UN chief invokes ‘rarely used’ rule to avert ‘catastrophe’ in Gaza. What does it do?

The head of the United Nations has invoked a “rarely used” rule in an attempt to avert a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza.

In a Dec. 6 letter, Secretary-General António Guterres invoked Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, which allows him to refer urgent matters to the Security Council, made up of member states.

It is the first time Guterres, a Portuguese diplomat, has used the article since he took office in 2017.

“Since the start of Israel’s military operation, more than 15,000 people have reportedly been killed, over 40 percent of whom were children,” Guterres wrote in the letter addressed to the Security Council.

“Facing a severe risk of collapse of the humanitarian system in Gaza, I urge the Council to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe (and) appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared,” Guterres added.

What is Article 99?

Article 99 of the U.N. Charter states that “the Secretary-General may bring to attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion, may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The Preparatory Commission of the U.N described the article as giving the secretary-general “a quite special right which goes beyond any power previously accorded to the head of an international organization,” according to a 2009 article in the journal Justice in International Law.

Dag Hammarskjöld — who served as U.N. chief from 1953 to 1961 — said that it “is Article 99 more than any other which was considered by the drafters of the Charter to have transformed the Secretary-General from a purely administrative official to one with an explicit political responsibility,” according to the Security Council Report, an organization that provides annual reports on the council.

Functionally, the article allows the secretary-general to start a discussion within the Security Council, according to the organization.

However, the article does not grant any power to the secretary-general outside of referring matters to the Security Council.

The Security Council, tasked with maintaining international security and peace, is made up of 15 member states, including five permanent members: the U.S., the U.K., France, China and Russia.

Each of the permanent member states hold the power to veto any resolution put before the council.

The United States vetoed a resolution requesting “humanitarian pauses” in Gaza — which have again been requested by Guterres in his letter — on Oct. 18.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in explaining the veto, said the resolution should have mentioned “Israel’s right of self-defense.”

Despite having no power to direct the Security Council’s actions, Guterres’ use of Article 99 should not be minimized, Rebecca Hamilton, a professor of law at American University, told McClatchy News.

“It is true that the article only enables the Secretary General to bring a matter to the UN Security Council’s attention — it cannot force them to act,” Hamilton said. “But the reality is that this provision has been so rarely used that its invocation is the diplomatic equivalent of a seismic shock to the UN system.”

The last time the article was explicitly invoked was in 1989 in relation to a military conflict in Lebanon.

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