In the course of ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (2008-9), Israel attacked multiple UN facilities in Gaza, including with white phosphorus.

For example, on 17 January 2009 Israeli forces rained down white phosphorus on an UNRWA elementary school in Beit Lahia that was sheltering some 2,000 people, injuring 13 and killing two children.

A subsequent UN Board of Inquiry (BoI) found Israel guilty of inter alia gross negligence, ‘reckless disregard’ for civilian life and a ‘direct and intentional strike’ on UN premises.[1]

The BoI’s full Report was not made public; instead, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published a summary of its findings. A leaked diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks reveals how he worked behind closed doors with the US and Israel to undermine the report’s recommendations and enable Israel to escape political and legal accountability.

On 4 May, US ambassador Susan Rice called Ban Ki-moon to complain about two of the Report’s recommendations—Recommendations 10 and 11 (pp. 27-28)—which urged further investigation of attacks on UN facilities and personnel as well as allegations of legal violations involving civilians more broadly.

Rice ‘asked that those two recommendations not be included in the summary of the report that would be transmitted to the membership’, to which Ban replied that ‘he was constrained in what he could do since the Board of Inquiry is independent; it was their report and recommendations and he could not alter them’.

Rice then ‘urged’ that he use his covering letter to undermine and reject those elements of the report. Ban’s response:

The Secretary-General said his staff was working with an Israeli delegation on the text of the cover letter.

Rice kept up the pressure, speaking with the Secretary-General ‘two additional times’. She

underscored the importance of having a strong cover letter that made clear that no further action was needed and would close out this issue.

Ban, his brow no doubt beginning to sweat, assured her that ‘he believed they had arrived at a satisfactory cover letter’.

This was the wording he eventually published:

As for the Board’s recommendations numbers 10 and 11, which relate to matters that largely did not fall within its terms of reference, I do not plan any further inquiry. (p. 3)

Rice ‘thanked the Secretary-General for his exceptional efforts on such a sensitive issue’.[2]

US diplomats were subsequently advised to make use of the Secretary-General’s cover letter to argue against UN Security Council action on Israel’s attacks. ‘The Council agreed to take no further action‘.

Update: In the wake of the publication of the UN inquiry into 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, the US is singing a familiar tune, to which Ban is no doubt dancing a familiar jig: ‘We don’t believe that there is a call or a need for further Security Council work on this. We don’t support any more UN work on this report‘.

[1] Cf. Norman G. Finkelstein, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion (Revised and Expanded) (OR Books, 2011), pp. 72-73.

[2] Cf. this.

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