I guess the UN Secretary General is suddenly concerned about human rights

7 December 2023, 1310 EST

The foreign policy world was abuzz this morning with the news that Antonio Guterres invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter over the Israel-Hamas conflict. This allows the Secretary General to bring an issue before the Security Council, and call on them to act. Many are cheering this, seeing it as a way to stop this conflict, but Guterres’ record should leave some wary.

What is Article 99?

Article 99 in the UN Charter allows the UN Secretary General to “bring to the Security Council’s attention any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” This is the only “independent political tool” of the Secretary General to influence the actions of the Security Council. The Secretary General’s usual role is to administer the work of the United Nations, although they can also make public pronouncements on international issues.

Article 99 is one step beyond mere public pronouncements, and has been rarely used. Guterres has never invoked it, and only four Secretary Generals have raised it in the UN’s history. Dag Hammarskjold called on the Security Council to intervene in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo during upheaval there surrounding its independence from Belgium. U Thant called for intervention in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh’s) war of independence. Kurt Waldheim called for Security Council attention to the Iranian hostage crisis. And Javier Perez de Cuellar called for a ceasefire in Lebanon’s civil war.

Guterres is hardly a consistent voice on humanitarian crises.

So Article 99 is reserved for, and a sign of, a serious international issue. For those who want to see a resolution to the current conflict between Israel and Hamas its use should be a good sign. This includes me: I see Hamas’ 10/7 as unjustifiable aggression, but am worried about the impacts of Israel’s air strikes on the Gaza Strip.

What’s the problem?

Guterres is not credible on human rights

Well, one issue has to do with Guterres himself. Some have criticized Guterres for muted condemnation of Hamas’ attack on Israel. It also took him weeks to acknowledge the horrific reports of sexual violence by Hamas against Israelis during its attack. He’s hardly a neutral voice on this issue, which leaves any effort by him to work out a ceasefire ineffective (more on that below).

There are also problems with Guterres beyond Israel. The Secretary General has faced intense criticism by many current and former UN officials over his failure to take action on human rights abuses. He resisted calls to investigate Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi and did not denounce China’s repression of the Uighurs. In response to criticisms, he literally said “we are not an NGO,” and that his role is to “define the principles and to define what needs to be done” rather than look into the concrete situations.”

What is it about Israel that has attracted Guterres’ attention?

He has also refused to address failures in the UN’s actions, such as the spread of cholera by peacekeepers in Haiti or the relocation of Roma in Kosovo to contaminated camps. He killed an initiative that would give greater power to UN officials to address human rights abuses. And he ironically has faced criticism for not doing enough to investigate Hammarskjold’s death.

Guterres is thus hardly a consistent voice on humanitarian crises. And there are broader issues with the UN’s work on human rights, as I’ve discussed in the context of the Human Rights Council and General Assembly votes on religious defamation.

Guterres’ attention is selective

There are also questions about why he has singled out this conflict to finally take action.

One could argue it’s the high casualty count. According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, it has exceeded 16,000. Even if it we think that’s inflated, it would be at least 10,000. That is a horrific number. But many other horrific crises have occurred under his watch, and he has done nothing:

  • The UN has reported 377,000 deaths in Yemen from its civil war, as of 2022. While this began before Guterres came to office, it has continued under his watch.
  • 4,000 have been killed in the past few months in the Darfur region of Sudan, an area that saw 400,000 deaths in its earlier genocide.
  • The government of Myanmar began a campaign of “massacre, rape and arson” against its Rohingya population, forced over 700,000 to flee.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the death of over 10,000 Ukrainian civilians.
  • Over 300,000 civilians died during the Syrian civil war. Like Yemen, this predated but continued under Guterres.
  • Over 5,000 migrants died trying to reach Europe since 2021.

Why has Guterres not taken action on any of these, or other, crises?

One could argue that a great power, with a permanent seat on the Security Council, is implicated in this crisis. This requires more dramatic action. It is true that the United States is a powerful backer of Israel. But the invasion of Ukraine was literally launched by a permanent UNSC member.

One could argue that this is a different type of conflict. Many of the other conflicts I listed involved messy civil wars and the breakdown of authority. These are much harder to resolve than actions by one state against another state or militant group. That is true. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Syrian civil war would fall into this category. Beyond that, do we really want to argue that the UN shouldn’t bother trying to resolve conflicts that are hard to work out?

One could argue that this is learning; just as guilt over inaction on the Rwandan genocide led to greater attention to Darfur, so too maybe guilt over earlier inaction is leading Guterres to act. That may be true, but most of these other crises are still going on, and he could still try and help.

One could argue that we’re close to a ceasefire and just need a nudge. Qatar negotiated a truce, which held until Hamas began firing rockets at Israel. But talks could resume. And there are more and more voices within the United States calling for Israel to adopt a ceasefire. Maybe Guterres’ pressure could help lead to negotiations. As I noted above, however, Guterres is not seen as fair and neutral by Israel, so it’s unlikely he could accomplish anything.

One could argue that Israel’s call for Gaza’s civilians to leave northern parts of Gaza raises the specter of ethnic cleaning. But Myanmar and Darfur involved unquestionable genocide.

One could argue that unlike many of these other crises, Guterres has a chance to stop this before it develops into something on the scale of Yemen. That may be true, but he also has that chance on Darfur.

The UN’s selective and inconsistent approach to humanitarian crises should worry everyone.