“We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom; and for these ends, to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security,; and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles, and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims”.
So began the Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco after the bloodbath in the trenches of the First World War, and the Holocaust of the Second.
Those were once words with which to conjure a new world, free of the senseless violence of the old.
They are words which still send a chill down my spine for their simple statement of what a moral world might look like.
And they are words which represent ideas that are under fire today in Gaza, as one nation-state maintains its colonial domination over another using savage military force, killing hundreds and thousands of civilians in a bid to maintain colonialism’s lawless order.
Historians and commentators will endlessly debate the efficacy of the United Nations. Some have argued that the organization was from the beginning captured by neo-colonial interests, and that from their perches on the Security Council, Britain and France created an institution calculated to maintain their influence in former colonies while the United States and the Soviet Union built new economic and ideological empires of their own.
The United Nations faced challenges during the Cold War when its neutrality and dependence on the United States were called into question, and its basic efficacy has been widely mocked—although when it stumbles it is often as a result of neglect where not outright sabotage by powers like the United States.
Nonetheless, the world changed dramatically after the Second World War. Before that war, most of the world’s people had lived as colonial subjects, either ruled over directly by foreign—and largely European—powers, or else as subjects of client states to those empires.
In a comparatively short period of time, nearly all of those empires were dismantled, and people from Africa and Asia in particular, but also parts of the Pacific and Latin America, became citizens of nations, the category permitting admittance to the newer, hopeful framework for organizing the world to respond to the needs of an expanded humanity.
Imperfect though it was, the United Nations became a forum for the newly-enfranchised nations of the world to speak up on behalf of those yet to receive their freedom, or those who were subjected to harm and discrimination in ostensibly “free” countries. Colonial governments were criticized sharply for their final, violent spasms as they wound down their rule. The Indian government made novel use of the UN to hammer the South African government over its treatment of non-white subjects. And both the Soviet Union and the United States were subjected to criticism for their violations of human and civil rights.
Israel attained its formal independence after a vote at the United Nations which followed a guerrilla campaign (which today would be called “terrorist”) against the British. That independence was tainted when Zionists murdered a UN mediator and as the new Israeli government embarked on its own policy of colonialism.
Today, each Israeli bomb that crashes down in Gaza—the current ceasefire aside—does not just pulverize the livelihoods or lives of its colonial subjects. Those bombs are also direct assaults on the United Nations and the equity, civility, and justice that the organization represents.
Israel has been censured on 79 occasions for violating “UN Security Council resolutions, the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, international terrorism, or other violations of international law”. The Israeli regime remains in violation of many of these resolutions.
Like North Korea, Israel is a rogue nuclear state. And like Saddam Hussein, Israel possesses weapons of mass destruction. The comparisons are not direct, but the fact remains that the Israeli regime is in constant breach of international law, and in possession of weapons of mass murder in further violation of that law illustrates the double-standard which exists in the current world order.
And in the past weeks, Israel’s assault on the United Nations has not just been symbolic. On seven occasions during Israel’s four-week assault on its colonial subjects, the Israeli military has attacked United Nations shelters and schools, leading the UN Secretary General to refer to the colonial power’s actions as “a moral outrage and a criminal act”. The attack on one school came after 17 warnings by the UN to the Israeli military about the location of the school, making the attack a chillingly deliberate attack on the chief organization in the world which is supposed to have the moral authority to move in conflict zones to help victims of violence.
When Israel attacked the United Nations facilities, it did so with “heavy artillery not designed for precision use”, giving the direct lie to the regime’s claim that it works to minimize civilian casualties. As cautious a paper as the New York Times, normally solicitous of the Israeli regime, remarked that the various attacks on the UN, including one on “people waiting in line for food outside a United Nations school…renewed sharp questions about the tactics Israel uses in dense neighborhoods and, especially, near shelters that are supposed to provide refuge to people who follow Israel’s own orders to leave areas of fierce fighting”.
The United States is complicit in this calculated and punitive attack on international law and humanitarian ethics, both because the administration and Congress actively shield the Israeli regime from criticism and accountability, and also because the United States has continued to arm the colonial regime in the midst of its assault on its subjects. That in the twenty-first century—238 years after American colonists voiced their own opposition to colonialism—a colonial power could operate with such violence, with such impunity, and with such disregard for the ethics that are supposed to define our age is shocking. It is shocking that Israelis, people in a nation which fought the British Empire for its independence, should permit themselves to so viciously and so casually deny both individual and communal security and self-determination—the problematic but basic bedrocks of the twenty-first century—to people. It is all the more shocking that a country which won its independence fighting such colonialism should stand foursquare behind the offending regime.
I met one of my new neighbours yesterday. Or rather, I was introduced to Myrtle—who is the solid, silent type—by her owners, three little girls of about eight. Myrtle is a tortoise, and the kids were out guiding her from one patch of shade to another on the lawn, enjoying the comparative cool of a summer afternoon. They had no visible cares in the world, and went happily on with their games without the fear that some invading imperial power might at any moment decide to rain bombs down on their neighbourhood, level their schools, target their hospital, kill their family, or impose a blockade on their town and starve them.
The fact that children in Gaza do not live free of these fears, and that this fear increasingly defines their lives, should be reason enough for the United States to withdraw it support for the colonial regime and for the international community to call time on Israel’s colonialism and its increasingly maddened attacks on international law and humanity.