N. Janardhan

DUBAI, July 23, 2002 (IPS) - The United Nations has been largely impotent in the enforcement of international humanitarian laws in the Middle East crises, rights activists say, pointing to the escalating problems in the Palestinian territories and Iraq.

The latest incident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took place last night, when Israel launched an air attack in a residential neighborhood in Gaza City that resulted in the deaths of 15 people, including the head of the radical group Hamas, Sheikh Salah Shahada, and at least nine children.

The attack was condemned by the United Nations, the European Union and Arab leaders, and fed new anger among Palestinians. Extremist groups pledged "retaliation."

"An ugly crime, a massacre" was how Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat described the attack, asking the international community "to stop these crimes."

But an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said the attacks, which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a success, targeted "terrorists" hiding among civilians and using them as "human shields."

But even before this latest attack, experts say, the international community represented by the United Nations has not been doing enough to promote dialogue and peace in the troubled region.

"Not only has the United Nations been unable to undertake credible and effective measures for the active protection of the Palestinian population, it has not even undertaken even passive measures such as sending a fact-finding team to the Jenin refugee camp," Hans Koechler, chief of the Vienna-based International Progress Organization, said here.

Nine days of fierce fighting at the Jenin camp in March led to what the Palestinians say was the massacre of nearly 500 Palestinians. So brutal was the Israeli offensive that it provoked widespread criticism from various international figures, including some U.S. officials.

Washington opposed the creation of an international commission to investigate the atrocities, as proposed in Security Council Resolution 1405, and insisted instead on a fact-finding committee as its condition for agreeing to it.

Tel Aviv steadfastly obstructed the implementation of the resolution. Yet the United Nations made no move to condemn Israel for defying international resolutions, let alone invoke Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

This covers the use of force in response to acts of aggression or a threat to peace, but Koechler says the clauses of the charter "seem only applicable when action is to be directed against Iraq or Libya."

"The United Nations has become an organization which can churn out plenty of resolutions but is helpless in implementing any of them," Koechler told a conference on "Human Rights, Victims of War and International Law" here last week.

At the conference organized by the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-up, British-based writer and political activist Tariq Ali said the United Nations is selective and full of double standards.

"The United Nations is a non-entity without the support of the United States, which is completely unchallenged, as can be seen in the backing that Israel gets for its actions against Palestinians," he said.

Criticizing the United Nations for its failure in undertaking an independent investigation of the grave violations of international law by the Israeli occupying forces in Palestine, Koechler says the U.N. secretary-general's attitude has been one of "defeatism" when confronted with Israeli moves such as its rejection of the visit by the fact-finding team for Jenin.

He accused the Israeli forces of breaching all the basic provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, related to the protection of civilians during war.

"Israelis committed all kinds of violations such as indiscriminate killing, burying people alive, executing prisoners, preventing medical aid from reaching the sick, disrespect for and attacks on holy sites, deliberate destruction of property and infrastructure," he said, citing findings by the non-governmental group Human Rights Watch.

He added that these same violations have been confirmed by B'Tselem, an Israeli information center for human rights in the Occupied Territories, and the Palestine Organization for Human Rights.

Ali, a key member of the British Left over the last three decades, editor of the New Left Review and producer for BBC Channel 4, says that intervention by external forces in crisis situations has been carried out in past years under selective norms, shaped by the big powers. He described as "crimes" the strikes against Iraq since 1991 and Afghanistan from late 2001. "U.S. intervention in both countries had nothing to do with humanitarian considerations as claimed. Rather it was a war of revenge against people it considered responsible for attacks on its soil and potential attackers," Ali argued. "There was no democracy in making the decision and in the attack itself." In an interview, Ali said: "The war against Iraq is certainly a crime. Imagine 300,000 children dying because of sanctions. The regime has not been affected, but the people have been."

"Today what we have is not humanitarian intervention, but selective vigilantism, which increases crime. One of the crimes being planned is the proposed war against Iraq. This will be a crime against humanity," he said of reported U.S. plans to topple President Saddam Hussein.

To protect Palestinian rights, Koechler said: "What is needed is an international judicial structure that is independent of the power constellation prevailing in the Security Council." Referring to the International Criminal Court (ICC), he said: "Due to some legal constraints, it cannot be applied as Israel has declined to ratify the Rome statute. Besides, Palestine is not a full member of the United Nations as yet."

However, "as long as the Security Council fails to exercise its duties and responsibilities, the members of the Arab League can exercise the right of collective defence in order to protect the civilian population of Palestine from aggression," he added.

"Such a collective action would be in conformity with the provisions of the U.N. charter," Koechler said.

Another alternative, he suggests, is to convene an emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly on the basis of the "Uniting for Peace Resolution" at the invitation of the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Conference to deal with the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in occupied Palestine.

The founder of the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières, Dr. Rony Brauman, put forward a proposal to create "a more democratic United Nations" by cancelling the right of veto in the Security Council and making changes in the U.N. system to give other countries permanent representation on it.