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World

Guyana, Leading the UN Security Council, Is Not Giving Up on a Ceasefire in Gaza

todayFebruary 1, 2024

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Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, permanent representative of Guyana, photographed at the country’s mission to the UN, Jan 22, 2023. “We would very much like to see a ceasefire for the people to receive the necessary humanitarian aid,” she said about Gaza in an interview. “We are not at that point yet, and that is really regrettable.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

By via PassBlue

The United Nations Security Council’s continuing failure to agree on a ceasefire in Gaza is troubling many members, including Guyana, which assumes the rotating presidency of the Council on Feb. 1. Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, Guyana’s permanent representative to the UN, told PassBlue that her country would continue to lead the conversation to get more humanitarian support to the people of Gaza.

“Several members of the Council continue to call for a ceasefire, but we have at least one Council member that is not at that point as yet,” Rodrigues-Birkett said. “I can tell you that Guyana will continue to call for this as it is with the other members. We have to go back to the mandate of the Council in the maintenance of peace and security around the world.”

The United States, a permanent Council member, is the only country in the body still resisting calls for a ceasefire. Jeffrey Laurenti, an international affairs analyst formerly with the Century Foundation think tank and a UN expert, told PassBlue that Guyana’s effort as rotating president would achieve nothing until President Joe Biden is ready to push “a ceasefire down Israel’s throat.”

In December, the UN named Sigrid Kaag, a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of the Netherlands, to oversee the expedition of humanitarian relief shipments into Gaza as mandated by a Council resolution in December. Kaag will “facilitate, coordinate, monitor, and verify humanitarian relief consignments to Gaza,” the UN says of her role, which started on Jan. 8.

She told the media at UN headquarters in New York City on Jan. 30 that her recent trip and conversations with top officials in Israel, Egypt, the West Bank and elsewhere in the Mideast will help her to establish mechanisms to streamline aid into Gaza even as Israel’s bombardment on the strip and obstructionism to aid flows continues.

Kaag also said that “there is no way any organization can replace or substitute the tremendous capacity and the fabric of UNRWA and its ability and knowledge,” in light of dozens of countries, starting with the US, temporarily pulling funding to the UN refugee and works agency after Israeli accusations became public that a dozen Unrwa staffers from Gaza participated in the Hamas Oct. 7 attacks.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that although Washington has not independently verified the Israeli claim, it is “highly credible.”

The staffers were fired before a formal review was done by Unrwa (one was already dead and two are apparently unidentified). The UN Office of Internal Oversight is also investigating the allegations, based on “information” from Israel, the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric has said, without elaborating. The Israeli foreign ministry has not provided full evidence of the accusations to Unrwa or to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, although some media outlets are reporting on the accusations based on a so-called “dossier” from Israel.

Rodrigues-Birkett said of Gaza: “We would like to see the end of this war as soon as possible, given the catastrophic situation that we’re witnessing in Gaza. . . . We would very much like to see a ceasefire for the people to receive the necessary humanitarian aid. We are not at that point yet, and that is really regrettable.”

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel on Jan. 26 to prevent death and any acts of genocide in Gaza, but did not order a ceasefire. Stefan Talmon, a professor of law and the director of the Institute for Public International Law at the University of Bonn, Germany, told PassBlue in December that the UN’s top court would not order Israel to halt its military incursion.

“The court will probably accept South Africa’s application for provisional measures, but I think the court will not indicate that Israel stop its military operations in Gaza,” Talmon told PassBlue.

The Israel Defense Forces have killed at least 26,751 people and injured 65,636 others in Gaza since invading the enclave after Hamas attacks in Israel killed some 1,200 people and took 240 hostages on Oct. 7. The ICJ made at least six pronouncements on Jan. 26, all asking Israel to reduce civilian casualties.

Guyana is also expecting the court to rule in its favor on a  case closer to home: its territorial dispute with Venezuela over the Essequibo area, which dates back to 1899. Tensions between Guyana and Venezuela first intensified in 2015, when ExxonMobil, working for the Guyanese government, announced it had discovered crude oil in Essequibo.

In December 2023, the ICJ warned Venezuela to maintain status quo on the disputed territory, but Caracas held a national referendum on whether to make Essequibo a new state in Venezuela. Most Venezuelans voted in favor. Guyana President Mohamed Irfaan Ali said Venezuela has escalated the conflict, telling media that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has threatened to occupy the territory and establish an administrative body, despite ICJ’s warning.

“There is no Venezuelan presence in our territory,” Rodrigues-Birkett told PassBlue. “But we thought it necessary to go to the ICJ because of the narrative, the worrying narratives that were coming out from Venezuela, and also the removal to have a referendum on our Essequibo.”

“We felt we needed to inform the Security Council of what was taking place given the Council’s mandate in terms of maintaining international peace and security,” she added.

Laurenti is worried that Guyana, with just under a million people, does not have the military allies to defend itself against Venezuela if it invades Essequibo, though he expects the international community to oppose military action from Venezuela.

“I don’t see Venezuela as having very much international support for launching a war to seize the oil-rich territories of Guyana,” he said.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the Council presidency. This month, Ambassador Rodrigues-Birkett spoke in an interview in January about Guyana’s stance on the Gaza war and its own territorial dispute with Venezuela over an oil-rich region. Her comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

PassBlue: What are Guyana’s signature events for its presidency in the Council?

Rodrigues-Birkett: We are doing an event on Feb. 13 focusing on the impacts of climate change and food insecurity on the maintenance of international peace and security. This is a very important issue not just for Guyana, but for many countries. We are seeing an increase in food insecurity. For the most part, this increase is heavily pronounced in countries that are affected by conflict. We also have noted that since the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] were approved in 2015, which is when we started to see the downward spiral of food insecurity. Just a decade before, we were seeing really positive signs.

PassBlue: What will Guyana do in the Security Council to further the call for a ceasefire in Gaza?

Rodrigues-Birkett: The Council operates with 15 members, and we hope that together we can move the conversation forward. We welcome the appointment of Sigrid Kaag and we are hoping that she will be able to provide the kind of reports that we have mandated her to provide. I would say that the Council is still at a place where it has not been able to agree on a ceasefire, which is essential  to move this process forward.

PassBlue: What’s the latest on the territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela?

Rodrigues-Birkett: We have sought the support of the [UN] secretary-general to send this case to the ICJ, and it’s there right now. We are hoping that in the not too distant future we will have a pronouncement by the ICJ. The tensions have escalated somewhat in recent months, but there was an agreement signed by Guyana and Venezuela to continue to engage. But, of course, Guyana reiterated that the ICJ is going to make the pronouncement on the border matter, and other consequential matters can be discussed. So I would say things are calm at this point, we always subscribe to peaceful resolution of any dispute. This is the approach we’ve taken with Venezuela as well. What we sought from the ICJ in terms of provisional measures was for Venezuela not to include in their referendum issues surrounding our territory. [Venezuela held the referendum despite an ICJ warning not to do so]

PassBlue: What parts of the various UN system reform propositions does Guyana support?

Rodrigues-Birkett: Guyana is a part of the Caribbean community and we serve as the coordinator within the Caricom setting on Security Council reform. We believe that the urgency of reform should not be tossed aside. There’s the intergovernmental negotiations happening now. We believe that we need to have a text so we can start actual negotiations to have a reformed Security Council. It has been more than three decades, and we have not been able to see that. We support the call by Africa to right the historical injustice. We believe that expanding both the nonpermanent and the permanent membership is something that we can support. Let me say that we also have indicated very clearly that we support abolishing the veto, but if the veto is to be retained, any new permanent member must also have the veto. We cannot have sustainable development without a world where there is peace and there is security. So this would be our mantra as a small state.

PassBlue: Does Guyana want a permanent seat in the Council?

Rodrigues-Birkett: No, not at all. But let me say Guyana, along with Caricom, advocate for a rotating seat for small island developing states. We believe that small island developing states [SIDS] have a unique perspective; they are at the frontlines in terms of the impacts of climate change, which has its own security implications.

PassBlue: You’ve been ambassador for two years at the UN, and now you’re in the hot seat at the Security Council. What’s it like? Sometimes we hear the term finding yourself in this world. I think if there’s a place for finding yourself, it’s as a permanent representative in the United Nations. You meet very interesting people but also realize that all of us share some common values and some of those values might be different. But I think we all want to see a better world, for our children, for our grandchildren. We all want to see a peaceful world. There are lots of criticisms of the United Nations, but I think one cannot imagine what the world would be without a United Nations.

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