The Arab League in New York: Pressure tools to protect Palestinian rights

Ezzat Ibrahim , Friday 21 Sep 2018

As the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly opens in New York this week, Arab League Ambassador to the UN Maged Abdel-Fattah Abdel-Aziz tells Al-Ahram Weekly what to expect from League members in the meetings

Maged Abdel-Fattah
Arab League Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdel-Fattah Abdel-Aziz

The high-level meetings at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly in New York will see the wide participation of the Arab countries and will be presided over by Ecuador’s permanent representative to the UN, who is known for her refusal to accept the US decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

This means that the Palestinian cause and the funding gap for the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), the UN Palestinian refugee agency that has seen its funds cut off by the US, will likely be pre-eminent in the meetings.

Ways to enhance regional security in the Middle East against Iranian interference in the internal affairs of some Arab countries, feeding the instability in Syria, Yemen and the Arabian Gulf, will likely also be discussed. Arab League Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdel-Fattah Abdel-Aziz told Ezzat Ibrahim what to expect from League members at the meetings

How do you see the Arab League’s participation in the meetings of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York?

The Arab League and its member states will be actively participating in the high-level segments of this session. As of 17 September, the participation of 15 heads of state and government from our region (out of 22 members of the League) had been confirmed.

The participation of Ahmed Abul-Geit, the League secretary-general, has also been confirmed. Many factors have contributed to this high level of participation.

First, this session will be presided over by Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, a strong Latin American figure who has a lot of experience in world affairs, having served as the ambassador and permanent representative of her country, Ecuador, to the UN in New York during the same period that I was Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN in 2008-2009.

Her election to preside over this session is closely connected to the main cause of the Arab world, the question of Palestine, and more specifically the issue of Jerusalem.

Could you explain how?

Espinosa competed for this position with the current permanent representative of Honduras to the UN, Mary Elizabeth Flores, but due to the decision by Honduras to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the well-known positions of Ecuador and of Espinosa in support of Palestine and the Arab cause, the Arab group strongly and successfully supported the Ecuadorian candidate and worked with other groups such as the Non-Aligned Countries and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to secure her election.

She was elected in a landslide by 134 votes, while the candidate of Honduras received only 60. This shows how strong the Arab group can be when we are united in our cause and objectives.

What will the Arab League contribute to the General Assembly Session?

The recent regrettable and condemnable developments related to the core issue for the Arab world, the question of Palestine, require the highest possible level of participation and the maximum pressure.

The ambiguity surrounding the so-called “deal of the century” on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is attempting to dilute the centrality of the two-state solution, the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move its embassy there, the barbaric attacks by Israeli forces and settlers on peaceful Palestinian demonstrators resulting since Land Day on 30 March in the deaths of more than 190 Palestinians and the injury of close to 5,000 others, coupled with the failure of the UN Security Council to approve necessary protection mechanisms due to the use of the US veto, have all prompted the General Assembly to intervene at the request of the Arab group and demand a report from the UN secretary-general on how to protect the Palestinian population under the Israeli occupation. This in itself required high-level strategic decisions by our leaders.

The Arab push to have the state of Palestine preside over the G-77 and China group, the largest gathering of developing countries in the United Nations after the Asian group, also meant that Palestine was appointed chair of the G-77 in 2019, taking over from Egypt which had successfully led the group towards achieving its objectives.

Another important issue is enhancing the cooperation between the UN and the Arab League following the protocol that was recently signed allowing the UN to open an office at the League headquarters in Cairo to enhance interactions at all levels.

Enhancing the relations between the Arab League and its members, on the one hand, and the African Union and its member states, on the other, is also of paramount importance, and this will be done through the convening of the Arab-African Summit in 2019 in Saudi Arabia.

Egypt will also assume the presidency of the African Union in 2019. There is also the commencement of preparatory work for the 2020 Conference of the States Party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requiring the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

These are just some of the important issues that have prompted the high-level participation of the Arab League and the Arab countries at this year’s UN General Assembly meetings.

Could you explain their dynamics?

The convening of the high-level segment during this session coincides with the presidency of the United States of the UN Security Council. This comes at a time when tensions are rising between the permanent members of the Security Council for various reasons, some of them between Russia and the United States, some pertaining to domestic American issues and politics, and others relating to changing dynamics, positions and interests among these countries and other members of the council, including the E3 group (the UK, France and Sweden), the Arab members, Kuwait and China and the other African, Asian and Latin American members.

The diversity of positions unfortunately concerns many critical Arab issues, including, but not limited to, how to deal with Iran, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the flagrant interference by Iran in the internal affairs of many Arab countries as well as its support for terrorism.

There is the question of how to deal with the situations in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, among other Arab issues coming before the council. Striking the right balance with regard to these issues requires the participation at the highest levels of Arab leaders.

The Palestinian cause has reached a new level of intensity with the imminent publication of US plans to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Has the US delegation in New York approached the Arab League to discuss details, or is the plan still just an idea to be discussed in Washington? What is your response to the funding crisis of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA?

The question of Palestine continues to top the Arab agenda at the United Nations. Unfortunately, the Trump administration in the US has decided to bypass all the well-established pillars of the peace process based on the two-state solution and the five final-status issues of the Palestinian territories, water, Jerusalem, security and the Palestinian refugees that have formed the foundation of the efforts exerted by all previous American administrations.

The Trump administration had done its best to overturn these, starting with its unilateral decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and by moving the US embassy there.

In the wake of unified positions in the UN Security Council against that decision, it then decided to cut off its funding to UNRWA and to reduce further its financial support to the state and government of Palestine.

The US delegation to the UN in New York has not shared with the Arab League any details concerning the so-called “deal of the century”, and it has instead kept everybody guessing.

The decisions by the US with regard to Jerusalem and UNRWA are regarded in the Arab world as attempts to eliminate two of the five final-status issues, which are Jerusalem and the refugees, thus turning an eventual final-status agreement into an agreement on only economic cooperation arrangements that would benefit solely the Israeli side.

This led to the rejection of the proposed plan by the Palestinian side and resulted in massive demonstrations by peaceful and unarmed Palestinians demanding the right to return to their land.

Unfortunately, and instead of yielding to their legitimate demands, the Israeli forces started firing live ammunition at those demonstrators, and the Security Council failed to take any action. It is for this reason that prompt action is required on the report submitted by the UN secretary-general in response to the resolution adopted on 13 June 2018 by the 10th emergency special session of the UN General Assembly.

The Arab group at the UN has consulted with the UN secretariat on options that would allow it to act, within the delegated authority of the UN secretary-general as chief executive officer of the UN, including by utilising current observer teams such as the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) or UNRWA employees to observe and report on violations by both sides.

High-level consultations will be conducted on the margins of the current General Assembly Session on how to ensure the protection of Palestinian civilians.

Turning to UNRWA, the initial shortage of funding as a result of the US decision will be a deficit of about $400 million for the last quarter of 2018. This will result in the failure of UNRWA to fund refugees in schools starting from September 2018.

To alleviate the suffering of Palestinian children in the refugee camps, a massive funding campaign has been started by the Arab side even though the Arab states are not responsible for their displacement. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar committed at the Arab League “Jerusalem Summit” to pay over $200 million to UNRWA to address the most immediate shortages, and a major conference is being organised by the Arab League in cooperation with some of the leading Arab countries to raise funds to address the longer-term effects of the US decision to cut funding.

This is being done with the support of the EU, which is also exerting maximum efforts in this regard.

We are still calling upon the United States to reconsider its decisions and to follow the internationally agreed terms that have been fully supported by the UN Security Council and General Assembly and by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The discussions in New York will touch upon the relations between the Arab countries and Iran. What is the Arab group’s take on the regional security order that the US administration is pushing for?

The Arab world had been hoping that Iran would courageously admit its past mistakes and attempt through practical measures to regain the trust of the Arab world.

Unfortunately, Iran went in the other direction and felt that the recently evolving internal situations in some of the Arab countries would allow it to prevail.

The first thing Iran should do now is to stop its interference in the internal affairs of the Arab states, particularly in the Arabian Gulf, and end its occupation of the three Emirati islands.

It should stop all its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons and stop its support for terrorism and terrorist organisations and groups under whatever name or affiliation.

For that to happen, Iranian action is necessary. That’s why we will be interested to see what Iran has to say in the meeting convened by US President Donald Trump on 26 September and look forward to an agreement in the UN Security Council towards achieving those objectives through practical measures.

The meeting on Syria at the session will be crucial to the current situation in Idlib. What can be achieved?

You are right to say the meeting on Syria will be crucial. We have regretfully seen a lot of external partners taking command of the Syrian negotiations, convening meetings without any participation from the Arab world and attempting to reach agreements on the conduct of elections in Syria and on shaping the political future of the country without appropriate regard to the decisions taken by the Arab League and its member states.

The situation in Idlib and the looming threat of a military confrontation with the participation of major powers and regional beneficiaries would only further damage the situation.

The United Nations should enhance the Arab participation in all the tracks of the negotiations, including those at Geneva, Astana and Sochi, and there should be more unity among the Arab countries on a creative approach to finding a solution that would end the long suffering of the Syrian people. This would also help the Arab League to deal with other conflicts.

What is the relationship between the sweeping reforms proposed by the UN secretary-general for the UN and the reforms being implemented in the Arab League? What do you expect to see as a result of those reforms on the relations between the two organisations?

Regarding the reforms, both the UN and the Arab League are in the same boat. The Arab group has been among the strongest supporters of the reforms at the UN.

The latest approved reforms relating to “repositioning the United Nations development pillar” were negotiated and approved under the leadership of Algeria supported by Egypt in its capacity as chair of the G-77 and China, the reform of the UN Security Council was led by the UAE during the 72nd Session of the General Assembly, the reform of ECOSOC has been led by Qatar and the review of the counter-terrorism strategy has been done by Jordan.

In general, the involvement of the Arab countries in the UN reforms has been great.

The involvement of the Arab countries in bringing about better relations between the UN and the Arab League has also been great. Both Egypt and Kuwait have been strongly arguing for a much more visible role for the Arab League, particularly in the UN Security Council.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Arab League in New York: Pressure tools to protect Palestinian rights 

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