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.

UN Lists 112 Businesses Linked to Israeli Settlements

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report detailing 112 business entities that have been involved in activities related to settlements in Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights, on Wednesday, February 12. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council voted 32 to 0 (with 15 abstentions) to request that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights produce a database of all business enterprises engaged in specified forms of Israeli settlement activity in the occupied Palestinian territory. The resultant report details business entities the High Commissioner found “reasonable grounds to conclude” have directly or indirectly enabled, facilitated, or profited from the construction and growth of settlements.

The business activities the High Commissioner was mandated to assess include:

  • The supply of construction, surveillance, and demolition equipment
  • The supply of security services or materials
  • The provision of utilities and transportation
  • Banking and financial operations, including loans for housing
  • The use of natural resources
  • Pollution and waste-dumping into Palestinian villages
  • Restrictions on Palestinian movements and financial markets

After reviewing the activities of 321 companies, the High Commissioner identified 112 for which there exist reasonable grounds to conclude have been involved in one or more of the above-enumerated acts. 94 of these companies are domiciled in Israel, five are in the US, while the remaining 13 come from France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Notable companies listed in the report include AirBnB, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Booking Holdings, General Mills, and Motorola Solutions. A company may be removed from subsequent annual reports if it halts its activities contributing to the settlements. The report does not allege that the companies are violating international law, noting that “while the settlements as such are regarded as illegal under international law, this report does not provide a legal characterization of the activities in question.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “conscious this issue has been, and will continue to be, highly contentious.” Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the list was a “shameful surrender to the pressures by countries and organizations interested in hurting Israel,” while Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki called it a “victory for international law and for the diplomatic effort to dry up the sources of the colonial system represented by illegal settlement in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

In 2018, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council, citing “chronic bias against Israel.”

Palestine Delays Vote on Middle East Peace Plan

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Trump Administration’s Middle East peace plan in a speech at the United Nations on Tuesday, February 11. Holding up a map of the plan, Abbas said it would create “Swiss cheese” out of Palestinian land claims.

However, in a symbolic diplomatic victory for the US, Palestine was forced to postpone a Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israel’s plan to annex its settlements in the West Bank. After reported diplomatic wrangling from the US at the Security Council, Palestine was unsure whether they could obtain 9 of the 15 votes needed to force a US veto on the resolution.

A US veto would send the Palestinian resolution to the General Assembly for a vote by all member states. Although such a resolution would be largely symbolic, Palestine may hope to use it as a referendum on international reception to the peace plan. For example, in 2017 the General Assembly approved Resolution ES-10/L.22 condemning the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by a 128-9 vote.

Last Thursday, Tunisia recalled its UN ambassador, Moncef Baati, after he led negotiations to promote the Palestinian resolution denouncing President Trump’s peace plan. After introducing a draft of the resolution to the Security Council, Baati was dismissed by his government for an “absence of coordination and consultation.” The move raised questions, given that the President of Tunisia himself called the Trump Administration’s proposed plan the “injustice of the century” last month.

Secretary-General Addresses African Union Summit

On Monday, February 9, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed challenges facing the African Union (AU) at the organization’s summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At a press conference, Guterres emphasized the need to address terrorism in the Sahel, called on the international community to help respond to an unprecedented locust outbreak in East Africa, and promoted a UN-AU effort called “Silence the Guns” which aims to promote peace across the continent.

Discussing the Sahel, Guterres said that “the whole region has been imperiled by terrorism. Thousands have been killed and countless more continue to suffer. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the increasing number and complexity of terrorist attacks on both civilian and military targets demonstrate the need for a more robust and integrated response.” In 2017, the UN Security Council voted to provide operational and financial support to local anti-terrorism efforts amongst the “Group of Five” Sahel states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, but declined to invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would allow it to deploy UN forces to the region.

Guterres also spoke about the need for an AU presence within the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). He emphasized that it is “absolutely essential” to include the AU in a long-term solution for Libya and called continued violations of the arms embargo, imposed in 2011 by UN Security Council Resolution 1970, “nothing short of a scandal.” Separately this week, UNSMIL is hosting peace talks in Geneva, hoping to bring a temporary ceasefire to the country’s civil war.

Meanwhile, Canadian President Justin Trudeau attended the AU summit to bolster support for a reportedly faltering bid for a rotating seat on the UN Security Council. Canada is competing against Ireland and Norway for one of ten rotating spots on the Council. Africa has 54 of the 193 seats at the UN General Assembly, which will elect rotating seats for the Council in June.

WHO Renames Coronavirus, Fights Misinformation

On Tuesday, February 11, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) officially named the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak “CoViD-19” as it noted that the total number of cases appears to have stabilized. The name follows UN agency best practices not to name a disease after a place, animal, or individual. The naming guidelines are designed to avoid stigma, prevent unnecessary trade restrictions, and give a standard format to label potential future outbreaks of the same virus.

On Wednesday night, Chinese officials added more than 14,480 cases to the total number of infections and recorded 242 new deaths. Difficulties in diagnosing patients have made it difficult for officials to tally the total number of cases, helping to explain the seeming disconnect between the WHO’s statement that case numbers seem to have stabilized and the large number of new cases reported by China shortly thereafter.

As the WHO coordinates efforts to fight CoViD-19, it has also worked to address the spread of misinformation about the virus. Andrew Pattinson, the manager of digital solutions for the WHO, traveled to California this week to meet with major tech companies about stopping the spread of misinformation. The WHO has been working with Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and the Chinese media site WeChat to combat misinformation, creating a “myth-busters” page to dispel prevalent rumors. At a press conference on Monday, Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for “solidarity, not stigma,” and “science, not rumors.”

Public Health Experts Question WHO’s Praise of China

Meanwhile, the WHO has faced criticism for its blanket praise of China’s response to the outbreak, especially as other global experts have questioned whether China’s authoritarian governance contributed to an initial cover-up of the virus that allowed it to spread. Although the WHO has declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), the organization emphasized that the declaration was not an indictment of China and that the government’s efforts to contain the virus is “actually setting a new standard for outbreak response.”

At a press conference last Thursday, February 6, the WHO was asked about Dr. Li Wenliang, a doctor from Wuhan who died from CoViD-19 after he was arrested for trying to warn the public about the outbreak. Dr. Michael Ryan, the Executive Director for the Health Emergencies Program, expressed that he was “very sad to hear of the loss of Dr. Li Wenliang” but did not comment on his detainment or arrest. When another reporter asked whether China had been hiding information at the beginning of the outbreak, the WHO defended the country, noting that “China reported [the] first clusters … in an extremely timely fashion.” At a press conference during the African Union Summit, Secretary-General Guterres called China’s efforts “remarkable.”

This praise is a stark contrast to analyses by the Washington Post and New York Times, which reported that, on January 1, the Wuhan Public Security Bureau detained doctors for discussing an outbreak of a new virus while local officials undercounted the number of cases. This early suppression potentially exacerbated the initial spread of the disease. The WHO’s own International Health Regulations require countries to report outbreaks of new diseases immediately – a requirement seemingly directly contradicted by China’s initial reaction if the Post and Times reports are accurate.

However, the WHO faces a tough balancing act as the global coordinator of international responses to the disease. Public criticism from the WHO might only lead to further cover-ups, while praise can encourage a country to share more information and not shut out global experts. At a press conference last week, the Director-General announced that experts from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) may be joining a WHO mission to China for the first time since the outbreak.

UN Reports Strikes on Hospitals in Yemen

The Office of the Resident Coordinator for Yemen released a statement on Monday, February 10 indicating that two field hospitals were hit during clashes in the country. The two field hospitals, located in the Marib region, served a population of approximately 15,000, including many displaced people. Although the statement did not seek to identify which party to the conflict may be responsible for damaging the hospitals, Lisa Grande, the Resident Coordinator for Yemen, called the strikes a “completely unacceptable breach of international humanitarian law,” noting that the “health sector has been hit very hard” during the war.

Last week, UN officials told Reuters that they might have to cut back on humanitarian food aid starting in March, facing increasing difficulty in assuring that the food actually reaches those in need. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) reports that 20 million people in Yemen require food assistance, but such aid is limited by worsening travel conditions and interference from Houthi rebels.

Report: North Korea Enhanced Nuclear and Missile Programs in Breach of Sanctions

In 2019, North Korea “continued to enhance” its nuclear and missile programs in violation of sanctions and Security Council resolutions, according to a confidential report submitted to the UN Security Council North Korea sanctions committee by independent UN sanctions monitors and seen by CBS, CNN, and Reuters. The report was distributed to members of the Security Council but has not been released publicly.

According to CBS, the report indicates that December tests “point to a new phase in the ballistic missile program” and indicates North Korea may be constructing a submarine capable of carrying ballistic missiles. CBS also claims that the report contains what “may be the most dramatic evidence yet of illegal transactions,” including virtual currencies, shell companies, and joint foreign ventures intended to circumvent sanctions.

Cyber-Norms Working Group Holds Second Substantive Session

The Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on international cybersecurity met this week to discuss further recommendations for developing principles and norms related to information and telecommunications security. The group was founded in June 2019 by General Assembly Resolution 72/266 to provide a forum for all member states to discuss developing cyber norms. In June 2020, the OEWG will provide recommendations to the General Assembly.

Currently, the OEWG is one of two groups addressing cyber norms at the UN. In 2018, the General Assembly also passed Resolution 73/266 which established a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on “responsible State behavior in cyberspace.” The US, Australia, France, Germany, and the UK supported the GGE, which reports to the Secretary-General and only has 25 members, while Russia supported the OEWG, which includes all member parties.

China, Iran, the United Kingdom, the EU, and others submitted working papers to the OEWG on how cyber norms should be implemented. The US and Russia, however, did not yet submit papers to the group’s session.

Image – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas speaks to the UN Security Council at the United Nations headquarters on February 11, 2020 in New York. – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Tuesday told the UN Security Council that the world should reject President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which he said would limit Palestinian sovereignty in a “Swiss cheese” deal. “We reject the Israeli-American plan,” which “throws into question the legitimate rights of the Palestinians,” Abbas said, brandishing a large map of Palestine as conceived by the US proposal. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)