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Princeton University Professor Richard Falk discusses how the powers of the UN are limited since the United States sets the agenda

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to our second part of our conversation about Gaza and Israel.

And we’re now joined by Richard Falk. Richard Falk joins us by telephone from Turkey. Richard is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed Richard to a six-year-term as a UN special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

Thanks for joining us again, Richard.

RICHARD FALK, PROF. EMERITUS INT’L LAW, PRINCETON UNIV.: Glad to be with you again, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So, Richard, let’s turn to the issue of the role of the United Nations in all of this. You recently signed an open letter that criticized the UN, specifically Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for his various statements and actions regarding Israel’s assault. What did he say that made you think that it warranted criticism?

FALK: Well, I think the secretary-general should be associated with the implementation of the UN Charter, international law, and the maintenance of peace and security, rather than siding with Israel, that in my view was violating the UN Charter’s most fundamental imperative, which is expressed as saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war. This was not a case of legitimate self-defense. Israel provoked the rocket attacks, which caused minimal damage, and launched this massive attack, then shifted the rationale from rockets to the tunnels. And it was clear that the destruction of residential areas was not connected with dealing with the tunnels, which had not been responsible for a single Israeli casualty, and which Egypt had closed without ever crossing the border to Gaza. And there were as many as 700 tunnels in the southern part of Gaza facing the Egyptian border. So there was no military necessity, even if one accepts the rationale for the war. So the UN secretary-general really showed his alignment with the forces of geopolitics, rather than, as he should, align himself with international law and international morality.

DESVARIEUX: But, Richard, Ban Ki-moon has also made statements–I want to point to this one in particular, where he said, quote,

“The people of Gaza have nowhere to run. They are trapped and besieged on a speck of land. Every area is a civilian area.

“Every home, every school, every refuge has become a target.

“The casualty and damage figures also raise serious questions about proportionality.”

Doesn’t this actually change the narrative and challenge the Israeli narrative about this assault and that Israel does not deliberately target civilians or civilian infrastructures? Isn’t that some ways stepping out of that framework?

FALK: You’re quite right, Jessica, to raise that issue. He changed the tone after the Israeli military operation assumed such a massive character. There is a distinction made in law and in the whole idea of just war between recourse to war and the conduct of war. And what he endorsed was the recourse to war, and what he backed away from, particularly after UN facilities were being targeted, even though they were offering some kind of shelter to Palestinians that had no place to go, as he points out in the statement you read–and in that sense he did assume a more appropriate role. But I think it was important to suggest that the UN secretary-general should stand for the implementation of the UN Charter, especially with respect to recourse with war.

It also has emerged from WikiLeaks that he, while secretary-general, tried to interfere with the implementation of the Goldstone Report that had detailed Israel’s crimes during the prior 2008-2009 operation, Cast Lead. And that again suggested a partisanship at the level of the UN secretary-general that’s not exactly surprising, but it is something that people who care about law and morality should be vigilant in opposing, in my view.

DESVARIEUX: Richard, what are the limits of the United Nations in regards to resolving parties like Hamas and Israel, being able to hold them accountable for crimes against humanity that the UN has previously accused them of?

FALK: I think the important thing, Jessica, in understanding what the UN can and can’t do is to recognize that it is above all a political institution that is subject to the constraints imposed by geopolitics. So if the political forces want the UN to be effective, as they did, for instance, in relation to Libya in 2011, then the UN can be very effective, maybe too effective, in carrying out some kind of global policy. But if the geopolitics are divided or if they are aligned with, as in this case, Israel, then the UN can only act symbolically. It can organize, as it did with the Goldstone Report, an investigation and a fact-finding report. And it’s undertaken that now in relation to Protective Edge. It’s appointed a commission, and that commission will report on allegations of war crimes. But it won’t be able to implement that report, whatever it should end up recommending, because that’s where the geopolitical veto blocks UN action. So the UN is no better and no worse than what its most powerful members want it to do or not do.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s name those powerful members, just so our viewers get a sense of who exactly we’re talking about here.

FALK: Well, in a constitutional sense, we’re talking about the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which are U.S., China, United Kingdom, France, and–.

DESVARIEUX: Russia. Did you say Russia?

FALK: Yes, and Russia, of course. I should not forget that.

The U.S.’s role is defined by two kinds of overlapping power. The one is the constitutional power of the veto, which it enjoys together with the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, and it enables it and the others to block any decision of the Security Council that is adverse to their fundamental interests. In addition, the U.S. has what I’m calling a geopolitical veto, which derives from its actual power within the organization. That can be used to either block initiatives, as it has done when there’s been a move to censure Israel for some of its policies, or it can empower the institution, as it did in relation to the Libyan intervention of 2011. So there are those two features that underscore this central point that I’ve been trying to make, which is the UN is no better and no worse than what its most powerful members want it to be.

DESVARIEUX: Richard, you earlier mentioned United [Nations] Human Rights Council, how they are creating a commission and an independent inquiry, really, into the war crimes committed during Operation Protective Edge. So for you, what do you think they will find, and what impact will it have then?

FALK: Well, I think it’s a commission of qualified objective observers who have expert credentials. What it will find is not likely to be anything surprising for those that have followed the events of the last few weeks carefully, because they’ve been rather fully described in the media. They will interpret those events from the perspective of international humanitarian law and the law of war. And they will come to the expected results, that Israel used disproportionate force, that it attacked civilian structures that were well marked, that it didn’t give adequate warning, it didn’t allow civilians to find places of sanctuary, and that it engaged in a series of practices that are inconsistent with its obligation to protect the civilian society of Gaza. And it may additionally find that the overall character of the attack constituted a flagrant violation of the prohibition on collective punishment, which has campaigned in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

DESVARIEUX: And the impact–can you elaborate on that?

FALK: The impact. Well, the impact will be subject, I believe, to this secondary process that–UN has the capacity, through a kind of majoritarian consensus, to initiate an investigation of this sort, even though it was deeply [opposed] by Israel and the United States. But it can’t implement the report that is likely to emerge, which will be critical of the policies pursued by Israel. And presumably the opposition to forming this commission was based on the anticipation of a negative set of findings. Israel and the U.S. claim it’s because the Human Rights Council is biased. I would say it’s because the character of the events are such that it’s almost inescapable for anyone with a 10 percent open mind to avoid coming to the conclusion that Israel committed war crimes in the course of carrying out this military operation.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Richard Falk, joining us via phone from Turkey, thank you so much for being with us.

FALK: Good to be with you, Jessica. Take care.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Richard Falk is an American professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. He is the author or co-author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 volumes. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. In 2001, he served on a three person Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestine Territories that was appointed by the United Nations, and previously, on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including Religion and Humane Global Governance; Human Rights Horizons; On Humane Governance: Toward a New Global Politics; Explorations at the Edge of Time; Revolutionaries and Functionaries; The Promise of World Order; Indefensible Weapons; Human Rights and State Sovereignty; A Study of Future Worlds; This Endangered Planet; coeditor of Crimes of War. He serves as Chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation's Board of Directors.