Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
Security Council Members Reject Shift in U.S. Position on Legality of Israeli Settlements
During its monthly meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 14 other UN Security Council members sharply rebuked the Trump administration’s new policy regarding the legality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Secretary of State Pompeo declared in remarks to the press on Monday that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are “not per se inconsistent with international law.” The new U.S. position reverses longstanding American policy on the issue. It also contradicts general international consensus: the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, and the International Court of Justice have all said that the settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention (as explained in this Just Security article by Marty Lederman).
The UN Security Council meeting opened with a joint statement from five European allies of the United States—Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Poland—reiterating that “all settlement activity is illegal under international law.” In response, the deputy U.S. ambassador stated that “this complex political problem” can be resolved only through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Other UN offices reaffirmed their position on the illegality of the Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank: “A change in the policy position of one state does not modify existing international law nor its interpretation by the International Court of Justice and the [UN] Security Council,” said UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville.
Some fear that the effect of the new American position could be used to justify expansion of Israeli annexation plans. UN rights expert Michael Lynk said the move would “further entrench the perpetual Israeli occupation” and drives “the very last nail in the coffin of the two-State solution,” the outcome supported by the UN for peace between Israel and Palestine.
UN Votes to Advance Russian-Sponsored Cybercrime Treaty, Over U.S. Objections
On Monday, a UN General Assembly committee voted to advance a global cybercrime treaty drafted by Russia. The United States and other Western allies opposed the treaty, warning that the treaty would endorse state control of the Internet. The final General Assembly vote to adopt the resolution will be held in December.
Russia framed the treaty as an alternative to the already-existing Budapest Convention of 2001, a cybercrime accord that is subject to rule-of-law and human rights safeguards. The new treaty, they argue, is more “inclusive” and respectful of countries sovereignty.
However, Western officials say that the new agreement would permit states to block websites that criticize governmental authorities and would allow states to use digital technologies to monitor dissidents. Particularly troublesome is a provision that calls for a check on the “use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes.” Thirty-six rights groups argue that the vague language could lead to criminalization of ordinary online activities.
“The big picture is that Russia and China are seeking to establish a set of global norms that support their view of how the Internet and information should be controlled,” said a European official speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This is not about cybercrime. This is about who controls the Internet.”
ICC May Open Investigation into the British Military for Alleged War Crimes
An episode of the BBC documentary program Panorama that aired early this week accused the British government of covering up killings and torture of civilians by UK troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The International Criminal Court (ICC) said it takes the accusations “very seriously,” and plans to independently assess the BBC’s findings.
There had been previous allegations involving British mistreatment of detainees. Panorama now says it has found evidence implicating British troops in the torture and killing of children and other civilians. Panorama based its new accusations on “leaked documents” from two former investigations into alleged British war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. The British government had closed the investigations, after finding unethical conduct on the part of one of the investigators. However, other former investigators claim this was used as an excuse to close down inquiries.
Were the ICC to open a formal investigation and subsequently bring charges, they would be the first against any UK national for war crimes. The ICC had previously found credible evidence of British troops committing war crimes in Iraq, but the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) declined to prosecute. The MOD continues to characterize both the new and old allegations as unsubstantiated.
UN Fears Dozens of Deaths in Iranian Protests, Urges Restraint
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has received reports that dozens of people have been killed by live ammunition in the continuing protests across Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameinei, acknowledged some of the fatalities.
The death toll remains unclear. Iranian officials say that 12 protesters have died, and that 600 people have been arrested. However, the UN numbers the fatalities in the dozens, and Amnesty International believes that at least 106 people had been killed as of November 20.
Since Friday, Iranian citizens have taken to the streets in cities across the country, protesting an increase in the price of petrol. The government responded late on Saturday with a near-total shutdown of the internet. As a result of the internet blackout, continuing reports of the situation in Iran are difficult to come by. UN human rights spokesperson Rubert Colville described the reports as “deeply concerning,” and called on the Iranian government to “immediately … reestablish Iranians’ access to the internet.”
UNHCR Has “Serious Concerns” With Trump Plan on Asylum-Seeker Resettlement
The Trump administration announced plans to send migrants seeking asylum in the United States to Guatemala and other Central American countries. The United Nations refugee agency criticized the plan as likely illegal under international law, and emphasized that it was not a party to the asylum agreements.
Under a typical “safe third country” agreement, migrants may be denied asylum and deported to third party countries, but only if they had passed through that country on their way, and if conditions in the third-party country are deemed safe. To date, the United States has such an agreement with only one country: Canada. Under the new policy, the United States would be allowed to deport asylum-seeking migrants to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, even if the migrants had not passed through those countries on their way to the United States (Susan Gzesh has explained “safe third country” agreements, and why such agreements with Mexico and Guatemala would be unlawful, in this Just Security article).
The UNHCR High Commissioner called the plans “at variance with international law,” since it “could result in the transfer of highly vulnerable individuals to countries where they may face life-threatening dangers.” The U.S. State Department had previously described Guatemala as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, plagued with “endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and the presence of organized criminal gangs.” According to recent U.N. data, El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world.
Libyan Envoy Warns Security Council of Foreign Interference
In a televised briefing to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Monday, the UN envoy to Libya accused unnamed countries of worsening the violence in Libya. Ghassan Salame described drone strikes operated by “external parties,” in violation of the UN arms embargo imposed on Libya since 2011. Salame also described how the “growing involvement of mercenaries and fighters from foreign private military companies” had intensified fighting in Libya. Of particular concern was an attack on a Tripoli factory Monday that may amount to a war crime.
Salame did not mention any country by name, but a confidential report seen by AFP earlier this month found that Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates “routinely and sometimes blatantly” violate the arms embargo, “suppl[ying] weapons with little effort to disguise the source.”
IMAGE: (L-R) Germany’s deputy permanent representative to the UN Jürgen Schulz, France’s permanent representative to the UN, Nicolas de Rivière, Britain’s permanent representative to the UN, Karen Pierce, Poland’s permanent representative to the UN, Joanna Wronecka, and Belgium’s permanent representative to the UN, Marc Pecsteen speak to the press at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on November 20, 2019 about the security situation in Israel prior to a Security Council meeting on the “situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.” (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)