A democratic United Nations

February 15, 2015

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The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

IN an opinion piece in the New York Times of Feb 6, former United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, bemoan that the UN has failed to serve its primary purpose to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and advance ‘Four Ideas for a Stronger UN’.

The first and main “idea” is to add an unspecified number of quasi-permanent members to the 15-member Security Council.

It is true that the spreading collapse of world order today is linked to the erosion of international legitimacy. And, the monopolisation and misuse of the Security Council’s vast powers by some of the five permanent members has contributed considerably to this erosion of international legitimacy.

A more democratic Security Council could command greater credibility. But, unless one believes in the adage ‘set a thief to catch a thief’, adding new ‘permanent’ members to the Council’s membership, instead of enhancing its legitimacy, may further erode it. It is precisely this kind of thinking that led to the “stalemate” mentioned by Annan and Brundtland.

Four states — Brazil, Germany, Japan and India (G-4) — advanced the disingenuous proposition that, to neutralise the power of the P5, these ‘new and emerging powers’ should be anointed as additional permanent members of the Security Council. Nigeria and South Africa joined in, calling for similar privileges for themselves as ‘representatives’ of Africa.

The move was vigorously opposed by the ‘Coffee Club’ — later renamed the ‘Uniting for Consensus’ group. This included Pakistan, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Canada and a score of other states, tacitly supported by China.

The UfC pointed out that if the criteria for continuous membership of the Security Council was the capacity of a state to contribute to international peace and security, several other states would also qualify, including: Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran (from Asia); Mexico, Argentina and Colombia (from Latin America); Italy, Spain and Canada (from Western Europe); and Egypt, Algeria and Angola (from Africa). The UfC proposed an alternative arrangement that would expand the Council and offer greater opportunities for representation to all UN members, big and small.


The frequent abuse of the veto by some of the P5 needs to be neutralised.


Breaking off negotiations, the G-4 launched a determined campaign in 2005 to secure adoption of their proposal by vote at the 60th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly. The move was defeated by an equally vigorous campaign by the UfC.

The G-4 have not been able to revive their proposal at the UN since then. There is growing recognition that a two-third majority cannot be secured for the G-4 proposal and, even if this was obtained, several of the P5 would not ratify the charter amendment to create the new permanent members. Among the G-4, it is only India which continues to insist on the demand for permanent membership.

The Annan-Brundtland “idea” to create additional seats with longer terms and the possibility of immediate re-election is advanced as a compromise. However, the UfC would do well to react cautiously to the suggestion. If only five or six new long-term, re-electable seats are created, it is evident that these would be almost permanently occupied by the six self-nominated states.

Other large and medium powers, including most UfC members, would be relegated to an inferior status. There would be no additional representation for the smaller states which make up the vast majority of the UN membership.

Consistent with its past positions, the UfC needs to ensure that: the Council is expanded by at least 10 members (to 25); that 10 of the 20 non-permanent seats are for longer terms of four years, not eight years (as some friends of the G-4 have suggested); that re-election to these seats would be possible for a state after a two-year interregnum.

Under such a structure, all member states which have the capability to contribute to regional and global peace and security (the G-4 and UfC) will have an opportunity to be frequently if not permanently represented on the Security Council. It would also provide larger opportunities for the vast majority of smaller UN member states to serve on the Council. The decisions of such a Council would have greater acceptability and legitimacy.

The second “idea” advanced by Annan-Brundtland: to ask the P5 to refrain from using the veto where their own “national” interests are involved is naive and has no chance of acceptance. The frequent abuse of the veto by some of the P5 needs to be neutralised. Pleading for restraint is unlikely to yield results.

The best way to oppose the P5 veto is to create larger possibilities for a counter veto by the non-permanent members of the Council. In a 25-member Council, 15 votes would be required to approve a resolution, enabling 11 of the (20) non-permanent members, if they join together, to block decisions which are unjust or inequitable. The playing field would become more level.

The third “idea”: to allow interested or affected parties to be invited to the Security Council’s closed door consultations, deserves full support. Nevertheless, to prevent arbitrary or discriminatory decisions, it would be advisable to agree on criteria to determine who would or would not be eligible to participate in such deliberations.

The fourth “idea”: that the Security Council recommend at least two candidates for the secretary general’s post to the UN General Assembly, even if accepted, may not change things very much. The Council could propose two colourless candidates instead of one.

An outstanding UN secretary general is likely to emerge only if the General Assembly is prepared to exercise its prerogative to reject the recommendations of the Security Council and, indeed, to ask the Council to consider one or more candidates which the Assembly deems fit for the office.

There is much else that is required to ensure that the UN, its secretary general and his officials represent the interests and priorities of the entire UN membership, instead of serving as the handmaiden of the great powers. The four “ideas” advanced by Annan and Brundtland would be a good place to start the process of bringing democracy to the United Nations on its 70th anniversary.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn February 15th , 2015

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