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Here’s Hoping the New UN Secretary-General is More Diplomatic

Sara McCleary

Two weeks ago, I wrote about now former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 11th-hour admission that the UN has spent a decade passing “a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports, and committees against Israel.” Mere days later, the UN Security Council approved what has been described as the most severe resolution it has yet to pass against Israel.

Resolution 2334, which passed with 14 votes in favour and one abstention (the U.S.), demands that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard.” It also argues that “the establishment by Israel of settlements… has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”

Unsurprisingly, many are calling out world leaders – outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama in particular – for allowing such a biased resolution to pass. But when the UN chief himself admits to allowing an anti-Israel bias to run amuck at the UN for at least the last decade (if not longer), shouldn’t we be looking more closely at internal pressures within the UN, and explore options to amend the problem?

Many friends of Israel hope that the first such step has already occurred. Ban Ki-moon’s second term as UN Secretary-General ended on Dec. 31, 2016 and on Jan. 1, 2017 his successor (former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres) officially took on the role. In his first statement as UN Secretary-General, Guterres announced his desire to promote peace, calling on the world to “make 2017 a year in which we all – citizens, governments, leaders – strive to overcome our differences.”

But what Guterres will mean for Israel specifically isn’t as clear. He has yet to make any kind of statement on Resolution 2334 but has also been described as a “friend to Israel.” It appears that most experts on the strained UN-Israel relationship remain optimistic. Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade Micha Harish summed it up quite nicely: “I think he will be more fair and less aggressive in the UN than his predecessors.”

In the interests of being completely fair and transparent, I have to ask, though: what kind of change, if any, will the shift from Ki-moon to Guterres actually bring about? How much power does the Secretary-General really have? Well, as it turns out, if he were so inclined Guterres could do some good for Israel.

According to the UN’s official policy, the Secretary-General should “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security… The Secretary-General would fail if he did not take careful account of the concerns of Member States, but he must also 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.”

One more line stands out: “One of the most vital roles played by the Secretary-General is the use of his ‘good offices’ – steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading.”

In other words, Guterres is technically expected to advocate on behalf of those causes he feels are important to helping the UN uphold its own integrity and meet its primary mission of maintaining international peace. While Member States have no obligation to heed the Secretary-General’s advice, I imagine that if he were to go out of his way to speak on behalf of Israel in a bid to diminish the bias that pervades the UN, he could potentially change a few votes. At the very least, he could introduce an entirely different dialogue on Israel, one that most certainly does not currently exist within the UN.

Here’s hoping he chooses to be an active UN chief and make the most of his role. The whole world will be watching.

Sara McCleary has written extensively on a wide range of topics while working as a news reporter and freelancer. She has also completed a master’s degree in history, and further graduate work in interdisciplinary humanities.