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The ESCWA Report: Guterres falls at the first hurdle

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres [File photo]
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres [File photo]

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s first big challenge has seen him falter, and fall.

The resignation of the Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) Rima Khalaf, under pressure from him to withdraw her agency’s report titled Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid, and the report’s subsequent removal from the website, demand serious world attention, if the UN is to retain any semblance of independence, impartiality and integrity.

The report was commissioned by ESCWA representing some 18 Arab states, from two highly qualified, experienced and respected scholars: Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, internationally recognized as one of the world’s finest, and Virginia Tilley, Professor of Political Science at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Both authors have extensive experience in the issues covered in the report, Falk spending six years as UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, and Tilley working for five years with the Human Sciences Research Council (South Africa) conducting studies into South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy.   

Rights group: UN pressured to withdraw report saying Israel ‘apartheid’ state

Their professional expertise, academic standing and personal integrity were clearly important factors both in their appointments to the role, and in the final product: an objective, evidence-based report on the current situation in Palestine.

That Palestine is one of the most shameful stains on the UN, representing a completely avoidable deterioration from British mandate to apartheid, in contravention of the UN Charter itself, and occurring under its resolute eye for decades, perhaps plays not a small part in this fiasco.

The lead roles are, of course, the usual suspects.

Relentless USraeli bullying of any and every voice raised to invoke international law, to attempt to hold Israel accountable to the same standards demanded of all other UN members, is legendary. From Goldstone to Schabas, and now Guterres, we have seen the paragons of exceptionalism bullying and intimidating anyone upholding Palestinian rights into submission.

The report had barely hit the website before the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations began the campaign against it.

The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations was also quick out of the gates, along with a swathe of the Israeli media.

“The UN is anti-Israel,” they cried, invoking the many UN resolutions against Israel.

The 80+ UN resolutions Israel is currently in breach of were passed simply and solely because Israel REPEATEDLY BREAKS INTERNATIONAL LAW. Israel’s pathetic whining is tantamount to a serial killer accusing the judge of bias because of the number of murder charges against him.

It must be repeated: UN resolutions against Israel are a direct consequence of Israel’s conduct, not of UN bias – just like the conclusions of the ESCWA report are a consequence of long-standing Israeli policy and practice, not of ESCWA, author or any other bias.

There lies the first hurdle.

If UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wants the world to respect the UN, and to have confidence in its agencies and personnel, he must begin by doing so himself.

If he wants the people of the world to respect and uphold the principles of the UN, he must do so himself.

These principles are that human rights are universal and inalienable; indivisible; interdependent and interrelated. (note to SG – Palestinians should have them too.)

That the report was published “without any prior consultations with the Secretariat and does not reflect the views of the Secretary‑General” as UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said at Wednesday’s Press Briefing, is hardly surprising – it was made perfectly clear that the report and its findings and conclusions are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UN.

And that is exactly as it should be: a factual report commissioned from independent experts based on objective evidence, and produced without fear or favour to address one of the most longstanding problems on the planet – the continuing denial of Palestinian rights.

In the UN system, everyone’s voice matters – not just those of Israel and the US.

In the UN system, international law is the overarching standard – not exceptionalism.

In the UN system we should be able to expect individuals producing meticulously-researched factually-based material to contribute to the fair resolution of decades-old injustices not to be denigrated; we should be able to expect UN staff fulfilling their obligations to the public to be supported by their employer; and we should be able to expect the Secretary General to have the strength of character to stand up to overt bullying, intimidation and blackmail from member states.

If, as Stéphane Dujarric said Friday, the withdrawal of the report was merely as a result of process and not of content, can we now be assured that it will go through the ‘proper’ process, and rapidly reappear, without further interference from the United States and Israel? That its conclusions and recommendations will be soon implemented, and Israel held accountable for its persistent violations of UN resolutions, principles, international law, and human rights?

Will Mr Guterres pick himself up out of the mud, and – as his role outlined on his own webpage dictates – take steps both publicly and in private, “drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading?”

If not, then we the people of the world have every right to expect his resignation, as a man showing himself incapable of fulfilling the obligations of the position: to “uphold the values and moral authority of the United Nations, and speak and act for peace, even at the risk, from time to time, of challenging or disagreeing with those same Member States.”

Whatever course he now runs, the mud the UN Secretary General has rolled in will be difficult to remove.

Download the full UN ESCWA report

Read: Abbas to award Khalaf with Palestinian highest medal

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