The immediate priority in Gaza must be saving civilian lives said the President of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, as Member States gathered to debate the use of the veto by the United States in the Security Council last month. 

The UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session meets on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.
The UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session meets on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question. UN image

Assembly Vice President Cheikh Niang of Senegal, holding the gavel in the General Assembly Hall and deputizing for President Dennis Francis, read out a statement on his behalf.

Mr. Francis said he welcomed the adoption of Security Council resolution 2720 late last month, which called for safe, unhindered and expanded humanitarian access and conditions for a sustainable cessation of hostilities.

He urged all warring parties in Gaza to “fully implement” the Council resolution as well as the Assembly resolution of 12 December calling for a ceasefire, arising from the Assembly’s reconvened Emergency Special Session.

On protecting civilians, Mr. Francis urged all Member States “to keep this shared goal to the forefront during today’s debate.”

Debate triggered by Assembly resolution

The General Assembly adopted a resolution designed to foster greater cooperation with the Security Council, in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, which automatically triggers a meeting following the use of any veto in the Council.

The veto is a special voting power held by the permanent member States on the Council, whereby if any one of the five — China, France, Russia, the UK and the US — casts a negative vote, the resolution or decision automatically fails.

The Assembly resolution which introduced this extra scrutiny calls for the Assembly President to convene a formal debate within 10 working days, so that the 193 members of the wider body can have their say.

The intention behind it is to give UN Member States the chance to make recommendations, which could include the use of armed force, to maintain or restore peace and security on the ground.

As with all Assembly resolutions they carry moral and political weight but are non-binding and do not generally carry the force of international law, unlike some measures agreed by the Security Council.

Tuesday's meeting came on the heels of the US vetoing a Russian amendment prior to the successful passing of last month's Council resolution on Gaza.

US committed to ‘bringing all of the hostages home’

The US Deputy Permanent Representative, Robert Wood, said the US welcomed the adoption of December’s Security Council resolution on 22 December.

Although the US abstained, he said the US had worked closely with other key States “in good faith” to forge a strong resolution. “This work supports the direct diplomacy the US is engaged in to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza and to help get hostages out of Gaza”, he said.

Without naming Russia – whose amendment provoked the US veto in question - he said one Member State persisted in putting forward ideas which are “disconnected from the situation on the ground”.

He said it was “also deeply troubling” that many States seemed to have stopped talking about the plight of hostages still being held in Gaza by Palestinian militants.

The US is committed to bringing them all home he said and remains “engaged in efforts to secure another pause” in the fighting. Also lacking, he added, are demands that Hamas lay down its arms and surrender.

“It would be good if there was a strong international voice pressing Hamas’s leaders to do what is necessary to end the conflict that they set in motion on 7 October”, he said.

Palestinians enduring a ‘war of atrocities’

Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine, Riyad Mansour, said that he was standing before the Assembly “representing a people being slaughtered, with families killed in their entirety, men and women shot in the streets, thousands abducted, tortured and humiliated, children killed, amputated, orphaned - scarred for life.”

He said “no people” should have to endure such violence and it must stop.

No one can understand that the Security Council is still being prevented from calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, he added, while 153 States in the General Assembly have called for just that, along with the UN Secretary-General.

Israel’s assault is without precedent in modern history he said, “a war of atrocities”.

“How can you reconcile opposing the atrocities and vetoing a call to end the war that is leading to their commission?”, he asked.

The State of Palestine has long supported a proposal from France and Mexico “for the suspension of the veto in the case of mass atrocities, when crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes on a large scale are committed.”

He said the assault on Palestinians in Gaza, “demonstrates how vital this proposal is. Supporting an immediate ceasefire is the only moral, legitimate, and responsible position.”

During these last 90 days, 11 Palestinians have been killed every hour, including seven women and children, he told the Assembly.

“This is not about Israeli security; this is about Palestine’s destruction. The interests and objectives of this extremist Israeli government are clear and incompatible with the interests and objectives of any country that supports international law and peace”, Mr. Mansour said.

Security will never come through the death, destruction and dehumanization of Palestinians, he added.

Palestine is here to stay, he declared: “Don’t call for peace and spread fire. If you want peace, start with a ceasefire. Now.”

No morals, ‘only bias and hypocrisy’: Israel

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, wondered how, with 136 people still held hostage, including a baby about to mark his first birthday, any delegations could be calling for a ceasefire.

“How morally bankrupt has this body become?”, he said. Why are there no deafening calls inside the hall to bring him home, and “why are you not holding Hamas accountable for the most heinous war crimes?”

He said that “despite the UN’s moral rot”, the citizens of Israel are resilient, with faith, hope and unbreakable resolve to defend themselves.

He said the UN had become “an accomplice to terrorists” and now lacked the justification to exist.

Rather than focusing on bringing hostages home and their suffering, the UN “has been obsessed only with the well-being of people in Gaza”, those who put Hamas in power and supported the group’s atrocities, he added.

“You ignore all Israeli victims”, he said.

He asked how the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide be weaponized against the Jewish State, when the only thing Hamas wants, is to repeat the Holocaust.

“There are no morals here, only bias and hypocrisy”, he said. By calling for a ceasefire is giving the green light to Hamas to continue its reign of terror.

He said that by calling for a ceasefire, the Assembly is sending a clear message to terrorists across the world. “The UN is signalling to terrorists that rape as a weapon of war, is fine”, he added.