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The Double Standards Debate at the UN

Diplomats at the UN have been accusing one another of “double standards” in responses to crises almost since the institution’s inception. The phrase has been back in vogue in the last five months, as the Security Council and General Assembly argue about Israel’s war in Gaza. As the U.S. has thrice vetoed Council resolutions calling for an immediate ceasefire, its critics have claimed that Washington and many of its European allies care less about the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza than that of Ukrainian civilians in the path of Russia’s all-out invasion. U.S. officials counter that many UN member states have failed to show sympathy for Israel’s losses on 7 October 2023, when Hamas killed more than 1,100 people and took hundreds more hostage. 

The resulting debates in the Council and Assembly have at times descended into little more than mudslinging. Russia, in particular, has irritated U.S. officials by harping on the double standards theme. In late February, after Russian Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia launched another volley of criticism at Washington, U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood (the alternate permanent representative at the UN) paused a Council debate to “remind everyone in this room that the Russian Federation is a country that doesn’t contribute to resolving humanitarian crises”. Nebenzia retorted to Wood’s references to Moscow’s “barbaric bombings in Ukraine” by saying he would not take lectures from “the country that ruined Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Yugoslavia”. Council members listened glumly to the exchange, which seemed to encapsulate the erosion of diplomacy at the UN tied to Ukraine and Gaza.

Yet the broader impact of UN members’ disillusion with perceived U.S. and Western double standards over Gaza is unclear. While the world organisation is supposedly a bastion of high ideals, it is also a venue for low politics. Ambassadors are capable of roundly condemning each other’s moral failures while cutting deals where their interests coincide. Since February 2022, the Russians and Western powers have sparred over Ukraine in more than a hundred Security Council meetings, but they have managed to keep passing resolutions dealing with situations from Haiti to Myanmar. As Crisis Group flagged in 2023, Russia has gradually become more obstructive at the UN as the war in Ukraine has ground on – notably vetoing a mandate for aid to Syria in July – but most UN members concede it is still necessary to work with Moscow on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, many member states are furious about the U.S. attitude toward the Middle East but do not want the matter to derail all other diplomacy. 

Many Western observers concur that Washington has done itself diplomatic self-harm over Gaza.

Although Russia’s invocations of U.S. double standards may be cynical – some Arab diplomats feel Moscow is exploiting the Palestinian cause for its own ends – many Western observers concur that Washington has done itself diplomatic self-harm over Gaza. From 2021 to the autumn of 2023, the Biden administration attempted to reassure other UN members that it both cared for the organisation and understood the values of non-Western states. Addressing Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine in 2022, U.S. officials in New York framed Russia as an “imperial” power as they corralled impressive levels of support for Kyiv in the General Assembly. Now many of the countries that sided with Ukraine and the U.S. two years ago fault the U.S. for abetting what they see as Israeli colonial violence while disregarding the General Assembly’s calls for a ceasefire.

As a result, the crisis in Gaza has had a dampening effect on discussions of Ukraine at the UN. When European foreign ministers descended on the UN in late February to commemorate the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale war, it was notable that Ukraine did not table a General Assembly resolution marking this event, as it had done in 2023. One reason was that Ukrainian officials have grown sceptical of the value of symbolic UN votes. But Western diplomats acknowledge that another reason was tacit recognition that they would struggle to rally as many votes in support of Kyiv in the Assembly as they had in 2022. 

Looking beyond Ukraine, however, the U.S. position over Gaza may have less impact on other files at the UN. Historians of the organisation, and international officials who have seen it go through turbulent times before, do not take debates about double standards too seriously. Today’s disputes echo arguments dating back to the Cold War. In the early decades of the UN, Western observers complained that while members of the Communist bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement were quick to highlight the misdeeds of Washington and its allies at the UN, they were less critical of actions by socialist states. Yet as Thomas M. Franck, a leading scholar of the UN, noted in 1984, the non-Western states acted this way because “the members speak, vote and act in accordance with their perceived political self-interest rather than in accordance with high principles they have themselves enunciated”. As Franck added with a flourish, the UN was not an impartial court but a bazaar “with its emphasis on price and trade”.

The UN bazaar has continued to do a fair amount of business despite events in the Middle East. Even in December, when the Security Council oscillated between severe contestation and grindingly slow efforts at compromise over Gaza, its members were able to bargain on other issues. Shortly before the Christmas break, the U.S. and African members of the Council hashed out a deal setting out a new framework for the UN to fund peace operations launched by the African Union. For the African negotiators, this idea – which had been on the table for some fifteen years and caused blazing rows with the U.S. in the past – was clearly too important to drop, whatever the level of tension over Israel and Hamas. On the flip side, U.S. officials were keen to land the resolution to demonstrate their continuing engagement with non-Western countries, although details in the final text were fuzzy. 

Debates over Gaza have also failed to impede UN talks about non-Ukraine issues outside the Security Council. Diplomats in New York are limbering up for a leader-level Summit of the Future, which Secretary-General António Guterres will convene in September to agree on reforms to multilateral institutions. Potential topics for agreement include alterations to the international financial architecture to help poor states get financing and the creation of frameworks to govern new technologies. In late 2023, Arab diplomats in particular were asking whether it was appropriate to pursue the idea of such a conference while children in Gaza were having their futures destroyed. But since the start of 2024, UN members have got stuck into negotiations on a pact for endorsement in September. These talks will be difficult – as Crisis Group has noted, the procedural and political issues involved are knotty – but many diplomats say they would like to see the Summit succeed to show that the intersecting arguments about Ukraine and Gaza have not stopped the UN from functioning. 

For as long as there is no decisive end to hostilities ... the Security Council and General Assembly will continue to quarrel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But it is far too soon to say the UN is returning to normality. For as long as there is no decisive end to hostilities – or a political horizon for a Palestinian state – the Security Council and General Assembly will continue to quarrel over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Biden administration will also struggle to gain traction if it presents itself as a moral leader on crises beyond Gaza (many diplomats in New York are mulling the prospects of a second Trump presidency, anyway). It is true that the U.S. has provided Israel with a diplomatic shield at the UN during past crises, absorbed reputational damage and moved on. But while diplomats and inveterate UN watchers may treat double standards as a professional hazard, the way the U.S. has handled the war may have more lasting effects on global public opinion toward the Biden administration. The UN’s reputation has suffered, too, as the Security Council’s failure to get around the U.S. veto has emphasised its limitations. At some stages of the war, UN officials worried that aid workers could become targets of violence in Arab countries due to outrage at the Security Council’s inaction.

Conversely, the war has also damaged the UN’s fragile reputation in Washington. The General Assembly’s failure to condemn Hamas in any of its resolutions – coupled with allegations that UN staff have been biased toward, or actively complicit with, the Islamist movement – has tested the patience of even broadly pro-multilateral U.S. officials. Secretary-General Guterres further annoyed the Biden administration by using his powers under Article 99 of the UN Charter to raise the alarm about Gaza with the Security Council in December. U.S. and non-U.S. officials alike have wondered why Guterres did not use the same authority to train the Security Council’s attention on the war in Ethiopia in 2021 or Russia’s preparations to assault Ukraine in early 2022. The simple answer may be that UN officials in the Middle East were pleading with Guterres to use every tool at his disposal to focus attention on the need for a ceasefire. But once any one side in this debate faces charges of double standards, it does not take the accused party long to single out similarly selective practice by others.

It is an open question whether policymakers – or outside advocates – can draw any constructive lessons from debates over U.S. and other double standards over Gaza, Ukraine and other crises. Today’s concatenation of deadly crises will, one might hope, inspire some UN members to invest more energy in conflict prevention and civilian protection, much as the Rwandan genocide did in the 1990s. But the geopolitical environment has shifted, and it is hard to see the U.S., China and Russia putting aside their strategic differences to pursue meaningful reforms.

While the need for greater investment in conflict prevention is urgent, a certain realism about how moral and political arguments play out at the UN is also necessary. States will continue to follow the logic of the bazaar. As an early British expert on the UN, Geoffrey Goodwin, cautioned in 1958, “this ‘double standard’ existed before the United Nations was even thought of”. He might well have added that double standards will doubtless persist in international affairs well after the UN is forgotten.