A heavily damaged UNRWA school in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike

A United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in Gaza is shown after being bady damaged by an Israeli airstrike.

(Photo: UNRWA/Facebook)

The Gaza Crisis Reveals the Need to Reform International Institutions

If the United Nations cannot even establish a reliable international aid corridor for one of the most vulnerable populations in the world, how can we expect them to address more complex global crises effectively?

Gaza has been enduring one of the most devastating massacres in this century. The strip has been under blockade for two decades, and the world has recently witnessed some of the bloodiest days in the region’s history. On October 7, following a horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel that took some 1,200 lives and made over 200 people hostages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “We are at war.” He initiated a “military operation” that, despite its putative targeting of the Hamas cadres, has had a much more severe impact on thousands of Palestinian civilians. He cut off potable water, electricity, fuel, and food.

Charges of war crimes against Israel have been discussed by the United Nations, as the Israeli military has thumbed its nose at International Humanitarian Law, which makes attacks on hospitals and schools off-limits under most circumstances. Additionally, Israel has bombed refugee camps, churches, and mosques, leaving Palestinian noncombatants with no safe place. If these actions by Israel raise important questions regarding its compliance with international law, they also raise concerns about the effectiveness of the United Nations in addressing the crisis.

The Ineffectiveness of International Law and Peace Institutions 

For decades, the Gaza Strip has been a hotbed of conflict and tension. A total of 2.3 million residents (about twice the population of Hawaii) live in this small 41 kilometers (about 25.48 miles) long and between 6- and 12-kilometers wide enclave. Already trapped in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, its inhabitants have endured countless hardships Yet, despite countless resolutions, diplomatic negotiations, and the formation of international bodies dedicated to maintaining peace and security, nothing has changed for the people of Gaza. The international community’s response to the Gaza crisis has been a glaring example of the insufficiency and ineffectiveness of international law and peace and security institutions such as the United Nations. The current humanitarian pause is a mere Band-Aid on a potentially mortal wound.

The United Nations, which is the most important institution established for peace and security after the global horrors of WW II, appears to be powerless when it comes to the Gaza crisis. The countless past resolutions condemning the violence and calling for an end to hostilities have done little to change the situation on the ground. The Israeli government is vowing to start back up its devastating bombardment of the refugees later this week.

Even during the current pause, the delivery of humanitarian aid remains insufficient. Some 500 trucks of aid entered the strip daily before the current conflict, and less than 100 per day are entering these days. The people of Gaza, already dealing with the consequences of long campaigns of total war that have put noncombatants in the crosshairs, face additional suffering because of the inability of international institutions to ensure that aid reaches those in desperate need.

How can the United Nations effectively pursue its mission to address humanitarian crises and maintain global peace if the deployment of the veto power can impede crucial humanitarian initiatives?

The Gaza crisis serves as a reminder of the limitations of international institutions and the pressing need for reform. It is time to question whether the current framework for maintaining international peace and security is equipped to address protracted conflicts in the 21st century. If the United Nations cannot even establish a reliable international aid corridor for one of the most vulnerable populations in the world, how can we expect them to address more complex global crises effectively?

The international community must acknowledge the reality that international human rights law and the United Nations has not lived up to its intended purpose in the Gaza crisis. To be truly effective, international peace and security institutions such as the United Nations must be reevaluated and reformed to meet the demands of the modern world. The suffering of the people of Gaza serves as a grim testament to the inadequacy of the current system. It is time for change, and it is time to address the critical issue of an international aid corridor for Gaza as a starting point for broader reform.

Time to Revisit United Nations Decision Making Procedures? 

As widely acknowledged, the United Nations Security Council bestows veto power upon its five permanent members. There exists a compelling argument for reexamining this veto privilege, particularly in the realm of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations serves as a global organization committed to upholding world peace, security, and facilitation of economic, social, and cultural collaboration among nations. A pressing concern arises when the veto power, wielded by these permanent members, extends its reach to include humanitarian aid decisions, as when the U.S. rejected any call for a cease-fire or the firm establishment of humanitarian corridors. This gives rise to a fundamental question: How can the United Nations effectively pursue its mission to address humanitarian crises and maintain global peace if the deployment of the veto power can impede crucial humanitarian initiatives? Even the overwhelming vote of the U.N. General Assembly in favor of a humanitarian pause was summarily sidelined by the United States.

It is imperative to contemplate a revision of the Security Council’s decision-making process concerning the enforcement of humanitarian law, with an emphasis on rendering these decisions not just declaratory but also legally binding and coercive. Without binding resolutions, the United Nations’ ability to accomplish its mission is severely hindered, and even changes in the Security Council’s composition would yield a limited impact. Collaborating closely with the International Criminal Court may emerge as one of the most potent steps forward in this context. Enforcing the termination of ongoing atrocities as a prerequisite for achieving justice and lasting peace is a necessary approach to securing global peace and security.

The persistent atrocities in Gaza have evoked significant international outrage and eroded the trust placed in the United Nations, an organization founded on the principles of upholding global peace and security. Given that the U.N.’s response has so often been inadequate—in Ukraine, Syria, and now Gaza—it is incumbent upon the organization to undertake structural reforms aimed at preserving its credibility and realizing its fundamental mission.

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© 2023 Juan Cole