UN Tells Israel: Cease Fire; NYT Says: If You Want

The editorial boards of the nation’s major media organizations must have been frantic last week.

Used to reporting on US foreign policy, wars and arms exports so as to portray the United States as a benevolent, law-abiding and democracy-defending nation, they were confronted on March 25 with a real challenge dealing with Israel and Gaza. No sooner did the Biden administration, for the first time, abstain and thus allow passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution that was not just critical of Israel, but demanded a ceasefire in Gaza, than US officials began declaring that the resolution that they allowed to pass was really meaningless.

It was “nonbinding,” they said.

 U.N. Security Council Calls for Immediate Cease-Fire in Gaza as U.S. Abstains

The New York Times (3/25/24) reported that US’s UN Ambassdor “Thomas-Greenfield called the resolution ‘nonbinding’”—and let no one contradict her.

That was enough for the New York Times (3/25/24), which produced the most one-sided report on the decision. That article focused initially on how Resolution 2728 (which followed three resolutions that the US had vetoed, and a fourth that was so watered down that China and Russia vetoed it instead) had led to a diplomatic dust-up with the Israeli government: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned visit to Washington by a high-level Israeli delegation to discuss Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah and the future of Gaza and the West Bank.

The Times quoted Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the International Crisis Group: “The abstention is a not-too-coded hint to Netanyahu to rein in operations, above all over Rafah.”

Noting that “Security Council resolutions are considered to be international law,” Times reporters Farnaz Fassihi, Aaron Boxerman and Thomas Fuller wrote, “While the Council has no means of enforcing the resolution, it could impose punitive measures, such as sanctions, on Israel, so long as member states agreed.”

This was nevertheless followed by a quote from Washington’s UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who abstained from the otherwise unanimous 14–0 vote of the rest of the Security Council, characterizing the resolution as “nonbinding.”

The Times offered no comment from any international law scholars, foreign or US, to rebut or even discuss that claim. Such an expert might have pointed to the unequivocal language of Article 25 of the UN Charter: “The members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.”

If the US offered its claim that this language only applies to resolutions explicitly referencing the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, dealing with “threats to the peace,” an international law expert (EJIL: Talk!, 1/9/17) might note that the International Court of Justice stated in 1971, “It is not possible to find in the Charter any support for this view.”

‘Creates obligations’

 What the U.N. cease-fire resolution means for Gaza and how countries voted

The Washington Post (3/26/24) quoted an international law expert to note that the resolution “creates obligations for Israel and Hamas.”

The Washington Post (3/26/24), though like the Times a firm defender of Washington’s foreign policy consensus, did marginally better. While the Times didn’t mention Britain or France, both major US NATO allies, in its piece on the Security Council vote, the Post noted that the four other veto powers—Britain and France, as well as China and Russia—had all voted in favor of the resolution, along with all 10 elected temporary members of the Council.

The Post also cited one international law legal expert, Donald Rothwell, of the Australian National University, who said the “even-handed” resolution “creates obligations for Israel and Hamas.”

While that quote sounds like the resolution is binding, the Post went on to cite Gowan as saying, “I think it’s pretty clear that if Israel does not comply with the resolution, the Biden administration is not going to allow the Security Council members to impose sanctions or other penalties on Israel.”

The Post (3/25/24) actually ran a stronger, more straightforward piece a day earlier, when it covered the initial vote using an AP story. AP did a fairer job discussing the fraught issue of whether or not the resolution was binding on the warring parties, Israel and Hamas (as well as the nations arming them).

That earlier AP piece, by journalist Edith M. Lederer, quoted US National Security spokesperson John Kirby as explaining that they decided not to veto the resolution because it “does fairly reflect our view that a ceasefire and the release of hostages come together.”

Because of the cutbacks to in-house reporting on national and international news  in most of the nation’s major news organizations, most Americans who get their news from television and their local papers end up getting dispatches—often edited for space—from the New York Times, Washington Post or AP wire stories. (The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran the same AP report as the Post.)

‘A demand is a decision’

 The US allowed a Gaza ceasefire resolution to pass at the UN. What does that mean for the war?

CNN (3/27/24) quoted US officials claiming the resolution was nonbinding—and noted that “international legal scholars” disagree.

In TV news, CNN (3/27/24) had some of the strongest reporting on the debate over whether the resolution was binding. The news channel said straight out, “While the UN says the latest resolution is nonbinding, experts differ on whether that is the case.”

It went on to say:

After the resolution passed, US officials went to great lengths to say that the resolution isn’t binding. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller repeatedly said during a news conference that the resolution is nonbinding, before conceding that the technical details of are for international lawyers to determine. Similarly, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby and US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield separately insisted that the resolution is nonbinding.

Those US positions were challenged by China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun, who “countered that such resolutions are indeed binding,” and by UN spokesperson Farhan Haq, who said Security Council resolutions are international law, and “so to that extent they are as binding as international law is.”

CNN quoted Maya Ungar, another International Crisis Group analyst:

The US—ascribing to a legal tradition that takes a narrower interpretation—argues that without the use of the word “decides” or evocation of Chapter VII within the text, the resolution is nonbinding…. Other member states and international legal scholars are arguing that there is legal precedence to the idea that a demand is implicitly a decision of the Council.

‘A rhetorical feint’

 Biden administration’s Gaza strategy panned as ‘mess’ amid clashing goals

According to the Guardian (3/26/24), the US’s “nonbinding” interpretation “put the US at odds with other member states, international legal scholars and the UN itself.”

To get a sense of how one-sided or at best cautious the US domestic coverage of this critically urgent story is, consider how it was covered in Britain or Spain, two US allies in NATO.

The British Guardian (3/26/24), which also publishes a US edition, ran with the headline: “Biden Administration’s Gaza Strategy Panned as ‘Mess’ Amid Clashing Goals.” The story began:

The Biden administration’s policy on Gaza has been widely criticized as being in disarray as the defense secretary described the situation as a “humanitarian catastrophe” the day after the State Department declared Israel to be in compliance with international humanitarian law.

Washington was also on the defensive on Tuesday over its claim that a UN security Council ceasefire resolution on which it abstained was nonbinding, an interpretation that put the US at odds with other member states, international legal scholars and the UN itself.

But the real contrast is with the Spanish newspaper El País (3/29/24), which bluntly headlined its story “US Sparks Controversy at the UN With Claim That Gaza Ceasefire Resolution Is ‘Nonbinding.’” Not mincing words, the reporters wrote:

By abstaining in the vote on the UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the United States on Monday sparked not only the anger of Israel, which had asked it to veto the text, but also a sweeping legal and diplomatic controversy due to its claims that the resolution—the first to be passed since the start of the Gaza war—was “nonbinding.” For Washington, it was a rhetorical feint aimed at making the public blow to its great ally in the Middle East less obvious.

 US sparks controversy at the UN with claim that Gaza ceasefire resolution is ‘non-binding’

El País (3/29/24) quoted the relevant language from the UN Charter: “The members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.”

After quoting Thompson-Greenfield saying it was a “nonbinding resolution,” and Kirby saying dismissively, “There is no impact at all on Israel,” they wrote,

These claims hit the UN Security Council—the highest executive body of the UN in charge of ensuring world peace and security—like a torpedo. Were the Council’s resolutions binding or not? Our was it that some resolutions were binding and others were not?

The reporters answered their own rhetorical question:

Diplomatic representatives and legal experts came out in force to refute Washington’s claim. UN Secretary-General António Guterres made his opinion clear: the resolutions are binding. Indeed, this is stated in Article 25 of the UN Charter: “The members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.” Several representatives of the Security Council, led by Mozambique and Sierra Leone, pointed to case law to support this argument. The two African diplomats, both with legal training, said that the Gaza ceasefire resolution is binding, regardless of whether one of the five permanent members of the Council abstains from the vote, as was the case of the US. The diplomats highlighted that in 1971, the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) established that all resolutions of the UN Security Council are legally binding. The Algerian ambassador to the UN summed it up even more categorically: “Security Council resolutions are binding. Not almost, not partly, not maybe.”

Unlike most most US news organizations, El País went to an expert, in this instance seeking out Adil Haque, a professor of international law at Rutgers University, where he is a professor, and also executive editor of the law journal Just Security. Haque, they wrote, “has no doubts that the resolution is binding.” He explains in the article:

According to the UN Charter, all decisions of the Security Council are binding on all member states. The International Court of Justice has ruled that a resolution need not mention Chapter VII of the Charter [action in case of threats to the peace, breaches of the peace or acts of aggression], refer to international peace and security, or use the word “decides” to make it binding. Any resolution that uses “mandatory language” creates obligations, and that includes the term “demands” used in the resolution on Gaza.” He adds, “For now, it does not seem that the US has a coherent legal argument.”

It should be noted that the New York Times, when there is a dispute regarding a document, typically runs a copy of the document in question—or, if it is too long, the relevant portion of it. In the case of Resolution 2728, which even counting its headline only runs 263 words, that would have not been a hard call. Despite the disagreement between the US and most of the Council over the wording of the ceasefire resolution, the Times chose not to run or even excerpt it.