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UN chief invokes rarely used constitutional power to push for Israel-Hamas cease-fire

Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres delivers an address at the opening ceremony of the World Climate Action Summit during COP28 on December 01, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Chris Jackson | Chris Jackson Collection | Getty Images

U.N. chief António Guterres invoked a rarely exercised clause in the U.N. Charter to push for an Israel-Hamas cease-fire, warning the organization’s security council that urgent action is necessary to help Gaza avert a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

In a dramatic move, Guterres on Wednesday wrote to members of the Security Council and urged them to collectively call for a full humanitarian cease-fire.

He said that two months of war had “created appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

“The international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis. I urge the members of the Security Council to press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe,” Guterres said.

“This is urgent. The civilian population must be spared from greater harm. With a humanitarian ceasefire, the means of survival can be restored, and humanitarian assistance can be delivered in a safe and timely manner across the Gaza Strip.”

A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 6, 2023, shows smoke billowing during Israeli bombardment in Gaza amid continuing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
Jack Guez | Afp | Getty Images

It is the first time that Guterres has invoked Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, which states that the U.N. chief “may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

The move renewed personal tensions between Guterres and Israeli officials. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Wednesday said the U.N. chief’s tenure was “a danger to world peace” and suggested his push to activate Article 99 constituted support of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

A U.N. spokesperson was not immediately available to comment when contacted by CNBC on Thursday. It has previously dismissed claims that it is biased over the Israel-Hamas war.

Late last month, Israel’s representative to the U.N. called for Guterres to resign, saying he had “lost all morality and impartiality.”

The call came after the U.N. chief said it was important to recognize the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas “did not happen in a vacuum,” citing “56 years of suffocating occupation” suffered by the Palestinian people.

Israel-Hamas war

U.N. Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric described Article 99 as “the most powerful tool” at the U.N. chief’s disposal, saying that Guterres had invoked the article “given the scale of the loss of human life in Gaza and Israel, in such a short amount of time.”

Dujarric added that Guterres hoped the move would ratchet up the pressure on both the council’s 15 members and the international community at large to demand a cease-fire.

The Security Council, which consists of five permanent members with veto power and 10 non-permanent members, has not yet adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. all hold veto power on the council, which is regarded as the U.N.’s most powerful body.

The U.S. used that veto power on an Oct. 18 resolution that called for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting to deliver aid to Gaza.

In mid-November, the council passed a resolution to call for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses.”

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