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UN chief invokes rarely-used power on Gaza

By Yoshita Singh
December 07, 2023 12:50 IST
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United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has invoked a rarely-used article in the United Nations Charter to appeal to the Security Council for a humanitarian ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict and to avert a "humanitarian catastrophe", which he said has "potentially irreversible implications" for Palestinians and peace in the region.

IMAGE: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Photograph: Maxim Shemeto/Reuters

Secretary-General Guterres issued a letter on Wednesday to the President of the Security Council for the month of December, Ambassador Jose Javier De La Gasca Lopez Dominguez, the Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the UN, writing under Article 99 of the UN Charter.

Article 99 was last specifically mentioned in a report on December 3, 1971 by then Secretary-General U Thant on the situation in “East Pakistan” - now Bangladesh. India had emerged victorious against Pakistan in the 1971 war, which led to the creation of Bangladesh.

This is the first time that Guterres has invoked Article 99 of the Charter since he became UN Secretary-General in 2017. Article 99 states that “the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”


In the letter, Guterres said that more than eight weeks of hostilities in Gaza and Israel have created “appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Guterres urged members of the Security Council to press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and appealed for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.

“We are facing a severe risk of collapse of the humanitarian system. The situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe with potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole and for peace and security in the region. Such an outcome must be avoided at all costs,” Guterres said.

Underlining that the international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis, Guterres urged members of the Security Council to press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

“I reiterate my appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared. This is urgent. The civilian population must be spared from greater harm,” he said, voicing deep concern that “nowhere is safe in Gaza.”

The UN chief noted that with a humanitarian ceasefire, the means of survival can be restored and humanitarian assistance can be delivered in a safe and timely manner across the Gaza Strip.

Stephane Dujarric, Spokesperson for Guterres, said the UN Chief's invocation of Article 99 is a "very dramatic move” within the constitutional context of the United Nations.

“We understand that the perception from the outside world may be a little different. But for us, it is a very powerful move on behalf of the Secretary-General. And we hope that members of the Security Council will be moved by it, and we hope the international community will be moved by it to push and put in place a humanitarian ceasefire,” Dujarric said.

Responding to a question, Dujarric said Guterres is invoking “one of the few powers” that the Charter gives him. “Constitutionally, it is…the most powerful tool that he has.”

“It is… a very dramatic constitutional move by the Secretary-General of the United Nations,” Dujarric said, noting that the actual invocation of Article 99 has not happened in decades.

UN Director at non-profit organisation Crisis Group Richard Gowan told PTI that invoking Article 99 is primarily a “symbolic gesture” by Guterres and cautioned that it is “unlikely to have much real impact on the Council.”

By citing Article 99, Guterres may hope that it gives some “extra energy” to a resolution by the UAE that demands an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, Gowan said, adding that he fears the US is still likely to block the text regardless of what Guterres says.

“I think that Guterres used this language today to focus attention on his letter to the Council, which would otherwise have gotten lost in all the diplomatic noise over Gaza,” Gowan said.

"The tragic reality is that the media and public have become increasingly accustomed to warnings of a humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Guterres has been consistent in sounding the alarm about threats to Palestinian civilians. This has angered Israel, but as the war has dragged on, I think his messages have lost impact, and almost become routine,” Gowan said.

He noted that it is rare for the Secretaries-General to explicitly invoke Article 99 in this way and said that neither former UN Chief Kofi Annan nor his successor Ban Ki-moon ever did so.

Guterres said more than 1,200 people were brutally killed, including 33 children, and thousands were injured in the “abhorrent acts of terror” by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups on October 7, which he has “repeatedly condemned”.

About 250 people were abducted, including 34 children, more than 130 of whom are still captive, he said, adding that these hostages must be immediately and unconditionally released. Accounts of sexual violence during the attacks are appalling, he said.

Guterres said that voiced concern that civilians throughout Gaza face grave danger. Since the start of Israel's military operation, more than 15,000 people have reportedly been killed, over 40 per cent of whom were children, he said.

Invocation of Article 99 of the UN Charter has been a rare occurrence in the world body's 78-year-long existence.

According to the information provided here, there have been 10 instances in the past when matters have been brought by the Secretaries-General to the Security Council on threats to international peace and security. But Article 99 was mentioned specifically last time in a report by U Thant on the situation in “East Pakistan".

The report said that “there has been a further grave deterioration in the situation along the borders of East Pakistan and elsewhere in the sub-continent. In view of his conviction that this situation constitutes a threat to the maintenance of international peace and security, the Secretary-General feels that he should report to the Security Council on the efforts he has made so far in regard to this problem.”

"The Secretary-General has kept the President of the Security Council informed of these efforts under the broad terms of Article 99 of the United Nations Charter, which provides that "The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security"," it said.

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Yoshita Singh
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