Guterres invokes Article 99 in the UN Charter

UN Secretary-General António Guterres invoked Article 99 of the UN charter yesterday, stepping up pressure on the UN Security Council to declare a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and “help avert a humanitarian catastrophe”.

What’s Article 99? It empowers the Secretary-General to bring to the Security Council’s attention “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” 

In his letter, Guterres says:

  • More than eight weeks of hostilities in Gaza and Israel have created appalling human suffering, physical destruction and collective trauma across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
  • He condemns the “the abhorrent acts of terror by Hamas” on 7 October, calls for the ~130 remaining hostages to be “immediately and unconditionally released“, and says “accounts of sexual violence during the attacks are appalling“.
  • And referring to Israel’s response in Gaza, he says, “more than 15,000 people have reportedly been killed”, “more than half of all homes have been destroyed“, “there is no effective protection of civilians“, and “the situation is fast deteriorating into a catastrophe“.

As bureaucratic as writing a letter might sound, Article 99 is basically the only independent political tool the UN chief has. And in practice, it means he now gets the right to speak to the Security Council rather than await an invite.

Of course, wrapped up in Article 99 is an implicit criticism by a Secretary-General that the Security Council hasn’t been doing its job. That’s why it’s only been invoked explicitly three times in the UN’s 78-year history, including:

  • In 1960, responding to the Congo’s request for UN troops
  • In 1979, responding to the seizure of the US embassy in Iran, and
  • In 1989, calling for an end to the Lebanese civil war.

And in these three cases, the Council went on to issue a resolution within days, reflecting the fact the UN chiefs at the time were pushing on an open door.

So here we are in 2023, and the UN Security Council has duly called an emergency meeting for this morning (New York time) in response to the UN chief’s letter.

But few would describe Guterres as pushing on an open door this time. It took the Council more than five weeks to adopt its first and only resolution on Israel-Hamas. And that was after four failed attempts, including:

The sheer rarity of Article 99 gives the Secretary-General’s move symbolic and political weight, but will it actually change anything?


The UAE (currently a member of the Council) plans to put forward a resolution calling for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” during this morning’s emergency meeting.

It reportedly will not include amendments submitted by the US, including a condemnation of Hamas, a call for both Palestinian and Israeli civilians to be protected, and a call for the immediate release of all hostages.

The US Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Robert Wood, has already hinted at his country’s position, saying a resolution “would not be useful” right now.

So, given the basic calculations among the key Council members seem unchanged, it’s hard to see any resolution passing.

Also worth noting:

  • Responding to the Article 99 news, Israel’s ambassador to the UN said the “distorted positions of the Secretary-General only prolong the fighting in Gaza, because they give hope to the Hamas terrorists that the war will be stopped and they will be able to survive.
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