Ostracising Israel at the UN should be a priority

A suspension of Israel’s rights and privileges by the United Nations General Assembly would put much more pressure on its government than Palestine’s full membership.

Moncef Khane

Former United Nations official

Published On 20 May 202420 May 2024Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan symbolically shreds the UN Charter during a special session of the General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on May 10, 2024 [Charly Triballeau/AFP]

When on May 10, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted overwhelmingly in favour of Resolution ES-10/23 relating to Palestine’s membership application, some media qualified it as “support for Palestinian statehood”. This seeming confusion follows the United States government’s talking points conflating statehood with membership and claiming this would hurt “peace efforts”. That is, however, not the case: the resolution addressed the question of “membership” in the UN and not of Palestine’s “statehood”.

The UNGA settled Palestine’s statehood question at the UN in 2012 when it granted it non-member Observer State status – the same status Switzerland enjoyed prior to becoming a Member State in 2002 or the Holy See has had since 1964.

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The US decision not to recognise the State of Palestine or to veto its UN membership application in the UN Security Council does not negate Palestine’s legal and political status – a State, albeit under foreign occupation, recognised by three quarters of the 193 Member States of the UN and counting. Recently, Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago formally recognised the State of Palestine.

And since the adoption of resolution ES-10/23 by a vote of 143 to 9, the Republic of Ireland has officially declared that it will recognise the State of Palestine in the coming weeks. Belgium, Spain, Malta, and Slovenia have also made recent statements to that effect.

While Palestine’s full-fledged UN membership remains hostage to the US veto in the Security Council, it has become a red herring, diverting attention and action from a far more important and consequential question: Israel’s status at the UN.

When apartheid South Africa came under growing international pressure at the UN, driven by the ascending political clout of the Global South and Africa, in particular, the UNGA acted. It established a centre against apartheid and initiated international boycotts of the apartheid regime in the sports, cultural, economic, and political arenas, which brought pressure to bear not only on South Africa’s racist regime, but also on its allies, including Israel.

A seminal moment came in 1974 when a ruling by UNGA President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, then foreign minister of Algeria, made history: it suspended the participation of South Africa, stripping it of its Member State rights and privileges. It could no longer be seated, speak or vote at the General Assembly and other UN organs.

What came to be known as the “Bouteflika Ruling” was without precedent in the annals of the UN. It followed a veto by the US, United Kingdom and France of an initiative by African countries seeking to expel South Africa from the organisation in accordance with Article 6 of the UN Charter, which states: “A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

The US, supported by the UK and others, challenged the Bouteflika Ruling at the UNGA – and it was upheld by a vote of 91 to 22, the UN having 133 Member States at the time. The ruling was in respect of the credentials of the South African delegation, which were rejected; it did not suspend or expel South Africa as a Member State, which requires a positive Security Council recommendation.

Given that Israel has, by all accounts, persistently violated not only general principles enshrined in the UN Charter but also countless General Assembly and binding Security Council resolutions, the case could be made for action pursuant to Article 6. But realpolitik suggests this would be a road to nowhere, at least until the US decides to withdraw its “diplomatic iron dome” shielding its ally. The Bouteflika Ruling suggests an alternative route.

Now that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled that the atrocities against the population of Gaza may amount to genocide and has issued a number of provisional orders the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scoffed at, the UNGA ought to seriously consider whether suspending the participation of the Israeli delegation is not, in fact, overdue.

The Israeli delegation at UN has already demonstrated its blatant disrespect for the organisation on numerous instances.  After the May 10 vote, for instance, its ambassador, in a most theatrical and grotesque fashion, shredded a copy of the UN Charter from the rostrum of the UNGA, shouting “shame on you” to delegations in attendance.

It is important to remember that apartheid South Africa changed course because it became a pariah and isolated regime. The Bouteflika Ruling was part of that process.

In this sense, stripping Israel of its UN rights and privileges is more likely to put added pressure on the Tel Aviv regime to change course. Ostracising it is more likely to further the prospect of peace than would a symbolic full-fledged UN membership for the State of Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.