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Gaza Conflict Looms Large at UN Human Rights Council

Geneva — Amid deteriorating conditions in Gaza, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has renewed his call for a humanitarian cease-fire in the Palestinian enclave. He is also calling for the unconditional release of all hostages abducted by Hamas militants during their attack on southern Israel on October 7.

“Nothing can justify Hamas’s deliberate killing, injuring, torturing, and kidnapping of civilians, the use of sexual violence—or the indiscriminate launching of rockets towards Israel and nothing justifies the collective punishment of the Palestinian people,” he said Monday in Geneva as the U.N. Human Rights Council opened for a six-week session.

Given the crisis facing Gaza, Guterres said he had invoked Article 99 for the first time in his mandate “to put the greatest possible pressure on the council to do everything in its power to end the bloodshed in Gaza and prevent escalation.”  

Israel took military action against Hamas after the terror attack on Israel killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies, and led to the capture of about 240 hostages. While dozens of hostages were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November, Israel says it believes 30 hostages subsequently have either died or been killed in the enclave.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says Israel’s military operation has left more than 29,780 people dead and some 70,000 people injured.

Article 99 of the U.N. Charter allows the secretary-general to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which, in his opinion, may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security. This article has been invoked only six times since the U.N. was created in 1945.

Guterres noted his use of the article was not enough to shake up the Security Council, which remains “deadlocked and unable to act on the most significant peace and security issues of our time.”

“The council’s lack of unity on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and on Israel’s military operations in Gaza following the horrific terror attacks by Hamas on 7 October, has severely — perhaps fatally — undermined its authority,” said the U.N. chief.

“The council needs serious reform to its composition and working methods,” he said, noting that international humanitarian law was still under attack and humanitarian aid for millions of Palestinians in Gaza was insufficient.

“Rafah is the core of the humanitarian aid operation, and UNRWA (the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians) is the backbone of that effort,” Guterres said.

“An all-out Israeli offensive on the city would not only be terrifying for more than a million Palestinian civilians sheltering there; it would put the final nail in the coffin of our aid programs,” he said.

Rafah is an area between the Gaza Strip and Egypt and a focus of concern for the safety of Palestinian civilians.

More than 10 countries, including the United States, suspended funding to the Palestinian relief agency after Israel last month accused UNRWA of having links with Hamas.

Dennis Francis, president of the U.N. General Assembly, echoed the secretary-general’s call for a humanitarian cease-fire and increased aid for Gaza. However, he said millions of people in other parts of the world also were in a state of crisis and in need of international aid. He said they must not be forgotten.

“The war in Ukraine — now in its third year — has only grown more entrenched, with no foreseeable signs of cessation in the short term. Haiti has descended into lawlessness, while persistent violence across Yemen, Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere has exacerbated the human rights situation with deepening concern,” said Francis.

“In the Sahel, the impact of strife and environmental stressors has led to a resurgence of famine, jeopardizing the right to food and proper nutrition for millions,” he said.

According to Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, this council session is occurring “at a time of seismic global shock. Conflicts are battering the lives of millions of civilians and carving even deeper fault lines across and between nations.”

Türk said he was disturbed by attempts “to undermine the legitimacy and work of the United Nations and other institutions. They include disinformation that targets U.N. humanitarian organizations, U.N. peacekeepers and my office.”

“The U.N. has become a lightning rod for manipulative propaganda and a scapegoat for policy failures. This is profoundly destructive of the common good, and it callously betrays the many people whose lives rely on it,” he said.

Over the coming six weeks, the council will examine and shine a light on alleged violations occurring in all regions of the world. It will conduct interactive dialogues on the human rights situations in places such as the occupied Palestinian territories, East Jerusalem, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, South Sudan, and Sudan.

The council also will consider thematic issues such as torture, disappearances, freedom of religion or belief, and the situation of children in armed conflict.

In his speech to the council, U.N. chief Guterres warned that the world was facing a human rights crisis.

“Around the world, violence is increasing, and conflict-related human rights violations are spreading…We cannot, we must not become numb to appalling and repeated violations of international humanitarian and human rights law,” he said.

To support states in meeting their obligations under international law, Guterres said that he and U.N. rights chief Türk were launching a systems-wide United Nations Agenda for Protection.

“Under this agenda, the United Nations, across the full spectrum of our work, will act as one to prevent human rights violations, and to identify and respond to them when they take place,” said the U.N. secretary-general.

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