For the first time in his tenure, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres invoked a rare article of the group’s charter to formally sound the alarm over the unending atrocities in Gaza and the threat of humanitarian collapse for Palestinians in the region.
In a letter released Wednesday, Guterres said he was writing under Article 99 of the U.N. Charter to warn the Security Council of what the past eight weeks of “appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma” in Israel and Gaza could become if UNSC members don’t join together to call for a permanent cease-fire in the region.
“The health care system in Gaza is collapsing. Hospitals have turned into battlegrounds. Only 14 hospitals out of 36 facilities are even partially functional,” Guterres wrote. “The two major hospitals in south Gaza are operating at three times their bed capacity and are running out of basic supplies and fuel. They are also sheltering thousands of displaced persons.”
“Under these circumstances, more people will die untreated in the coming days and weeks. Nowhere is safe in Gaza.”
The article is a metaphorical panic button and has not been used for decades, according to the U.N. Wednesday was the first time Guterres used it as secretary-general.
On Oct. 7, Hamas carried out a deadly assault on Israel that resulted in more than 1,200 killed and about 250 taken back to Gaza as hostages. A dayslong temporary truce last month allowed for Hamas and Israel to exchange hostages — there are now about 130 who remain captive with Hamas — though Israeli settlers and soldiers continued to attack the occupied West Bank during the truce.
In response to the attack, Israel escalated its decadeslong violence against Gaza by raining bombs on the enclave of 2.3 million Palestinians, about half of whom are children. As of Wednesday, Israel has killed more than 16,200 people in Gaza — 70% of whom are women and children — and wounded more than 42,000 over the past two months, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Thousands are still trapped under rubble from buildings that have been flattened, while the surviving face starvation and sickness due to Israel blocking most aid.
“Amid constant bombardment by the Israel Defense Forces, and without shelter or the essentials to survive, I expect public order to completely break down soon due to the desperate conditions, rendering even limited humanitarian assistance impossible,” Guterres wrote. “An even worse situation could unfold, including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into neighboring countries.”
Israel ordered Palestinians in Gaza to flee the north as it upped its offensive, pushing remaining civilians into smaller areas in the enclave’s central and southern regions. But Palestinians say that it does not matter where they reside — Israeli forces bomb them anyway.
Guterres said the humanitarian crisis in Gaza could have “potentially irreversible implications” for the Palestinian population, as well as for peace and security in the region.
“The international community has a responsibility to use all its influence to prevent further escalation and end this crisis. I urge the members of the Security Council to press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.
“I reiterate my appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared. This is urgent. The civilian population must be spared from greater harm,” he continued. “With a humanitarian ceasefire, the means of survival can be restored, and humanitarian assistance can be delivered in a safe and timely manner across the Gaza Strip.”
Invoking Article 99 allows Guterres to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”
The 15-member Security Council’s previous efforts to pass a cease-fire resolution have failed due to vetoes by the United States, a financial and diplomatic ally of Israel. The U.S. abstained last month from a watered-down Security Council resolution that called for a temporary pause in fighting to allow for aid to enter Gaza.
The U.S. has seen Guterres’ letter but declined to comment on its contents, according to State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller. He said that the U.S. would continue consulting with the secretary-general and other Security Council members.
“Of course there are threats to regional security and threats to global security that are presented by this conflict,” Miller told reporters. “We said that in the very aftermath of Oct. 7, and we made quite clear that one of the things that we are trying to do is prevent this conflict from spreading.”