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In Hindsight: Competing Texts on Israel/Palestine

In recent months, the usual divisions in the Security Council on Israel/Palestine have been exacerbated, largely resulting from different interpretations of the violence that has occurred along the Gaza fence, where Palestinians began protesting against Israel on 30 March. Regarding these events, Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov has said in his recent briefings to the Council that Israel must exercise restraint and use lethal force only as a last resort “under imminent threat of death or serious injury”, while Hamas must refrain from committing acts of violence and creating provocations (S/PV.8265 and S/PV.8256).

These tensions within the Council came to a head on 1 June, when competing draft resolutions, offering starkly contrasting views of the situation in Gaza and how to protect Palestinian civilians, failed to be adopted. The first, a Kuwaiti draft, was vetoed by the US; the second, a US draft, received only one positive vote—from the US itself.

Kuwait circulated a draft resolution on 17 May focused on the protection of Palestinian civilians. The draft was initiated shortly after more than 60 Palestinians lost their lives along the Gaza fence on 14 May, the same day the US held a public event to open its new embassy in Jerusalem. During the ensuing two weeks, Kuwait attempted to balance the language in its draft in order to garner as much support as possible while also striving to maintain the substance of the original draft. Some Council members felt that the initial draft needed to be more even-handed in its assessment of Israel’s responsibility for the violence in Gaza. As a result, many of the proposed amendments were designed to balance the text and soften criticism of Israel. A paragraph “condemning the use of force by the Israeli occupying forces” was replaced by one “condemning all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement and destruction”. In another instance, language was added calling for “all actors to ensure that protests remain peaceful”. This complemented other language in the text reaffirming the right of peaceful assembly and protest.

On the morning of Thursday, 31 May, Kuwait put its draft in blue. The draft had three main elements. First, it called for the “protection of the Palestinian civilian population in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in the Gaza Strip”. In this regard, it asked for the Secretary-General to make recommendations regarding “an international protection mechanism” in the context of a report to be submitted to the Council within 60 days. This was a significant departure from the initial version, which had called for the “dispatch of an international protection mission”, a non-starter for several members who were concerned about the potential use of force by such a mission, which would almost certainly not have the consent of Israel. Second, it called for “immediate steps towards ending the closure and the restrictions imposed by Israel on movement and access into and out of the Gaza Strip”. Third, the draft welcomed and urged further engagement by the Secretary-General and the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process to assist in immediate efforts to de-escalate the situation and address urgent infrastructure, humanitarian and economic development needs. 

The vote, scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m., was delayed until the following day after the US proposed late amendments to the Kuwaiti draft, already in blue. Kuwaiti Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi told the press that afternoon that Kuwait was “open and transparent” and would consider the late US amendments, which he had yet to see. The US proposed 31 amendments, although it characterised them as a single amendment. While the Kuwaiti draft did not mention Hamas by name, the US amendment(s) sought to focus responsibility for the violence in Gaza “on terrorist organizations such as Hamas”. The US asked for its amendment(s), which were clearly unacceptable to Kuwait, to be put into blue as an “amended text” to be voted on prior to the Kuwaiti draft. 

Voting on amendments to a text is governed by Rule 33 of the provisional rules of procedure, which says that amendments “shall have precedence in the order named over all principal motions and draft resolutions”. Thus, according to this rule, the US amendment(s) would need to be voted on before the Kuwaiti draft. Votes on amendments are considered non-procedural matters, meaning that they require nine or more votes, without a veto, to be approved. What was unusual in this case was the large number of amendments proposed and the fact that the US was depicting them as one amendment, rather than as several amendments or a separate draft resolution. 

Late in the morning on Friday, 1 June, the elected members met to receive an update from Kuwait on its interactions with the US the evening before and for a discussion of the US amendment(s). The conversation focused on possible scenarios for how members might consider the US proposal that afternoon: as one amendment, several amendments, or as a separate draft resolution. A number of elected members requested that Kuwait meet with the Council president, Russia, and the US prior to the Council meeting in the afternoon, given questions on how to proceed with the voting on the US and Kuwaiti texts. This meeting did not occur, apparently because of a US scheduling conflict. When Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia presented the June programme of work to the media that afternoon, as Russia had just assumed the Council’s monthly presidency, he said that as Council president he would “uphold the rules and procedures of the Security Council.”

Members gathered in the chamber for the vote at 3 p.m., but given some confusion on how to proceed, they eventually decided to hold consultations. In the consultations room, the US said that it wanted its amendments to be voted on as one single amendment, rather than individually as separate amendments. Russia and the UK noted that this could set an unfortunate precedent. In particular, putting forward multiple amendments as a single amendment and presenting as an amendment what was essentially a draft resolution could prove problematic in future. (The last time a similar approach was pursued was on 25 August 1947, when the Soviet Union offered seven amendments in the form of a single amendment on a draft resolution on the “Indonesia question”, a motion which was voted on but failed to be adopted [S/PV.194]). Nebenzia reportedly suggested to US Ambassador Nikki Haley that the US would not appreciate if Russia were to employ a similar manoeuvre on a US draft resolution on a politically sensitive matter in the future. The US agreed to its amendments being converted into a draft resolution. In accordance with rule 32 of the rules of procedure, it would be voted on after the Kuwaiti draft, since “draft resolutions shall have precedence in the order of their submission”.

In retrospect, some Council members have questioned why the US did not request a vote on its 31 amendments individually. As would soon become clear, the US document as a whole was not acceptable to the other 14 Council members. Nevertheless, it is possible that some of the individual amendments would have passed, which would have meant their incorporation into the Kuwaiti draft prior to it being voted on.

Instead, the Kuwaiti draft remained intact and was voted on as presented (S/2018/516). The US vetoed the text, which received ten affirmative votes and four abstentions (Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK).

The US cast the sole affirmative vote on its own draft resolution (S/2018/520); three members (Bolivia, Kuwait and Russia) voted against the draft while the remaining members abstained. This marked the first time since February 1961 that only one vote was cast in support of a draft resolution, which previously occurred on a Soviet draft on the Congo (S/4706).

 

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