Still waiting for No 242

Paul Foot
Wednesday November 13, 2002
The Guardian

Triumphant photographs in the newspapers showing all 15 members of the UN security council voting unanimously for the US-UK resolution on Iraq reminded me of a similar picture that dominated my parents' home for a decade. My father, Hugh Foot, later Lord Caradon, was for most of his life a colonial servant. He helped to haul down the Union Jack in Nigeria, where he was chief secretary, and in Jamaica and Cyprus, where he was governor. By far his proudest achievement was as UK representative to the UN in 1967 when he managed, after five months of delicate and dedicated negotiation, to persuade all 15 members of the security council to vote for resolution 242. He had the photograph of the vote framed, and it sat proudly on his desk until he died in 1990.

Resolution 242 referred to the seizure and occupation in the 1967 six-day war by Israeli military forces of lots of other countries' land inhabited in the main by Palestinians. Resolution 242 called for the "withdrawal of Israel's armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict". The terms of the resolution have been hotly debated ever since.

Clever pro-Israeli lawyers observe that the word "all" does not appear in the text before the words "territories occupied"; and that therefore the resolution leaves it open to Israeli forces to withdraw only from "some", not all, of the occupied territories. So I was very glad to read an article in last month's International and Comparative Law Quarterly by the London solicitor John McHugo. He meticulously and comprehensively demolishes what he calls "the rightwing interpretation" of the resolution. He cites as an example a notice in a park that "dogs must be kept on a lead", and asks whether this could be taken to mean "some dogs must be kept on a lead", or whether it means what it says - "all dogs must be kept on a lead". He interprets 242 in the context of its preamble that emphasises the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war". After an analysis of the contributions to the UN debate on the resolution, including my father's, he concludes that the resolution meant what it said: that Israeli forces should be withdrawn from the territories they occupied in the six-day war: the West Bank of Jordan, the Golan heights and a large part of Jerusalem.

How does the reaction to resolution 242 compare with the one passed last week on Iraq? The Iraq resolution has been pursued with furious haste. Weapons inspectors are expected in Iraq in a matter of days, and if there is the slightest even momentary hesitation on behalf of the Iraqi government, everyone assumes that war will follow. Resolution 242, on the other hand, has been passed for 35 years. For all that time it has been contemptuously ignored by the Israeli government. What conclusion can we draw from this comparison?

Some international lawyers argue that the Iraq resolution is passed under chapter VII of the UN charter and therefore requires prompt action, while resolution 242 does not. But why not? Why is the demand for Israeli withdrawal not backed up with a threat of force? As President Bush himself put it in his speech to the UN general assembly on September 12: "Are security council resolutions to be honoured or cast aside without consequence?" The real argument behind the double standard seems to be this: unanimous UN resolutions assisting US oil imperialism will be enforced with the most ruthless military rigour, while unanimous UN resolutions directed against states friendly to the US will be ignored. Whether that is what the founders of the UN had in mind is not clear. What is clear is that whatever happens in Iraq, Palestine is still the issue.

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It was last updated on 12th November 2002.