As the head of an organisation that is expected to remain neutral on key global security issues, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres can hardly have been surprised to find himself at the heart of a major diplomatic storm over his controversial comments on the Gaza crisis.
From its inception in 1946, one of the UN’s primary functions has been to ensure the principles of international law are upheld whenever a major conflict arises, especially those pertaining to the conduct of war.
From the Cold War to more recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, the UN’s ability to maintain its position as a neutral observer has been vital to its ability to act as an international arbiter.
On 24 October, over two weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel's bombing campaign on Gaza, Guterres made comments at the United Nations that the Hamas attack "did not happen in a vacuum."
“The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation,” Guterres observed, “but the grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas. And those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”
While UN officials insisted that Guterres was attempting to adopt a balanced position on the conflict, Israeli diplomats immediately denounced his remarks as “shocking”, with Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, insisting “, There is no justification or point in talking to those who show compassion for the most terrible atrocities committed against the citizens of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Despite Guterres's insistence that his words had been misrepresented and that it was false to suggest he was justifying acts of terror by Hamas, Israel intensified the campaign against the UN leader by publicly demanding that he resign from his position.