Why is the UN genocide office silent about Gaza?

Alice Wairimu Nderitu stands at a podium with logo of U.S. Institute of Peace behind her

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on genocide prevention, is violating her mandate by remaining silent about Gaza.(U.S. Institute of Peace)


Alice Wairimu Nderitu has one job that’s spelled out in her official title: She’s the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

Yet while human rights groups, independent UN experts and genocide scholars are ringing the alarm bells over Israel’s extermination campaign in Gaza, Nderitu has remained silent.

On 15 October, Nderitu did issue a statement strongly condemning – no less than three times – Hamas for attacking Israel on 7 October.

She apparently accepts as fact all of Israel’s unverified and quickly unraveling claims about that day.

Nderitu even suggests that Palestinians attack Israel not because they are under a brutal, decades-long occupation, but rather “on the basis of identity” – echoing Israel’s absurd and reprehensible propaganda that it is anti-Semitism that motivates Palestinian resistance.

Nderitu pointedly did not condemn Israel’s barbaric and indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza, which by that date had already killed more than 2,300 Palestinians and injured almost 10,000.

The death toll is now at least 18,000, nearly half children.

Deafening silence

In a highly unusual move, dozens of UN staff last month signed a memo condemning Nderitu’s double standards and refusal to address Israel’s illegal and inhumane actions in Gaza.

And in a letter to Nderitu earlier this month, more than a dozen Palestinian human rights organizations expressed alarm at her lopsided statement and continuing silence about Gaza.

“Your silence on the risk of genocide in Palestine … is deafening,” the rights groups wrote, addressing both Nderitu and her colleague George Okoth-Obbo, the special adviser to the secretary-general on the responsibility to protect.

Nderitu cannot claim ignorance about what is happening in Gaza.

As early as 13 October, Palestinian human rights groups called on world governments to “urgently intervene to protect the Palestinian people against genocide.”

On 15 October, 800 scholars and practitioners of international law and genocide studies, among them prominent Holocaust scholars, signed a statement “to sound the alarm about the possibility of the crime of genocide being perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”

The UN’s independent human rights experts have issued similar calls, including one signed by three dozen UN special rapporteurs last month warning of a “genocide in the making” in Gaza.

Nderitu’s UN colleague Craig Mokhiber resigned in October as director of the UN human rights office in New York.

“Once again, we are seeing a genocide unfolding before our eyes, and the organization that we serve appears powerless to stop it,” Mokhiber wrote in his resignation letter.

“Kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child”

These warnings noted that along with massive, indiscriminate violence, Israeli leaders make no secret of their desire to destroy the Palestinian people.

Defense minister Yoav Gallant referred to Palestinians as “human animals” when he announced that Israel was laying a starvation siege on Gaza, cutting off water, food, electricity, medicine and fuel.

Justifying Israel’s slaughter campaign, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, indicated that all 2.3 million people in Gaza – half of them children – were guilty and marked for death.

“It’s an entire nation out there that is responsible,” Herzog said. “It’s not true, this rhetoric about civilians not aware, not involved, it’s absolutely not true.”

Herzog suggested that Palestinians in Gaza had only themselves to blame because they failed to rise up and overthrow Hamas.

And perhaps most notoriously, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, likened the Palestinian people to Amalek, an enemy of the biblical Israelites.

In the Bible, God commands, “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

That does appear to be the Israeli army’s operating manual.

A mandate to sound an “early warning”

Writing in The New York Times on 10 November, Omer Bartov, an Israeli professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, stated that “In justifying the assault, Israeli leaders and generals have made terrifying pronouncements that indicate a genocidal intent.”

“There is still time to stop Israel from letting its actions become a genocide,” Bartov warned. “We cannot wait a moment longer.”

A month earlier, by contrast, Raz Segal, an Israeli professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Stockton University, had already declared Israel’s attack on Gaza to be “a textbook case of genocide.”

Experts may argue about whether or not a genocide is already taking place, but there is an alarmingly broad consensus that genocide is at the very least a major, imminent risk.

And that’s what’s important for Nderitu’s mandate. She’s not supposed to wait until a genocide has already happened before she acts.

Her official responsibility is to gather data “on massive and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law of ethnic and racial origin that if not prevented or halted, might lead to genocide.”

The duty given to her directly by the UN Security Council is to “act as a mechanism of early warning … by bringing to their attention potential situations that could result in genocide.”

The sound of silence

The UN Office on Genocide Prevention, which Nderitu heads, has ignored repeated requests for comment for this story – including about whether she is even collecting data about what is happening in Gaza, as her mandate requires.

While Nderitu has kept her silence about Israeli genocide in Gaza, her office “has issued warnings on the rights of Armenian refugees to return, on the heightened risk of genocide and atrocity crimes in Tigray, Amhara, Afar, Oromi and on the risk of genocide in Darfur, Sudan,” the Palestinian rights groups observe.

Saturday was the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide, which the United Nations marks annually on 9 December.

The occasion also marked the 75th anniversary of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Any country that has ratified the treaty has the right and responsibility to invoke the genocide convention and bring another state suspected of genocide to the International Court of Justice and other UN bodies.

This procedure would at least raise the matter to the top of the global agenda and help increase pressure on Israel to stop the slaughter.

But so far, as journalist Sam Husseini observes, no government has done so.

That abrogation of responsibility makes it even more urgent that Nderitu sound the alarm, as her mandate requires.

But last Friday, Nderitu organized a ceremony at UN headquarters to mark the annual commemoration for victims of genocide.

It began with a moment of silence. More silence is exactly not what Palestinians in Gaza need.