Antonio Guterres at the UN Security Council meeting invoked under Article 99

Antonio Guterres Invokes Article 99. Warns of Mass Displacement to Egypt

For the first time in his tenure as Secretary General (and for only the sixth time in the entire history of the UN since 1945) Antonio Guterres invoked Article 99 of the United Nations Charter to compel a Security Council meeting on the unfolding catastrophe in Israel and Gaza. Whereas under normal circumstances only members of the Security Council can request such a meeting, this provision is the one tool that the Secretary General has at his disposal to force the council to action. But action in this case simply means convening a meeting—the Secretary General can’t offer any resolutions, nor can he force a vote.

Still, this was an institutionally significant move. It also sets into motion yet another potential clash at the Security Council in which the United States may stand alone in blocking a resolution calling for a robust ceasefire. This time, however, the stakes are much higher than they were just three weeks ago when the Council previously voted on a resolution.

It may not seem like the situation could get any worse, but over the last several days there have been several indicators suggesting that Gaza is at a particularly calamitous turning point. More and more Gazans are being forced into smaller and smaller encampments — closer and closer to the Egyptian border. All the while humanitarian relief is in shorter and shorter supply. This is seemingly what compelled Guterres to call the Security Council meeting today.

“There is a high risk of a total collapse of the humanitarian support system in Gaza which would have devastating consequences,” he told the Security Council this morning. “We anticipate that this will result in the complete breakdown of public order and increase pressure for mass displacement into Egypt.”

By directly invoking the prospect of mass displacement to Egypt, Guterres is raising the diplomatic stakes. He is saying what has largely been unsaid at this point: that present trends on the ground in Gaza suggest a potential mass exodus to Sinai, the consequences of which will be felt through the entire region.

Egypt is the largest country in the region—by far. Sinai is already beset by security challenges, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Gazans may be destabilizing all the way to Cairo. The Egyptian government apparently shares this view and said that relations with Israel would be “ruptured” if there’s mass displacement to Sinai. This worrisome to say the least. The 1978 Camp David Accords are a pillar of regional security that could come crashing down amidst the pressures of this current crisis. This is now suddenly in the realm of possibility.


Meanwhile, Don’t Expect Much From the Security Council

The last Security Council action on this crisis was November 15. The United States abstained from a resolution calling for humanitarian pauses and the unfettered access to humanitarian relief (including fuel), letting it pass. The resolution had some impact on the ground. The Israelis loosened their objections to fuel imports through the Rafah crossing and there were some daily pauses to allow Gazans to flee south.

The November 15 resolution on humanitarian pauses helped pave the way for the temporary ceasefire on November 24, which resulted in the release of many hostages and a sharp increase in humanitarian relief through Rafah. That was obviously short-lived—and since the dissolution of the ceasefire on December 1 the situation on the ground in Gaza has deteriorated substantially.

Later today, the Security Council may meet again, this time to consider a resolution from the United Arab Emirates calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The Biden Administration’s position on such a resolution seems unchanged. Administration officials still insist that quiet, bi-lateral diplomacy is preferable to a full-throated endorsement of a ceasefire. “We don’t think another Security Council product right now is going to be helpful to the situation,” Deputy US Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood told journalist Rami Ayari on Thursday.

Therein lies the challenge of Security Council diplomacy right now: the council can only go as far at the United States will let it. If the United States decides that enough is enough and compels Israel to a ceasefire, then the Security Council can act. But so long as the United States is committed to a strategy of behind-the-scenes cajoling, this resolution will be met with another American veto.

Antonio Guterres may be sounding as loud as an alarm that he has at his disposal. And diplomats surely understand the implications of the mass displacement of Palestinians to Egypt. But as of now, the Biden administration appears to prefer to deal with that crisis if and when it comes, rather than embracing a ceasefire that might prevent the next iteration of this ongoing catastrophe from unfolding in the first place.