On Dec. 6, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sent an urgent letter to the Security Council on the desperate humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, using the seldom invoked authority in Article 99 of the UN Charter. In his letter, the Secretary-General reiterates his previous appeals for a humanitarian ceasefire and warns that public order in Gaza will “completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions.”

A rarely used diplomatic tool, Article 99 allows the head of the UN to raise to the Security Council’s attention “any issue that may aggravate existing threats to the maintenance of international peace and security.” This is the first time Guterres has invoked Article 99 since taking office in 2017.  Past secretaries-general have explicitly invoked Article 99 only six times since the organization’s creation in 1945, although they have used their implicit responsibility to spotlight crises more frequently. The last Secretary-General to formally invoke Article 99 was Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, in reference to the situation in Lebanon back in 1989.

While Guterres’ letter carries symbolic weight, it is unlikely to have any practical impact on the Security Council’s work. Invoking Article 99 can be understood as a desperate diplomatic appeal for international action. In practice, the secretary general’s letter will merely trigger a new Security Council meeting on Gaza, probably before the end of the week. But adding another meeting onto the Security Council’s program of work will not change the political dynamics that have stymied the global body from taking meaningful action to stop the fighting to date.

Some members of the Security Council will likely use the Article 99 letter as an opening to restart negotiations on a new Resolution. The United Arab Emirates, on behalf of the Arab Group, already is pushing for a new Council resolution demanding a humanitarian ceasefire. Should one of the Permanent Members veto this resolution, as is likely, the debate will shift back to the UN General Assembly (GA) as it did after successive vetoes by the United States and by Russia and China on separate Gaza-related Security Council resolutions at the end of October. For its part, another debate in the GA may create additional political pressure, but is unlikely to mobilize any concrete action.

Some UN officials and member states may raise questions as to why the Secretary-General has not made use of Article 99 in other crisis situations during his tenure. Guterres has often been a cautious diplomat. He has faced criticism for not pushing the Council to do more about some previous crises, such as the war in Ethiopia, which he could have highlighted under Article 99. Now that he has reached for this little-used tool once, he will likely face calls to wield it again in on-going or future conflicts.

The Secretary-General’s full letter is below and is available as a PDF:

IMAGE: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press conference with Egypt’s Foreign Minister (not pictured) following their meeting in Cairo on October 19, 2023 as Palestinians in war-torn Gaza await aid trucks promised in a deal struck by the US President with Egypt and Israel. (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)