Seven Questions

Seven Questions: The United Nations Defends Its Role in Gaza

The U.N. Deputy High Commissioner on Human Rights says Israel is to blame.

There’s not much good news coming out of the Middle East these days. About 700 civilian casualties have been reported in Gaza, and some 30 Hamas rockets jetted into Israel on January 9. Both Israel and Hamas have rebuffed a plan for ceasefire, as well as a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an end to hostilities. Just hours after FP‘s Elizabeth Dickinson sat down with U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang, the United Nations and the International Red Cross announced the suspension of humanitarian relief into the Gaza Strip. After a U.N. contract driver was killed on Thursday, the conditions were deemed simply too dangerous for staff to continue their work.

There is much blame to go around for the stalemate and the destruction. On Dec. 28, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned what she called a disproportionate use of force by Israel to achieve its objectives. Others, such as former Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky, have blamed Hamas — and even the United Nations — for politicizing civilian casualties. Kang, who is in Washington to discuss an upcoming conference on racism and xenophobia, addressed the situation in Gaza and the sometimes controversial role of the United Nations.

Foreign Policy: High Commissioner Navi Pillay released a statement in late December condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza. Is this still your position?

Kyung-wha Kang: From the first day, the casualties coming out of this conflict were a great concern. [The high commissioner has] condemned both sides for the use of force, and she has been calling on the immediate cessation of the military actions on both sides.

I think what is of concern from the human rights and humanitarian side is that, yes, [humanitarian] access has to be more broadly opened to get the more needed assistance to the population of Gaza. But we also want to draw the attention of the Israeli authorities to the fact that the use of force has to be in concert with their humanitarian obligations to avoid excessive use of force, to avoid targeting citizens, and to avoid collective punishment. [Israeli authorities] argue that they’re making all the cautionary steps to make the distinction between Hamas and the civilian population, but what counts as civilian should depend on the interpretation of humanitarian law: if you’re not an active combatant, you’re a civilian. So for example, people working for Hamas related factories would count the civilians.

FP: In a press briefing from the White House, spokesperson Dana Perino told reporters, Hamas often hides amongst innocents, and uses innocent people, including children, as human shields. Is a distinction between civilians and combatants feasible in this case?

KK: I think there’s also an obligation to take precautions to make the distinction between civilians and active combatants. [Even if Hamas were hiding in a school, for example,] that would be the obligation.

FP: On Wednesday, Israel agreed to open its border for several hours to let humanitarian aid filter into Gaza. Realistically, how much aid can get through in that time?

KK: According to the humanitarian assistance agencies, it’s far from sufficient. What is really needed is the cessation of hostilities because the infrastructure is destroyed. It’s very difficult to get [the assistance] to the people who need it.

[Supplies would include] hospital and medical supplies, and fuel to run the hospitals. One of the things [we’re facing is that] there’s been such and outpour of willingness to provide assistance that a lot of the donations are not useable assistance, for example malaria drugs. In the confusion and the outpouring of wanting to help, sometimes [the operation] doesn’t end up getting what is needed.

FP: Israel says its military action was in response to missiles fired over the last weeks into Israel by Hamas. If you were in the position of Israel, how would you have responded to the missile attacks into settlements? In other words, how would you have advised Israel to react?

KK: Violence begets further violence. There’s a clear asymmetry here in terms of the military abilities on both sides. And the two sides have different goals — clearly. The asymmetry of military power and asymmetry of goals makes it a very difficult situation.

FP: On Jan. 6, Natan Sharansky — the former deputy prime minister — wrote an editorial for the Wall St Journal arguing that the role of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has exacerbated the conflict by perpetuating the plight of refugees and allowing for their permanent settlement in camps. What is your reaction to this?

KK: The UNRWA has for more than 60 years provided crucial support to Palestinian refugees not only in Gaza but in the West Bank, Jordan, and Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Without UNRWA, the suffering of the Palestinian refugees would be enormous. UNRWA’s mandate, as given by member states of the UN, is to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, not (like the UN High Commission for Refugees) to find long-term solutions to individual refugees, in the absence of a political solution to the greater Palestinian refugee problem.

Any claim that the U.N. would purposefully prolong the suffering of the Palestinian people is ungrounded, and diverts attention away from the real issue. Even more ungrounded is the notion that the U.N. has helped to sustain terrorists in the occupied Palestinian territories, or OPT. The ongoing and long lasting existence of the Palestinian refugee camps in the OPT is the direct result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the inability of the relevant parties to find an agreeable solution for the refugee problem. Until that solution is found, the U.N. cannot ignore the needs of the refugees. Until the larger refugee problem finds a solution, UNRWA will continue to provide relief to the refugees, as mandated by the member states of the U.N.

FP: What will your office do to follow up on these allegations of human rights abuses?

KK: We’ve had presences in Ramallah and Gaza over the years to do human rights advisory and technical training activities with the local population. We’ve not had any monitoring and reporting functions. With the situation, we would like to take on a more expanded role. But that requires the cooperation of the Israeli authorities, and they have turned back the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in OPT, Mr. Richard Falk, when he tried to go into the OPT at the invitation of Mr. Abbas.

FP: Your visit to Washington is in part to discuss the work of the Durban Review, a conference promoting the end of racism and xenophobia. Given that Israel and Palestine was a difficult subject in initial negotiations — and Israel has since removed itself from the discussion — do you think conflict in Gaza will have an impact on further negotiations?

KK: I think it’s too early to tell. But so far, the responses that we have been getting from individual delegations that [our framework] is a good basis for negotiation — I think so far there has been a distinction between this process and the situation unfolding in Gaza.

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