The Implementation Crisis—with Richard Falk

International law scholar Richard Falk discusses international law and politics as they pertain to the ongoing genocide committed by Israel in Gaza and the wider Palestinian plight, in addition to UN reform.

In this episode of Podcast Palestine, the War on Gaza, Omar Auf is joined by Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, the author and editor of tens of books on international law, justice, and the international system, and former UN Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, serving from 2008 to 2014.

Falk discusses the cases brought to the International Court of Justice in South Africa v. Israel and Nicaragua v. Germany, both concerning violations of the Genocide Convention in the context of Israel’s war on Gaza. He also addresses the withdrawal of funding from UNRWA, global politics and activism, UN reform, and the limitations of international law.

Omar Auf: At the time of recording, Israel has killed over 34,000 Palestinians over the course of more than 200 days throughout the ongoing genocide, over half of whom were women and children, and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands buried under the rubble.

Moreover, Israel has by design rendered the Gaza Strip uninhabitable to its Palestinian people, destroying almost all infrastructure and essential services. Amid these realities and with the growing concerns of famine and the spread of disease, humanitarian efforts to deliver aid become all the more important. How do we begin to make sense of the situation on the ground in the language of international humanitarian law in terms of accountability and responsibilities?

Richard Falk: Well, that’s a very fundamental and difficult question. To begin with, Israel, from an international law perspective, is the occupying power of Gaza, and as such has an unconditional obligation to protect the civilian society and the population, and explicitly by the Fourth Geneva Convention governing belligerent occupation, it is obliged to make sure that the civilian population has the humanitarian assistance that is required for its physical and mental health, and that includes food and medical supplies, water, electricity, and so forth. Israel has done two things. It has responded to the October 7th attack with an onslaught that recognizes no obligations to comply with international humanitarian law, or with the status it possesses of being the occupying power of an occupied people.

In addition to that, it has been supported consistently by the liberal democracies of Europe and North America. So, you have a situation where the law is on one side, and morality is on that same side, but the political balance has not been sufficiently strong in favor of granting the rights that the Palestinian people deserve. And so, we have this lawlessness of Israel dominating the situation.

And with the extremity of the genocide that has occurred, there has been some effort by Israel’s main supporters, including the United States, to try to suggest that Israel is obliged to allow humanitarian assistance to get to a starving and devastated Palestinian people. But Israel has, in one way, seemed to accept that pressure, but at the same time, it’s resisted and continued to do things that make it hazardous and, in some sense, impossible to provide the Palestinians who are under great stress, not only from the dangers of famine and starvation, but also disease and general living conditions, which have become non-viable. The reality has emerged that you have a kind of half-hearted humanitarian undertaking and, at the same time, you have the royalty of the Israeli military operation continuing under this false banner of the right to defend itself, which is almost totally irrelevant to the kind of motivations and seeming objectives of Israel in carrying out this response to this degree.

OA: Yes, and since you brought up the matter of occupation of Gaza, I had this question for you later in the context of prosecuting genocide, but I’d like to ask it to you now. The ICJ’s provisional measures issued in South Africa versus Israel indicate that, prima facie, or on first impression, genocide could be committed in Gaza right now. And I’m curious, since proving genocidal intent is notoriously difficult, though it is in this case undoubtedly made easier by Israeli officials’ statements, but regardless, could Gaza be seen by the ICJ, on first impression, to be occupied by Israel? And if so, would it not be easier to take Israel to court for violations of its role as the occupying power in Gaza based on the Geneva Conventions and in that way get a direct order for a ceasefire? Or to determine something like this, is this something that the court has to look into the merits of the case? Because also this was one of Israel’s main defenses in South Africa versus Israel, but the court’s acting in self-defense.

RF: Yes, indeed. You could have such a case. The ICJ is performing so far in a professionally impressive way that has put law ahead of politics. And it’s performed much more impressively than other parts of the UN system and deserves a lot of credit and appreciation for doing its best to assess the legal circumstances. At the same time, its interim order, which accepted South Africa’s main requests for provisional measures to stop the behavior that is causing what the court found to be a plausible genocide. The main conclusion of which is to say that the ingredients of genocide were established in this earlier legal proceeding, but the outcome was neutralized, not by the court, but by Israel’s defiance of the provisional measures and its refusal to uphold its obligations as the occupied power.

Now, a parallel lawsuit that emphasized its role as an occupying power under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions would certainly be doctrinally an acceptable option, but it would have the same handicaps, I’m afraid, as this earlier ICJ initiative. There would be no reason to expect that Israel or its supporters would exert enough pressure to obtain Israeli compliance. And an early judgment would not be possible without going through the normal process of allowing written and oral pleadings and the accused state of having a right to defend itself through whatever means it chooses, so that the dynamic of international adjudication is handicapped by two things.

One is the slowness of the process. To get a definitive assessment of genocide by whatever legal theory is pursued will take up to three, four years, and that’s almost irrelevant to the protection and wellbeing of the people. The ICJ did as much as it could by granting South Africa’s request for provisional measures, which took account of the emergency humanitarian conditions that exist in Gaza.

But as we have seen, the results have not been accepted as really obligatory, and there’s been a subsequent pattern of some acquiescence in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and some very bad incidents in disrupting that delivery. The World Central Kitchen incident of April 1st, where 100 tons of food were being delivered by a respected international humanitarian initiative that had worked effectively with the Israeli government from time to time, and had given notice of its delivery intentions and route that its vehicles would follow, and yet Israel deliberately attacked that convoy of aid vehicles, which provoked outrage in the West, not because humanitarian assistance had been disrupted, which has happened frequently throughout the conflict, and in some ways in much more severe proportions. Here in the World Central Kitchen incident, seven individuals were killed, but the identity of six of them as European or supporters of Israel meant that it was taken in a manner that earlier incidents of equal or greater magnitude had not been, and it showed, displayed the racialist character of the way in which law and morality have been manipulated, both by the media and by governments that are basically complicit in the underlying attack on Gaza.

So that’s one element, is this confusion over the nature of humanitarian assistance in this setting. The other issue is what I call the implementation crisis, that even if the court makes a clear directive set of findings, those findings can be ignored if the Security Council isn’t willing to enforce the findings. In other words, judicial remedies only carry you up to the declaration of what the law is.

It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of implementing those findings, and that has been the tragedy that has accentuated the ordeal of the Palestinian people after succeeding in obtaining this very favorable judgment from the World Court.

OA: Yeah, because the Security Council is the de facto global policeman, whereas in national law you actually have the police.

You’ve frequently spoken about a politics of diversion or politics of deflection exercised by Israel, and as Special Rapporteur for the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, this politics often express itself through attacks on your person and the frank language you use, but revealingly enough, not the actual contents of your reports.

Today, this politics is directed in large part at UNRWA, with accusations by Israel that a handful of the agency’s staff are complicit in the Hamas-led October 7 attacks. But this week, the UN-commissioned report by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna revealed that not only does UNRWA have a system in place to ensure neutrality, though improvements can be made of course, but that Israel has not even provided evidence to substantiate its claims now, three months later. So what is the effect of this politics of diversion as it played out with UNRWA, both in terms of immediate disaster and lives lost, as well as the long-term political ramifications of it?

RF: Yes, that’s a very important issue that Israel has exploited in various ways.

And as you suggest, the UNRWA allegations came the day after the ICJ reached its findings in favor of the request for provisional measures that were basically accepting the allegations that South Africa was making. And what was enabled by doing that is to shift the focus from the outcome in the International Court of Justice to the impact and the rationale for this UNRWA deflection from the existential reality of the suffering of the Palestinian people and the threat to their physical and mental survival. Another instance of this way of deflecting attention from the reality, the core reality, is this diversion by way of threatening a wider war with Iran and the attack on the Damascus consular facility also on April 1st was a testing of whether they could manage to involve the Western powers in a diversionary war against Iran with the support of the Sunni Arab countries in the region.

And one of the striking things to me at least was the degree to which when Iran retaliated with its attempted drone and missile barrage directed at Israel, the defense of Israel was carried out not only by Israel and its supporters, but also by the Sunni Arab neighbors, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which suggests another dimension to the whole conflict, which is a sectarian tension within Islam itself. All the actors in support of the Palestinians throughout this long ordeal have been Shia Islam entities, starting with Iran, of course, but also Hezbollah and the Houthis, so that one had on the one side the liberal democracies and the former colonial powers, the white global West, and on the other side you had not only the Palestinians themselves, but their allies who were Shia Muslims, despite the fact that Hamas itself is a Sunni entity. So one has a complexity that is present on two levels.

One is within Islam, this sectarianism, and the other is between Islam and the liberal democracies, and it’s what I’ve called the second coming of Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a clash of civilisations, which I think is embedded in this wider tension between the Palestinians, Israel, and the West.

OA: That’s very interesting, especially since the political alignments of the United States and Israel’s Sunni Arab allies do not actually reflect the popular sentiment within these countries. So it’s an interesting dynamic of tension as well, not only within different sects of Islam, but also between people and their governments in the region.

And this actually brings me to one question I wanted to ask you. Since the 7th of October, alarm bells of analysts and policymakers have been sounding in terms of the possibility of drawing other parties in and regionalising the conflict. And as you described, the US and its Arab allies have done a fair amount of work to ensure that this does not happen, understandably so.

But what strikes me the most here is this seemingly perennial focus on stability as opposed to justice or, God forbid, prosperity when it comes to our region of the world. And I think in the context of Israel’s current transgressions in Gaza, this hypersensitivity to regional instability is heightened because of the knowledge that the Palestinian cause is central to the social and political identity of individuals in the Middle East. So given this importance of Palestine to the people of the region, do you think the focus on the possibility of conflict or instability spreading is justified? And if so, then between whom is this conflict going to take place?

RF: Well, that’s a difficult issue because there’s so much uncertainty at the present time.

Netanyahu and his coalition government are cornered in a sense. They face failure on several grounds. They have not succeeded in destroying Hamas.

They have not succeeded in getting the hostages released. And they have alienated world public opinion to a degree that they’ve become a pariah country and likely one that is the target of violence in the future, whatever happens in Gaza in the weeks to come. So you have a sort of cornered leader that has very few options left.

The consummation of genocide by attacking Rafah on the one side and attacking and enlarging the conflict zone by embroiling Iran in a more regional conflict. The West and particularly the U.S. are allied with Israel partly for the civilizational and political reasons and partly an expression of the domestic politics in these countries, which exhibit very strong Zionist networks of pressure and funding that exert an influence on the political behavior of the government. In my own country, the U.S., it’s very evident that politicians have come to the conclusion that they have very little to gain by taking a balanced view on Israel-Palestine and a lot to lose because they will then become the targets.

If they adopt a balanced view, they will become the targets of AIPAC and other strong, well-funded Zionist lobbying groups. And that is happening in an election year in the U.S. with the targeting of those few people in the U.S. Congress who have attempted to take a more humanitarian view or have been critical of the way in which Israel responded to October 7.

So those background realities, in addition to the uncertainty about access to the energy resources, and as you pointed out, the tension between the governments in the region and the publics, creates a great deal of uncertainty and instability, and exerts pressure on these governments, the Arab governments in the region, to be very autocratic in their methods of governing, because they feel very vulnerable to a population that doesn’t share either their views on the rights of peoples, or is equitable when it comes to economic and political questions of the sort that Palestine poses. So Palestine is a very, I mean, from an academic point of view, is a textbook example of where governments are following one line of policy that is at odds with the overwhelming majority views of their own population. And to make that work requires intimidation and, to some extent, continuous repression.

So it’s a very consequential set of challenges for the peoples and the elites of the region.

OA: It is. That was very enlightening. Thank you, Professor. So building on this, from regionalization to sort of globalization, it feels that what has actually happened in this conflict, if you want to call it that, is that it’s been globalized instead of just regionalized. Like today, we see brave student encampments in major U.S. universities, as well as in France at Sciences Po, in addition to major protests in big cities around the world, an ongoing popular BDS movement, massive social media advocacy and awareness raising, and much more in all of the world.

And it sort of feels like from Gaza to the world, there is a sort of battle going on for the world’s conscience. But it also sees that this battle has been going on for decades, as you have undoubtedly been a part of and witness to. And Israel’s violations of international law and human rights law have been ongoing for decades.

So what is different today? Is it the sheer scale of atrocities that Israel is committing in Gaza? Is it a global pushback against what you described as the second coming of the clash of civilizations that is treated as such by Western governments and governments in the region? Is it rather a second coming of a decolonization movement to decolonize not only our countries and economic systems but also our minds? What is it exactly that has led to this sense that there is a global awakening taking place?

RF: No, that’s a very interesting way of putting it. I think one has at the base, and it’s been articulated by the UN Secretary General and the Vatican Pope, the Catholic Pope, that this is a challenge to humanity as such. So in other words, it’s a kind of moral globalization that has been a consequence of the extremity of what Israel has been doing, combined with the fact that this is the first genocidal politics that has been shown to the people of the world in real time as it happens.

The previous genocides have all been reconstructed after the fact in terms of reports and films and memoirs and even trials, but not with the vivid imagery that has assaulted people throughout the world, including in the countries that are complicit with Israel.

OA: The rest of this episode was recorded on the 3rd of May 2024.

Is it a pushback against the idea of the clash of civilizations, a sort of rallying cry for humanity against the self-interested policymakers who instrumentalize these racial and religious differences to serve their own ends? What do you think is it that has led to this global awakening?

RF: Well, I think there is the need to distinguish between the developments you describe as the emergence of a global conscience and a global consciousness that’s epitomized by this worldwide student-centered group of uprisings that include the country’s government, the governments of the countries.

It doesn’t include the government. It’s opposed to the governments that have been supporting Israel throughout this genocide. In other words, student movements, particularly in the West, have been relatively patient in giving their territorial governments a chance to get on what might be called the right side of history or the anti-colonial alignment that would be overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian in this recent setting.

And so we have two levels of response, I believe. One is this effort that I’ve labeled the second coming of Huntington, which is not entirely accurate because of that subset of sectarian tensions within the Arab world as became manifest during the Iranian retaliation for the Damascus attack on April 13th when Jordan and Saudi Arabia joined with Israel and the U.S. in defending Israel against the attack. And so that’s suggesting that there’s a kind of subset of relationships that take priority over this broader tension between the global West and the ex-colonial and generally the global South.

So it’s a rather complex set of developments that again shows in the Palestinian context that governments in a way are more morally regressive as compared to their uneducated mass populations. In other words, the people are ahead of the elite in terms of their response to behavior that violates the most basic norms of international law and international morality. And it’s even true in terms of the access to knowledge that there’s a more accurate perception of what is really happening, including in the United States, by the ordinary citizens encompassing Jewish citizens, Jewish young people as well than the elite economic and political elites that are running the country and especially representing supposedly the people.

Congress and the White House in the United States are way behind public opinion and are unresponsive to a permanent ceasefire and a generally sympathetic view of the Palestinian struggle. And this takes one back, if you’re an American, to the Vietnam War period, where again the public awakened to the historical and U.S. government long before the governing elites came to a similar conclusion for prudential reason. And it does suggest this failure of liberal democracies to reflect the will of the people and to implement the ambitions of elites economically and politically.

OA: I wanted to ask you, what does this entail for all other state parties to the Genocide Convention? And what is the full scope of the responsibilities placed upon states amid the possibility of genocide in the current moment, taking into account the Genocide Convention as well as the ICJ’s recent orders or lack thereof [in reference to the ICJ’s decision not to issue provisional measures in Nicaruague v. Germany]?

RF: The first thing to take notice of is that there’s very little prior experience. So in a way, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court are making law as they proceed. And there is a good reason for the distinction between the two cases, the South African and the Nicaraguan. And it relates to the fact that the International Court of Justice prides itself on being very careful about drawing conclusions that impose legal responsibilities on sovereign states. And in a way, it strengthens the South African interim order because it shows that the court was so impressed by the evidence that it overcame this reluctance to draw conclusions, particularly in the preliminary phase of the proceeding prior to making a judgment on the full basis of the pleadings by the parties, that in fact, a condition of humanitarian catastrophe existed in Gaza, and that Israel was responsible for causing it, and hence, should be stopped from doing the kinds of behavior that have produced so much human suffering and civilian dislocation, leading to this kind of puzzling conclusion that it was plausible for the court, given this degree of evidence, to conclude that genocide was plausible.

Again, it shows a contrast for the students who are protesting. It’s more than plausible. It’s a textbook case for which any morally sensitive person would have no question about, and which Israeli leaders have reinforced by their language, which dehumanizes the Palestinians and appears to justify the most extreme violence against civilians.

In the Nicaragua case, you had rather scant evidence of complicity on the part of Germany, and Germany was not the main source of complicity in relation to what was happening.

The U.S. was much more responsible, and it gave the court the challenge of not mechanically holding Israel responsible, but following strict professional criteria to assess whether there was indeed a violation of the Genocide Convention. There had been, in this instance, no prior experience whatsoever with the complicity allegation, as distinct from the genocide allegation, which was assessed by the court previously, both in relation to Bosnia, the Serbian behavior in Bosnia, and the Myanmar case involving the Rohingya people just a few years ago. So I think it speaks for this high standard of jurisprudential caution that has led the International Court of Justice to be a respected part of the overall UN system.

And one becomes conscious of the fact that all the court can do is declare the law as it sees it. It cannot enforce its decisions without the cooperation either of the state that is instructed to act and refuses to comply, or when the Security Council is blocked by the prospect or reality of vetoing any effort at enforcement. So there is a what I would call a crisis of implementation once you have even this kind of authoritative ICJ decision.

And the other drawback of the court is that to get the final decision, which would also presumably be unenforceable, takes too much time. It would take three or four years, likely, before the court will render a formal decision on whether genocide, in fact, is more than plausible and actually exists in relation to the definition embedded in the Genocide Convention. So there are defects with any kind of reliance on international judicial action as responsive to this kind of emergency reality.

OA: From what I get from your insights is that, first of all, the judicial action must go hand in hand with other sorts of action like the student protests and eventually hopefully leading up to actual political action. And that the decision to not issue provisional measures in Nicaragua versus Germany actually makes the earlier provisional measures stronger. And that decision to not issue provisional measures doesn’t speak to the responsibilities of states concerning genocide, but specifically Germany’s complicity.

RF: Yes, yes. What it points to is that in a situation of this kind, judicial initiatives are valuable, but they are not sufficient. And action needs to be taken by the political organs of the UN. And this was contemplated after the Kosovo War in 1999, when the UN and the Security Council specifically adopted a norm known as Responsibility to Protect, or R2P. And that purported to oblige the UN to take action to protect a population that is being subjected to severe crimes against humanity or genocide. There’s a long story involving the failure to implement R2P in relation to Palestine that goes back to its manipulation in 2011, with respect to Libya, when it was used to supposedly to protect the humanitarian jeopardy that the people of Benghazi were then subject to, but was used to intervene under NATO’s auspices in Libya’s internal politics in order to produce a regime change, which was never authorized as part of the R2P initiative.

So the countries that had abstained from authorizing the R2P in the Libyan context felt they’d been misled and were very reluctant in subsequent situations, namely Syria, during its long civil strife, to authorize a second R2P undertaking. But Israel had always been exempted by its geopolitical protectors from this kind of potential international accountability. Another suggestion along these lines has been made that instead of R2P, there should be an Ad Hoc International Protection Force established within the UN, perhaps by the General Assembly, that undertakes to intervene for the protective purposes.

That would be a highly contentious and maybe very risky undertaking, because Israel is certainly capable of forcibly resisting such an international intervention. So it probably is viewed as not a feasible option at this stage.

OA: I won’t ask you any follow-up questions on R2P, because it’s a subject I find extremely interesting, and if I do so, this podcast will not end. But I do want to address UN reforms specifically. Before doing that, I have one question I’d like to ask you on the subject of genocide and its legalities.

You’ve expressed the view that the Nakba is and should be seen not as a single event that occurred in 1948, but as an ongoing process of displacement and dispossession that continues today. Within this framework, the violence and indeed the genocide that has taken place since the 7th October, does it present itself as an escalation of a continuing Israeli policy? In this sense, could genocide be seen, legally speaking, as a multi-decade process to which not only specific individuals or governments are criminally responsible, but the Israeli state as a whole?

In other words, what I’d like to ask you is what exactly regulates the temporal, the time dimension when it comes to the crime of genocide, and could the realignment or readjustment of our view of the Nakba as a continuing process contribute to the re-emergence of a notion of state criminal responsibility, which has been dismissed around two decades ago by the International Law Commission when it was drafting these laws or these recommendations?

RF: It’s a very valuable question, I think, and an important one. It’s a difficult one to give a clear, short answer to, but in general, I would say that the Nakba process culminates in this genocidal phase, that the earlier reliance on a variety of tactics designed to complement the Nakba of 1948, including the imposition of apartheid, another very fundamental crime of an international character, that those intermediate steps didn’t satisfy the maximal Zionist agenda of extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, and more recently to the Gaza Strip, at least in part. And so this pattern, which is characteristic of settler colonial projects, you find it in all the breakaway British colonies, of which the United States is the most important, but the Canada, Australia, New Zealand, they went through a phase of eliminating, or at least radically marginalizing, the indigenous native people. And that was an invariable feature of successful settler colonialism.

The Palestinians have proved more resistant to those tactics than did the indigenous people of the Western countries that I mentioned, Western white settler colonial countries. And for this reason, the tactics that are used to achieve the goals of maximal Zionism have to be more drastic. And we noted that where the native population is not marginalized successfully, as in South Africa or in Algeria, the settler project fails.

And either it is completely defeated, as in Algeria, or there’s a transition to constitutional democracy, as in South Africa. So Israel has confronted this resistance with ever more drastic measures of repression and exploitation and domination, culminating in genocide hidden beneath the claim of retaliating against a Hamas attack that might have been allowed to happen. There’s a lot of reason to suspect Israel allowed some kind of Hamas initiative to occur on October 7th. It was warned, including by Egypt. Egyptian leaders had warnings from the U.S. and its own surveillance capabilities, which are supposed to tell us or tell Israelis where every Hamas lives and sleeps at night. Certainly, they must have had some inkling of the rehearsal for this kind of large-scale campaign.

So one has to think back before October 7th and accept the idea that was widely discussed at the time that this new coalition government headed by Netanyahu that had taken power at the beginning of 2023 was the most extreme government in the history of Israel. And what made it extreme was that it was pledged to implement more consistently and more violently the agenda of maximal Zionism and the idea of a greater Israel that absorbed the occupied territory. And indeed, that is what partly provoked a higher level of resistance on the Palestinian side.

And it was focused in most people’s minds, including my own, on the struggle over the West Bank, which was seen as the site of the settlement and also the more valuable agriculturally in terms of water resources and even security that is viewed in a larger sense. So the Israeli tactics seem to be designed to have a pretext for some sort of accelerated pressure brought to bear on the Palestinians. So they would have received the message in effect of leave or die.

That’s the bottom line message of this sort of genocidal effort of marginalization and forcible evacuation. And from the very first days of the Netanyahu coalition in January of 2023, the settlers were given a green light to engage in violence on the West Bank. And they burned the village and they did a number of things that looked like they were creating a situation that would make the West Bank unlivable for the great majority of Palestinians.

OA: I think you put it very accurately and succinctly when you said the message was leave or die. That is unfortunately what we’re seeing right now.

RF: They actually, the settlers actually pinned this message to cars on the West Bank after their own demonstration. Just those three words, leave or die.

OA: Unfortunately, it’s all too clear the intentions and yet the action is lacking on the international level.

So with regards to the UN, the UN’s flaws are very clear, as well as a lot of its benefits, like the position of special rapporteur, which you can undoubtedly say much about, completely independent and unpaid expert enlisted by the UN to say things how they are.

Yet, I read an essay by Mandy Turner that was published in the Journal of Palestine Studies that said that some UN officials she talked to were disgruntled by the way you used certain language as special rapporteur for the oPt to describe Israeli actions because it upset the U.S. and other countries and made taking concrete action difficult. This is just one illustration of how state interests are king at the UN. Of course, this is the point of the organization. At the end of the day, it’s an intergovernmental organization and the way it’s designed, it makes it so if any of the superpowers disagree, it probably won’t happen if they disagree to something. The UN probably wouldn’t have come into being if it wasn’t designed like this specifically. But at the same time, there is some leeway, some democracy in the General Assembly, in the Human Rights Council, and there’s a sort of moral authority that comes with the UN.

So how could this leeway be used to change the UN into something more democratic, more independent, perhaps more legalistic and less political? I don’t know. You were talking about the responsibility to protect and after Libya, Brazil came forward with this idea of responsibility while protecting and there was a debate about it that ultimately led nowhere. But what are the channels that could be used to sort of transform the UN into something more aligned with the idealism it stands for but was not designed keeping in mind?

RF: Well, it’s a complicated question that has recently been given a lot of thought.

I finished a book in collaboration with a former high official of the UN Secretariat. He was Assistant Secretary General Hans von Sponeck of Germany that will be published very shortly next month by Stanford University Press. And the essence of the argument is that the UN to be effective needs to be reformed in certain fundamental ways, including restricting the veto and empowering the General Assembly, making it more democratic.

You might want to talk to Craig Mokhiber, who was a high-ranking civil servant in the UN who resigned partly in protest about the inhibitions on talking truthfully about the Palestinian issue. I know him very well and he felt very constrained while working at the UN. He’d be an interesting guest for you, I think.

Of course, the basic bargain at the UN, which is sort of disguised by the preamble to the UN Charter, is that it holds accountable ordinary members but grants a privileged status to the winners of World War II, or the five countries that are made permanent members of the Security Council with an unrestricted right of veto, which in effect is a signal that geopolitics has primacy over respect for international law or the UN Charter. And that tension between geopolitics and law that is built into the core of this bargain that a Mexican delegate to the original UN founding meeting described as saying, we’ve created an organization which holds the mice accountable while the tigers run free. And it’s that peculiar notion of making the organization more effective in relation to the weak states that don’t need so much constraining as it is to the strong states that they make no real effort to constrain.

And that reflects in part the experience of the League of Nations that was established after World War I, which was seen as faithfully weak because it didn’t include the participation of important geopolitical actors like the US. And Germany was expelled. Russia, I think Russia was expelled.

Germany withdrew, I think Germany and maybe Italy withdrew. And so the League had no authority in relation to the more important states. So the thought was, it’s better to keep the geopolitics inside the international organization than to have an organization that doesn’t include the most important countries in the world.

And this sort of Faustian bargain was affirmed by Franklin Roosevelt, among others, who felt that the cooperation that existed during World War II against fascism would be sufficient to uphold the peace after the defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan, which was a very naive idea about the nature of international conflict. And so we’re stuck with this dilemma of an impotent or marginally relevant UN and a popular desire for a UN that fulfills the promise of war prevention in the preamble to the UN Charter. And there is a summit on the future of the UN scheduled for September in New York.

But I’m very skeptical about whether any meaningful progress will occur.