The UN needs to reform: But for whom?

M Afsarul Qader

The much talked about “reform” of the Security Council, the maker and keeper of international peace and security, during the last September decennial bash of the UN did not take off. But, other reform proposals managed to come out in bare-bone form surviving wide-ranging amendments introduced at the last stage of the finalisation of the recommendations, by Mr. John Bolton, the United States Permanent Representative.

The proposals for the reform of the United Nations were based on the "Report of the Secretary General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change" penned by 16 "eminent and experienced people" chaired by Mr. Anand Panyarachun , a former Foreign Minister of Thailand. The 164-page report with 101 recommendations covered the entire range of the UN problems and concerns in response to the terms of reference given to it by the Secretary General. Mr. Annan, observing that the report had "even surpassed" his "expectations."

The proposals, inter alia, covered the aspect of “reform” of the Security Council in the light of changes in the global order and the vast increase in the numbers of the UN member since 1945. Apparently, being most topical and attractive of all the issues, it grabbed the political and media limelight much to the detriment of other important issues like "human security", "development" and "democracy". Annan, under Plan A, proposed increase in the membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC) by six new permanent members without the veto right and three more non-permanent members on a rotating two-year basis on equitable geographical basis. Under Plan B, he suggested to add eight new members on four-year basis and one member on two-year basis. He was careful though not to suggest any country's name for the new positions and left the decision to the member states. But he gave the deadline of mid-September i.e. before the assembly of world leaders, for taking a decision on his proposals. He also presented the proposal as a “package” and discouraged “cherry-picking”.

UN Security Council..elusive expansion

Japan and Germany, with their credentials of democratic governance, economic might and on the strength of higher contribution to the UN coffer and its multiple peace-keeping operations, pitched for attaining their due role in the UN that was denied to them as vanquished powers by the victors while charting out a new global order in 1945.

They teamed up with two other big league aspirants - India and Brazil. The latter two think that they too ought to be in the league of the privileged as a matter of right because of their size of population, rising economic strength and “commitment” to the global body in its various operations. But the posturing was downgraded for the present when it joined others to form the G4 team and settled for permanent membership without veto status. In June '05 the group, while presenting a draft resolution to the UNGA, opted for Plan A with themselves as permanent member candidates without veto power and a proviso of incorporating two more such members for the UNSC from the African region.

The African Union took a rather bold decision of getting at least two permanent members with veto powers in the same forum and started negotiation with the G4 group without specifying as to who the two permanent members would be. There is no dearth of such aspirants in Africa, the leading two being South Africa and Nigeria. But, at least, they did not make any “me too” kind of rush to ensure their position of glory under the sun.

Disagreeing with the nature of the Council “reform”, the “Coffee Group” consisting of Egypt, Kenya, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Pakistan, Italy, Spain and other like-minded countries advocated expansion of the UNSC on the line of Plan B conveying 'yes' to expansion but limited only to the non-permanent membership. They felt that new permanent membership would be continuation of the same old anachronistic and privileged order and hence would be no reform at all. On the other hand, expansion on the basis of election would be democratic and ensure accountability in future.

Among the existing permanent members France and Britain were willing to go along with the proposal of the G4. France was even a sponsor of the G4 draft proposal at the UN. But China and the USA refused to go by the deadline and the “package” deal of the SG stating that more time and discussion were needed.

China opposed the permanent membership of Japan, a view shared by South Korea, as they felt that Japan had not yet amended her wartime 'behaviour' towards their peoples in any meaningful and positive way, while being silent on other candidates.

US stood against the G4 draft stating that the time was not right for the increase in the UNSC membership and that other reform proposals notably the one on human rights i.e. the formation of a smaller Human Rights Council with more punch and administrative reforms of the Secretariat that were to its liking should get priority. However, it wanted aspirations of Japan to be accommodated along with another unspecified country in the Security Council.

Given the on-going bonhomie with the Indians the vagueness kept them hopeful. It was also mindful of not antagonising the African Group that has a legendary reputation to vote as a block of 53 critical votes on vital issues. But the underlying strategy was to defer postponement of a decision on the expansion of the Security Council and continue as long as possible with its own new found privileges as the only global super power, unhindered and unfettered.

At the end the inevitable happened and no “reform” or more appropriately “reconfiguring” of the Security Council took place. Though painful, Mr. Kofi Annan had to remain satisfied with the other reforms in yet-to-take shapes. He, however, was optimistic and viewed the results as a case of the proverbial glass of hope as “half full” rather than “half empty”.

Amidst intense politicking and the usual UN pressure cooker and rush-hour reforms, the smaller countries having legitimate stakes in the emergence of a fair and equitable global politico-economic order and exercise of democratic rights in the global decision making arena found themselves in a state of perplexity and disbelief. The SG's proposal apparently met the forms of a reform but not its substantive nature matching and upholding the deeper and fundamental norms that go with the concepts of “freedom” and “democracy”. Moreover, their age old mentors and intellectual guides abandoned them in the very first serious opportunity to make a wild rush for the seats of power, giving a short shrift to the first real prospect of a comprehensive and balanced reform of the UN and its governance from the existing undemocratic pattern.

The alignment of India in support of an illegal and unjust resolution against Iran in the IAEA on 23 September '05 was a pointer to the games that are played in the real world of power and quest for promotion of national interest. It brought to the fore the centrality of "real politik" in the present world of the nation states and the iron grip of the concept of power politics in direct contradiction of the universal demand for democratisation of the international relations for over half a century. That the scope and reach of the concepts of “democracy” and “rule of law” in the inter-se behaviour of states stops at the national frontiers and are not allowed to extend to the sphere of global order contrary to the encomium given by their votaries became once again patently clear.

Hence, it would be far more useful if the smaller nations, both of the North and the South, forge effective unity amongst themselves to overcome the inherent conceptual and practical contradictions of the 'new world order' that may one day lead the UN the League of Nations' way. They could do so by being united and effective in the General Assembly where they have legal equality and work in a manner that could earn the confidence and appreciation of the Civil Societies in the North and the South, thus influencing their respective leadership for the general good of “we the peoples of the United Nations”.

The smaller nations should view security in totality and not in terms of physical security only as advocated by the powerful on the confident understanding that their ideology holds the sway and the way of life has become more or less unassailable. All they need to do is to ensure their security from the threats of non-state “terror” groups and cross-boundary criminals.

In the complex reality of today's globalised world these nations need an equitable framework of relations and a compact that can only come through global actions in a global forum like the UN. Whereas the security and political needs of the powerful have been and are being converted into so many binding decisions and conventions in the global bodies at an accelerated pace the needs of the peoples of smaller and weaker countries are still waiting for effective actions from those pulpits.

In this scenario there seems to be no silver lining for the smaller countries from the stalled reform process, as expansion or no expansion of the Security Council, they would continue to yield on every negotiating front to the powerful, without the benefit of any real quid pro quo unless they can put their acts together. Perhaps during the next such bash they may decide to knock their heads together to work out a common strategy rather than spending five minutes on the hallowed GA podium giving a lecture, which is hardly listened to and much less followed up. For the proponents of “small is beautiful” and “effective” as far as exercising of power is concerned, the “good time” continues.

The author is a former Ambassador.

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