Why the UN?

Why the UN?

Child injured in the Jabalia UNRWA shelling, July 30 (courtesy of ActiveStills.org)

One of the more unsettling developments in the Gaza conflict thus far has been the shelling of UNRWA sites by the Israel Defense Forces. On July 30, at least nineteen people died and many more were wounded when a UN school-turned-shelter in the Gaza Strip was shelled. It was the second UN school hit in the region in a week. This time, Israel has not denied responsibility for the attack, and even its staunchest ally has condemned it for the “indefensible” and “unacceptable” strike.

You could watch the videos, scan the tweets, or read countless articles that condemn these actions. There isn’t all that much left to say: the IDF killed men, women, and children who sought shelter from the UN, an organization that Israel belongs to, signs on to, gives money to. 

Fewer people died in the UNRWA building than in attacks during the hours before and after. There is nothing uniquely tragic, pound for pound, about the corpses that lie in protected UN territory; hitting a UN site is not materially worse than attacking, say, a market or an apartment building—which the IDF has also done with little discrimination. There’s something admittedly absurd, too, about the idea of one square meter, and the people in it, being inviolable, while the space a few feet away from it remains fair game for bombs and shells alike.

And yet the gravity of this infraction cannot be measured in blood or bodies or severed limbs. An attack on the UN is an assault on an institution that, while imperfect, was created to save lives on both sides of a conflict like this one. Such an attack blows to pieces platitudes about the so-called “peace process.”

I’ll be the first to admit to being biased here, not necessarily on the side of Israel or Palestine, but as a member of a United Nations diaspora. I grew up in the UN community in Geneva—a sort of stateless, liminal zone that’s not really part of Switzerland at all and where the UN and its sister agencies serve as surrogates for national identity. Many of us do not “know” our home countries or “passport countries,” as we have come to describe them. Many members of this community do not identify with nations, even though their job might be to represent them before some intergovernmental body or another. This is an insanely privileged position to be in. It also breeds a sort of glib, post-national thinking that is well-intentioned but not always constructive: it is not so easy to tell people who have been fighting over a piece of land for decades that their borders are mere constructs. 

In fact, the border between UNRWA and non-UNRWA land is pretty arbitrary, too, particularly during wartime. It’s a line in the sand during a high tide. It is a myth propped up by goodwill and idealism—or, at least, it was. And yet I find myself unusually shaken whenever a UN building erupts in flames; the video of UNRWA’s communications director breaking down during his statement on the shelling sums up how profoundly unsettling these recent assaults were for anyone who, until then, had maintained some hope in the idea of international cooperation. Part of my reaction stems from the knowledge that the people in that building could easily include people I know. When a massive earthquake rattled Haiti in 2010, I knew it could have been a sibling, a parent, a friend trapped, or an acquaintance trapped in the rubble. When a hotel that caters to expats in Afghanistan was shot up a few months ago, it was the same story. (My mother, an interpreter, has stayed in hotels that were in the middle of both of these disasters.) When, in 2003, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s envoy in Baghdad, was killed by a blast at his office there, the incident reverberated throughout Geneva. For those of us privileged enough to live far from it, these incidents bring conflict home: international territory, no matter where it is, is home for me. If we gave it a chance, it could be for more of us.

I realize that my feelings towards the UN might seem analogous to those of a nationalist mourning the loss of his or her own countrymen. The difference, though, is that individual nations—Israel, the United States, Switzerland, North Korea—exist in order to exclude non-members. The whole point of an international organization like the UN, on the other hand, is to be inclusive—an antidote to nationalistic displays of hatred and violence. The UN won’t throw bombs back. It aims at solutions beyond revenge.

Granted, the UN has at least as many flaws as your average nation-state. It was cast in a deeply Eurocentric and arguably colonialist mold. It lets peacekeepers get away with sexual violence. It gave Haitians cholera, for chrissakes. It’s also a bubble: socioeconomically, the people who work for the UN are not your average Swede or Ghanaian. When the children of international civil servants sing “We are the world” in their elementary school plays, they might as well be singing, “we are the global one percent.” It is much easier to set aside religious, racial, and ethnic differences when your education is paid for and you live in a gated compound. This, no doubt, informs a great deal of the institution’s actions and policies.

But there’s a reason the UN continues to represent something bigger than its transgressions and shortcomings. We need the UN and its various agencies because they represent both an antidote to the savage nationalism that is killing thousands of people in Gaza and beyond, and an alternative to the corporate-led globalization doing so much harm to workers and the environment. We need it, if not to stop wars, then at least to warn countries at war whom not to shoot—assuming, of course, that they are committed to not killing civilians. (UNRWA tried, to no avail.) Until someone comes up with a better alternative, it’s what we’ve got. And right now, it seems like even that’s too much to ask.  

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a contributing editor at Dissent and an editor at Al Jazeera America and the New Inquiry.