Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1997, Page 58

U.N. Report

As List of Israeli Breaches of Geneva Conventions Grows, U.N. and Switzerland May Summon Signatories

By Ian Williams

As the 52nd U.N. General Assembly droned along, the Middle East did not hit the headlines—but it was bubbling in the background all along. And, because of Binyamin Netanyahu's idiosyncratic view of peacemaking, there is even less chance of compromise than usual in the annual batch of U.N. resolutions.

It is highly unlikely that there will be any compromises in this year's batch of Middle Eastern resolutions reiterating the illegality of Israeli acts. The Palestinian Mission has developed a careful strategy to keep the diplomatic and international legal pressure on. It is the Palestinians' only strength, which is why Israel and its American supporters continually attempt to cut the U.N. out of the loop.

Indeed, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy made the second of his five-part code for negotiations with neighbors, "Preservation of the framework of direct negotiations and agreement to refrain from attempts to transfer the disputes and the negotiations onto the world stage." Or, as the Americans put it, "The Palestinians have got to stop running to the U.N."

Levy also complained that Israel was denied its "equal rights" in the U.N., a statement backed up by an intensive campaign of press advertisements and lobbying of diplomats by American Jewish groups. Their argument is that since none of the U.N.'s regional groups want Israel to join, the state is denied the possibility of being elected to the Security Council. Israel, they point out, is unique in this position.

And so it is, now. But it was not always so. Its then ally South Africa used to be in a similar position—and for similar reasons: the apartheid regime's flagrant disregard of human rights, international law, and U.N. decisions. Even if Israel were able to run for the seat, it would be lucky if it were only defeated by 182 votes to 3—which is about its current record of support.

The list of charges may well grow longer. Kofi Annan reported in September that he had been in touch with the Swiss government, as custodian of the Geneva Conventions, about convening a meetings of the signatories, the "high contracting parties," to consider Israel's breaches of the conventions in the occupied territories. The result of the special "uniting for peace" resolution secured by the Palestinian delegation in June, it will doubtless cause further embarrassment to the Israelis—and their friends in Washington.

U.N. resolutions against Israel have no sanctions attached to them.

However, no matter how much they complain, the resolutions against Israel have no sanctions attached to them. In contrast, the U.N. sanctions against Iraq, Libya and Sudan reflect the post-Cold War strength of the Western positions in the Security Council at the time they were passed. Now there is a standoff. The U.S. and its allies can veto any attempt to lift or lighten sanctions, but do not have the strength to make them harsher.

In September, the Arab foreign ministers decided that the U.N. Security Council should break the stalemate over Libyan sanctions by agreeing to Tripoli's compromise suggestion that the suspects for the Lockerbie PanAm bombing be tried in The Hague. Any hopes that the UK's new government would defect from the hard line were, however, dashed by Robin Cook, the foreign secretary. He firmly told press—and presumably other ministers—that there was ample reason to charge the suspects, and, as an MP from Scotland himself, he did not take kindly to the suggestion that the Scottish courts could not deal with the cases adequately and fairly. When asked about suggestions from the Arab foreign ministers that they would not apply U.N. sanctions, he pointed out that this was likely to be unproductive if they ever wanted action on the U.N.'s resolutions against Israel.

It was perhaps that which the State Department had in mind when they hastily corrected Madeleine Albright's "mis-speaking" on television on Oct. 1. Asked if the Israeli settlements were legal, she answered like any other regular panderer to Congress and the Lobby in Washington, and answered yes, they were legal. By the evening the State Department laundry had sanitized this to a "legal in Israel, but against international law" formula. However, with the current rate of whitewashing of Israeli actions, it cannot be long before the White House decides to adopt her mis-speaking as official policy.

Saddam's Weapons

Even so, few outside Baghdad were in any doubt at all that Saddam Hussain's regime had been breaking the rules about the development of weapons of mass destruction. While his citizens, and the children in particular, suffer from malnutrition and lack of health facilities, the state is still finding the resources to continue research and development of chemical and biological warfare, according to the report issued by Richard Butler, the Australian now sitting in the hot seat so wisely vacated by Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus as head of the commission to investigate Iraqi programs for weapons of mass destruction.

Even the generally unshockable Butler seems to have been unprepared for the outright and palpable lies that the Iraqis gave to the commission. Butler's first report to the Security Council pulls no punches, detailing Iraq's attempts to block the investigations, to hide evidence, and when in doubt, to lie.

It is symptomatic that the Iraqis have delivered the sixth version of their "Full Final and Complete Disclosure" of Iraq's biological warfare program. It was rejected yet again because it was clearly neither full, frank nor complete. It was, in the words of the commission's report, "an area...unredeemed by any progress." Saddam Hussain keeps putting truth in the worst rumors his enemies spread about him—and disarming those who argue for the lifting of sanctions on humanitarian grounds.

Ian Williams is a free-lance writer based at the United Nations and the author of The U.N. for Beginners, available from the AET Book Club.