syria and China’s stance on Tibet.

Again, even though most UN members want to see concrete action on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, because of the US’s veto, and the primacy of national sovereignty, there are serious limitations to what the UN can do.

Suntosh: Will all prospects of the UNSC leading a radical change-making process be hampered by the US veto power? And, could the General Assembly ever lead a radical process instead, without the blessing of the UNSC?

Anton: When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian question there is no reason to think the US will waiver from its support for Israel unless there is a significant change within US domestic politics along with the influence the pro-Israeli lobby wields in Washington. Therefore, the best bet for us to see real SC action on Palestine, is to see US domestic politicians pay a price at the polls for the unconditional support of Israel.

Suntosh: That seems unlikely.

Anton: There is some evidence that this may be happening. At the very least, those members of the US Congress that have condemned the actions of Israel have not lost their seats in the last election. Younger generations of American voters are also not as unwavering in their support for Israeli as once was the case, and this is true even among younger Jewish Americans. However, this process is not likely to happen at a pace that will satisfy those who are currently suffering.

So, to address the second part of your question on the GA overruling the SC, the answer is yes, but in truth, not in a way that will ultimately matter.

Suntosh: Why not?

Anton: Ironically, the US sponsored a resolution in the 1950s called “Uniting for Peace” designed to circumvent possible Soviet vetoes. In essence this resolution says that if the SC cannot maintain international peace, the matter can be taken up by the GA. But because GA resolutions are non-binding, it does little more besides letting a vetoing nation know where they stand in terms of international opinion. This obscure move has been used only 10 times since its introduction. Invoking what is effectively tantamount to political pressure “light” did get the British and French to backdown from the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. But, when the US tried it in 1980 against the Soviets during their invasion of Afghanistan it did little to stop them. This is because the resources needed to then create a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan would have had to come through the SC on which the Russians have a veto. Through its design, the SC is the supreme body of the UN, the GA, unfortunately, does not have much power in the realm of international security.

Suntosh: Does this mean that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is untouchable because he is a US ally?

Anton: I do not for a moment believe that anyone is “untouchable”. Netanyahu has troubles on multiple fronts. Firstly, he is embroiled in a tough battle to remain prime minister of Israel. There have been four national elections in two years because the country cannot form a coalition government. Netanyahu also faces corruption charges. He has been playing the strong man game at home to buy him the unwavering support of the hard right, but it has cost him the centre.

He may also have overplayed his hand with the US by picking sides. It is no secret that Barack Obama and Netanyahu did not get along. Netanyahu accepted an invitation from John Boehner to address a joint session of the US Congress in 2015 where Netanyahu essentially stuck it to Obama to score points for the Republicans by making Obama look soft on terror, Iran, and support for Israel. When Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo came into power, Netanyahu further cozied up to these two along with other global authoritarian leaders. This led to Trump one-sidedly coming out in favour of Israel and moving its embassy to Jerusalem (part of the reason for the current fighting). But, with Biden now in the White House, things may be different for Netanyahu. A time may well come where the US runs out of patience with his antics.    

Suntosh: If the UN was being totally honest with itself, does it have a serious role to play in the Middle East?

Anton: In truth, that is really a question for us as voters that send representatives to the UN through our governments. The UN only exists to enact the will of its members, insofar as its members can agree given the rules set out in the Charter. However, I think the point you raise goes to a larger question, what is the role of the UN in our contemporary world, full stop?

The UN was created 76 years, or nearly four generations, ago. In 1945, there were no passenger jet planes, no silicon chips, no internet, no social media, no smart phones, no climate change agenda, the world’s population was three times smaller, the majority of the world’s top 100 economies weren’t corporations, and we believed there were just two genders. I could go on, but I think the point that the world is a very different place from back then should come as no surprise. Maybe it might be a bit naïve to think that a Charter written for another age is still fit to address the problems of today?

Suntosh: So the UN Charter needs to be radically revised?

Anton: The fact is the challenges we face today, trans-global unregulated capitalism, our ecological crisis including anthropogenic climate change, the revolution in the world of work thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), cyber warfare, etc did not even exist in the wildest imaginations of the people who wrote the Charter of the UN.

I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who suggested that every generation get an opportunity to revise its constitution, “thus allowing it to be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation”. Maybe this is something to consider for the UN Charter. Maybe it is time that it be updated to better match the realities of our world. For example, neither South America nor Africa is represented in the PMs of SC, and India, the world’s second most populous country, has just as much say in the UN as the Pacific Island State of Vanuatu.

Another dictum we need to seriously reconsider is the idea that national sovereignty trumps all. The fact is the problems I outline above are far bigger than any one country can address, no matter how powerful that nation may think they are. If we persist with placing narrow national self interest before our ecological crisis, we are heading down a dangerous path that will likely make the suffering of the wars of the 20st Century look tame in comparison.  To be clear then, I am calling for more than just SC reform (which UN member states have been asking for since the Charter was signed). Our generation will have to sit down and have a serious look at the whole model. A framework that is creaking under the strain of age and the fact that it is being used to solve problems it was not designed for.

Suntosh: Thank you, Anton, do you have any final thoughts?

Anton: Dag Hammarskjöld, the legendary former UN Secretary General, when challenged on the shortcomings of the UN said that “the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”. He was, of course, talking about the prospect of nuclear world war between nations. Our generation, however, has a different kind of hell to deal with, and we are going to need a different kind of united world to deal with it.

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Anton Botha
Anton Botha is a psychologists and Mandela Rhodes Scholar.

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