In yet another example of the Bush Administration’s contempt for international law, the United States vetoed an otherwise-unanimous UN Security Council resolution on December 20 that criticized the Israeli government for a series of attacks by its armed forces against United Nations workers and facilities in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The first incident cited in the resolution was the November 21 slaying of Iain Hook, who was working for the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) inside a well-marked UN compound in a Palestinian refugee camp in the northern West Bank. A UN investigation revealed that, despite Israeli claims to the contrary, there was no gunfire from the compound where Hook was shot three times. In addition, Israeli forces initially blocked an ambulance and emergency medical team from coming to his aid in time to possibly saved him. Hook, who was British, had been the director of a project to rebuild homes of Palestinian civilians that had been destroyed by Israeli occupation forces during previous military operations.
The second incident took place on December 1, when Israeli occupation forces destroyed a building in the Gaza Strip used by the World Food Program (WFP), another UN agency. The warehouse contained hundreds of tons of badly-needed food destined for Palestinian families. Malnutrition has skyrocketed in the occupied territories as multiple sieges by Israeli forces have brought agricultural activity to a virtual halt, leading most of the population to rely on the WFP and private voluntary organizations for basic necessities. According to officials from the WFP, Israeli occupation forces entered and searched the three-story structure and – despite the absence of any apparent military usage – planted a series of explosives, destroying the building and most of its contents minutes later.
The third incident involved the killing of two more UNRWA workers by Israeli occupation forces in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on December 6. Six other civilians were also killed during the overnight raid.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte, in justifying his veto, claimed that the resolution was geared more toward "condemning the Israeli occupation than ensuring the safety of UN personnel." Not only is this claim untrue – the wording of the resolution referred only to these recent attacks against UN personnel and facilities – it underscores how the United States, virtually alone in the international community, sees the military occupation of one country by another as something which should not be criticized.
In effect, the United States has declared open season on UN workers and facilities in conflict areas where a strategic ally is involved. By contrast, Bush administration officials have declared that any attacks against UN personnel or facilities by Iraq would automatically lead to a U.S.-led war to overthrow the Baghdad government.
All three of the Israeli attacks took place within territory from which Israeli forces were supposed to have withdrawn under a series of disengagement agreements under the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine. Despite the United States’ role as the guarantor of those agreements, the Bush administration has not only refused to demand that Israel pull back its forces, it has actually increased its military and economic assistance to the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon was an outspoken opponent of the peace framework when it signed by the more moderate Israeli government of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.
Over the past three decades, the United States has used its veto power on forty occasions to protect Israel from criticism by the UN Security Council. This is more than all vetoes cast by all other members of the Security Council on all other issues during this same period combined. Nearly half of these vetoes have been in regard to Israeli violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and related human rights covenants pertaining to the humanitarian obligations of occupying powers. As a signatory of the Geneva Conventions, the United States is legally obliged to support their enforcement.
The Bush administration has also blocked enforcement of dozens of other UN Security Council resolutions that previous administrations allowed to pass that also call upon Israel to come into compliance with such international law.
This is in addition to the scores of times when the threat of a U.S. veto has led to a weakening of a resolution’s language or the withdrawal of the proposed resolution prior to coming before the Security Council as a whole for a vote. For example, in March of 2001, the Bush Administration scuttled a series of proposed resolutions by European nations by threatening to veto any resolution that used the term "siege" in reference to Israeli occupation forces surrounding and shelling Palestinian towns, or said anything in relation to Israel’s illegal settlements, the Geneva Conventions or international law.
In effect, while the United States argues that it has the right to unilaterally invade Iraq to protect the credibility of the United Nations, the U.S. has routinely blocked the world body from criticizing the actions of its strategic allies, even if it is in the context of condemning both sides in a conflict. For example, in December of 2001, the United States vetoed an otherwise-unanimous UN Security Council resolution strongly condemning Palestinian terrorism because it also criticized Israeli policies of assassinating Palestinian activists and imposing collective punishment against civilian populations.
It is particularly disturbing that the Bush administration’s open contempt for the Fourth Geneva Conventions and other principles of international law – as well as its abuse of the United Nations to advance its ideological agenda – is not only supported by the vast majority of Republicans in Congress but by the vast majority of Congressional Democrats as well. No Democratic leader has criticized any of the Bush administration’s UN vetoes and related actions in support of Israel’s occupation.
Indeed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is on record praising President Bush’s "leadership" in supporting Ariel Sharon’s policies in the occupied territories. Pelosi has gone as far as claiming that – contrary to reports by Amnesty International and other reputable human rights groups documenting widespread Israeli attacks against civilian targets – the massive Israeli assaults against Palestinian population centers last spring and the resulting re-occupation were in "self-defense" and were aimed "only at the terrorist infrastructure." Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has expressed similar backing for unconditional U.S. support for the right-wing Israeli leader, now facing a serious challenge in the upcoming election from the more moderate Labor Party, now led by Amram Mitzna.
Whatever their differences on fiscal policy or abortion, the Democrats and Republicans are in agreement on one thing: When you are the world’s sole remaining superpower, you can decide who has to abide by international law and who does not, even if it comes at the cost of the lives of humanitarian workers and the integrity of international institutions designed to maintain world peace and security.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He is Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project and is the author of the recently released book Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism www.commoncouragepress.com.