Ceasefires are hard to come by

November 19, 2023

The United Nations Security Council follows its own rules

Ceasefires are hard to come by


n November 15, the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, called for an immediate ceasefire to end the humanitarian crisis surrounding Gaza since October. This call came a month after the United Nations Security Council had rejected a resolution for a humanitarian ceasefire.

The resolution had been proposed by the Russian Federation. It was rejected with five member states voting in favour, four voting against it and six abstaining. The countries voting against the resolution had included France, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. A common reason for voting against the resolution was that it did not put the entire blame for the violence at Hamas’s door.

A ceasefire under international law is an agreement that results in cessation of military operations in a specific area and for a specified period of time. It can be agreed upon by parties to a dispute through negotiation or announced as a unilateral declaration.

Although the word armistice is occasionally used, it refers to a slightly different concept. An armistice is a military agreement whose main goal is to halt hostilities over the whole theatre of conflict, typically indefinitely. An armistice or ceasefire is merely a truce, a brief cessation of hostilities; it does not signify the end of hostilities. Moreover, it does not represent a legal cessation of hostilities. Peace agreements, in contrast, do signify the end of a conflict.

According to Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention, humanitarian law mandates that, if possible, an armistice or a cessation of hostilities must be organised, or local arrangements made, to allow for the removal, exchange and transport of combat-wounded or sick people.

Still, facilitating humanitarian efforts is not the main goal of a ceasefire. It is a military choice made in response to strategic goals, such as assembling forces, assessing the power and hierarchy of the opposition, or engaging in talks.

There are four core principles in international humanitarian law with regard to humanitarian considerations during war. The first among these is a prohibition of infliction of unnecessary suffering. Second, all measures taken in a conflict must be proportional; meaning that the least amount of harm should be caused to the civilians. Third, military actions cannot ignore humanitarian considerations altogether. Fourth, all humans have the capacity and ability to show respect and care for all, even their enemies.

Israel appeared to be saying that it would only agree to a ceasefire resulting in unconditional release of hostages. Hamas stated that it would not negotiate the hostages issue until there was a ceasefire. 

It took eight years for a ceasefire to be agreed in the Iraq-Iran conflict that began in 1980. By the time the UN Security Council was able to conclude an armistice around 500,000 people had been killed. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the war instigated by the Anfal campaign targeting Iraqi Kurdistan.

After the May 2021 violence between Israel and Hamas, the National Security Advisor for the United States, Jake Sullivan, had travelled to Cairo. As a former advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he and his Egyptian colleagues had managed to persuade Israel and its allies that Hamas could be subdued.

After the October 7 attacks on Israel, that reasoning is no longer valid. Israel now seeks complete elimination of Hamas.

During the UN Security Council session on October 16, the permanent observer for the state of Palestine stressed that the world had been watching Israel’s assault on almost two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for ten days. He said that Israel will not become any safer by killing more Palestinians and mentioned the several times he had asked the Council to take action.

He said the Council should have been mindful of not conveying the idea that Palestinian lives were unimportant. He stated that it could not place the blame on the victim, pointing out that most of the people killed by Israel were civilians.

Israel appeared to be saying that it would only agree to a ceasefire that resulted in the unconditional release of hostages. Hamas stated that it would not negotiate the hostages issue until there was a ceasefire.

A temporary ceasefire was then proposed to allow exchange of hostages, a break in hostilities and possibly the release of some Palestinian prisoners. However, this too was not agreed to as some Security Council members insisted on apportioning the blame before a ceasefire.

With their veto, the permanent members of the Security Council always prevail even against majority vote.

The writer is an advocate of the high court, a founding partner at Lex Mercatoria and a visiting teacher at Bahria University’s Law Department

Ceasefires are hard to come by