A United Nations Security Council veto Dec. 8 by the U.S. government about the Hamas-Israel ceasefire illustrates the horrific failure of the UN to prevent war — which is the primary responsibility of the organization according to its charter, says a U-M researcher, Israeli peace activist, and survivor of an earlier attack by Hamas.
“The United Nations failed in the past two months, and it failed today on its self-declared mission to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ The Israel-Hamas war, in which over 17,000 people have died, should be understood as a symptom of a dysfunctional United Nations system and its Security Council,” says Shimri Zameret, who teaches and leads a research project on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, global governance, and civil resistance at the International Institute’s Donia Human Rights Center.
“The bad news is that the United Nations system was created in 1945, and we live in a different century. It’s failing to deal with the most pressing 21st-century global problems: climate change, mass atrocities, global pandemics and financial crises. The good news is that we can fix it.”
Born in a kibbutz in Israel, Zameret has family members and friends under daily missile attacks, forcing them to run to shelters a few times a day. He has colleagues who were killed or kidnapped and became hostages during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
“It is a devastating time,” he says. “For years, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists were saying the situation in Gaza is unsustainable, and in the most horrible of ways, this has now finally become common sense around the world. This makes this horrific crisis also an opportunity for change, both locally and internationally. I hope people will start seeing democratization of the United Nations system as an answer to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other conflicts.”
Zameret is an expert on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and how it is affected by global governance and international institutions like the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations Secretariat and Secretary General, and the International Criminal Court. For the past 10 years, he has studied the structure of global governance and social change strategies used by civil society to change this global structure.
He shares insights on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its challenges, and the ongoing debate surrounding whether or not peace is possible in the Middle East.
What does your research suggest as a possible solution for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
In two words, the only long-term answer is international democracy – democratizing and reforming the United Nations system. The conflict needs to be understood as a symptom of the broken United Nations system. We need to create democratic mechanisms and the rule of law internationally. We need to create democratic control, democratic accountability, and democratic law enforcement in international organizations like the United Nations system.
Decades ago, in a little-known text, Martin Luther King argued for an international police force, a pooling of sovereignty of nation-states, and creation of a democratic supernational authority. Following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, suffragist Rosika Schwimmer, Albert Einstein, and other members of the “One World Movement,” King advocated for international democracy. Gandhi said about the same One World vision: “I believe in One World … I would not like to live in this world if it was not to be One World.” Unfortunately that movement and its critique of the United Nations is today largely forgotten.
Following their arguments, we need a stronger United Nations system. We need a strong international peacekeeping force, a strong and democratic international court system, a permanent sortition-based global citizens’ assembly, and a United Nations parliamentary assembly. We need to create democratic mechanisms that allow ordinary civilians worldwide to control these international institutions.
How would international democracy work considering the current political atmosphere we have today?
Democracy is complicated, but there are three things we need to have in a minimum democratic system. First, eliminate what I call the funding dictatorship. The rich countries control the United Nations system — the Security Council and peacekeeping operations, the IMF, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization — because the funding model is conditional and voluntary, meaning rich countries (and sometimes corporations or rich individuals) give money to these international organizations as an effective way to control policy. So, to be independent, the institutions — part of an international democratic system — need to have independent public funding.
Second, dictatorship of veto. In the postwar era, the UN Security Council was tasked with maintaining international peace. It, and it alone, can authorize the legal use of force and financial sanctions against threats to international peace. But in the council, five superpower countries, the U.S., China, the U.K., France, and Russia, can veto or block any decision. Other international institutions have similar mechanisms of formal or informal veto powers. We need to take this veto power away from the superpowers and move to majority rule.
The last thing is the dictatorship of the executive. The lack of parliamentarians means minorities are not represented in international institutions. Only governments have power in the UN system. The democratic idea of the “separation of powers,” such as judicial, executive, and parliamentary, is about breaking political power to protect citizens and create checks and balances. In the postwar UN system, governments, the executive power, are unchecked; nothing can hold them accountable or balance them. We must recreate a more robust and democratic mechanism for the United Nations.
Your research also mentions the strength of civil resistance when fighting global conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yes. In the past century, movements like the U.S. civil rights movement, the Indian anti-colonial movement, the Eastern European color revolutions have transitioned nationally from undemocratic to democratic systems using what Gandhi called “civil resistance.” These movements were getting masses out to the streets using direct actions, like strikes, sit-ins blocking elected officials’ offices, economic boycotts, and draft refusals. The same holds true for international democracy — to get those in power to give power to ordinary citizens requires the exercise of nonviolent force. We saw a textbook example in Seattle in 1999 when protestors and global south governments shut down the World Trade Organization, which led to a meaningful change in the world trade system.
We have conflicts like the Israeli-Palestinian because we have a kind of a global dictatorship. The solution is to have an international democracy and democratize the UN system. The way to get from where we are to the key is using civil resistance as a strategy.
You have studied global conflicts for several years, but the Israeli-Palestinian one is also very personal. How are you holding up?
Personally, I am fine, but Israeli society is going through a kind of a 9/11 shock. The government has reoccupied parts of the Gaza Strip for the foreseeable future, and this might be as much of a failure as the occupation of Afghanistan was.
I was part of a youth war resistance movement when I was 16 and living in Israel. We were between 16 and 18 and wrote a letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refusing the draft. We didn’t want to become soldiers because we believed what the government was doing in the occupied territories was immoral and illegal. They sent us to prison, and I spent 21 months behind bars.
At the age of 21, I started to work for an Israeli-Arab Parliament Member and was stabbed by a knife and almost killed by a fundamentalist, likely either a Hamas militant or a Jewish militant — the attacker was never caught, so we don’t know for sure. It was clear I was targeted by someone who didn’t like a Jew working for an Arab Member of Parliament on promoting human rights. So, I know firsthand the price of war and violence, and what is at stake.
In the short term, I support an immediate ceasefire. The dominant perception of justice in both the Israeli and Palestinian societies is that of revenge — an eye for an eye. To change this concept of justice, we must suggest an alternative mechanism for those who feel an injustice was done to them. An alternative to violence and revenge — and the principle of rule of law can do that: Justice can come through international courts, democratic institutions, and the enforcement of human rights. The International Criminal Court is a good start, where war criminals on all sides of a conflict can be indicted — and the ICC prosecutor is indeed now on a trip to Gaza. But that’s not enough; eventually, the solution is creating an international system in which laws are created and enforced democratically.
Essentially, we need a solution where kids and humans are safe on both sides of the border, in Israel and in all other countries. If they’re not safe on the other side of our border, we will never be safe, too.