By Emma Emeozor ( [email protected] )
The outburst of Nigeria over the “undemocratic” and “old-fashioned” United Nations Security Council days after the 72nd General Assembly (UNGA) summit raises concern over the long long-drawn-out debate on reforms. Nigeria is not alone in its condemnation of the supreme organ of the world body.
The vexed question has been the composition of the Security Council and the exclusive use of the veto power by the five permanent members, otherwise known as the ‘Big Five.’ Ahmad Kamal, former Pakistan ambassador to the UN was in the forefront of the campaign. He once expressed his angst while making remarks on the composition and the political power of the permanent members of the council: He said “in a democracy, no one can be more equal than others” He also described the veto power as “anachronistic” and “undemocratic.”
In 2011, Indian Ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Singh Puri, in an intervention on the issue, said that “new permanent members must have the same rights, including the veto, as existing permanent members” and “a general review should take place 15 years after the alterations are made to assess their success.”
The reluctance of the ‘Big Five’ to accede to the demand for the transformation of the UN remains a clog in its wheel of progress. This has cast shadows of doubts on the objectives of the body as the Security Council can best be described as an imperialist organ within the UN system used by the permanent members to control the affairs of former colonies who are now members of the world body by virtue of their new status as independent nations.
Nigeria Permanent Representative to the UN, Tijani Bande aptly expressed the frustration of the pro-reform group, particularly the third world countries, when he wondered aloud why a few countries can veto the entirety of the global community through the Security Council.“First the fundamental question is that in the current global reality, where everybody is talking democracy, the UN must show example,” Bande queried.
The envoy said: “Clearly, it is an anachronistic notion to have a body composed of few countries that can veto the entirety of the global community through the council is not representative.”He argued that it “is an anomaly and I think that has been recognized but the politics of the reform not just of the UN in terms of the powers of the general assembly and its functions.”
The calls for reform date back to the early 1990s. Since then, successive Secretary Generals of the body had tried to visit the topic without making progress. When Antonio Guterres assumed duty in January, the question of reform was one of top on his agenda. Months down the lane, it is becoming clear that his focus is on administration and bureaucracy, apparently, in response to the demands of the big powers particularly the United States.
At a forum on UN reforms on 18 September 2017, ahead of his General Assembly debate, US President Donald Trump said: “In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential due to bureaucracy and mismanagement,” adding: “We are not seeing the results in line with this investment.”
He charged the Secretary General to focus “more on people and less on bureaucracy” and to change “business as usual and not be beholden to ways of the past which were not working.” He complained that his country was paying more than its fair share to keep the world body running and threatened to cut funding.
Though he who pays the piper dictates the tune, the US and rest of the permanent members must recognize the fact that the UN operates under a charter that promotes democracy, transparency, equality, and respect for member states to mention a few. They are obliged to uphold the charter of the organization.
Guterres address to the General Assembly
Guterres address to the 72nd UNGA was thought provoking as he highlighted the major threats to mankind. Starting with “We the people,” and the United Nations, face grave challenges, Our world is in trouble, People are Hurting and angry,” he listed the following as threatening the world and its environment: nuclear peril, global threat of terror, unresolved conflicts and systematic violations of international humanitarian law, climate change which he said “puts our hopes in jeopardy” and human mobility which he said is “a challenge that, if properly managed, can help bring the world together.
Then he addressed the question of UN reforms, saying “We need to reform our world, and I am committed to reforming the United Nations.” There is no doubt that Guterres is sincerely committed to reforming the organization. But what level of reforms the former Portuguese prime minister is talking about.
Hear him: “Together, we have embarked on a comprehensive reform effort: to build a UN development system to support States in bettering people’s lives; to reinforce our ability to safeguard people’s peace, security and human rights; and to embrace management practices that advance those goals instead of hindering them.”
Of course, since assuming office, he has introduced some practical measures to change the face of the organization. He has introduced “a new victim-centered approach to preventing sexual exploitation and abuse.” He has also put in place a roadmap to “achieve gender parity” in the organization.
He is also committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 2030 is the target for its achievements. “We are reforming our development system to become much more field-focused, well coordinated and accountable to better assist countries through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – our contribution to a fair globalization,” Guterres explained.
Even with his good intentions to ensure the organization stand up to its responsibilities, how far he would go depends on the freedom to function without interference by the super powers.
After the Trump threat, Guterres may have decided to adopt what observers describe as “discrete diplomacy” to handle the affairs of the organization. Analysts point to how long it took Guterres to react to Trump’s immigration policy and the ban on some Muslim countries.
They also drew attention to the conflict between Guterres and Trump over the Israel-Palestine crisis. Trump once tweeted revenge for what he considered UN’s anti-Israel bias. Already, he acted by pulling the US from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Trump also queried Guterres choice of envoy for the organization’s “support mission” in Libya. Though the US is the highest contributor to the organization’s fund, there are other major contributors that not even Washington can ignore. Put differently, Washington’s cut of fund to the organization may not stop its general operations after all. Perhaps, the Trump administration never thought of this before issuing its threats.
Dulcie Leimbach, founder of PassBlue in her article entitled ‘Can Antonio Guterres Fend Off Trump’s War on the UN?’ published in the newspaper, noted that “China is eager to step into the void.” According to Leibach, “Japan, which is the second-largest donor to the UN general budget, after the US, and third-largest to the peacekeeping budget (after US and China), said it was tracking such moves by its giant neighbor.”
As it is now, the overbearing attitude of the permanent members of the Security Council puts to doubt the capability of Guterres to match words with action. Observers believe Guterres effort at reviving the Cyprus peace talks may have failed due to Russia’s interference in the negotiations. They say Russians try to maintain control of their offshore gas development near the island and their offshore banking interests in Cyprus.
President of UNGA too
The president of the 72nd Session of UNGA, Miroslav Lajcak, in his opening statement emphasized the need for reforms. He said reforms was a major item for the summit and “they will represent a first.” Highlighting the importance of reforms, he said: “Reforms will, indeed, mean something new.”
According to him, “they will allow the UN to work in a way it never has before.” He recognized the fact that “The UN of today looks very different from that which was established in 1945… We must thus see UN reforms as an opportunity to contribute to an ongoing process but with a fresh outlook.” Both Guterres and Lajcak however failed to explain how the reforms would affect the Security Council. They chose to keep mum on this burning issue for obvious reasons.
UN reforms must start with Security Council shakeup
As Lajcak rightly observed, the UN of today is different from the UN of 1945 when the organization was founded. The membership has increased from the initial five to 193. All members are independent countries and therefore, should participate in the activities of the body with a sense of belonging. This can manifest only if the principle of equal partnership is observed. In other words, there should be no dichotomy for reasons of size, wealth and military might.
Article 1 (2) of the UN Charter says the purpose of the organisation is “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace” while Article 2(1) of the UN Charter says “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”
Ironically, the veto power exercised by the ‘Big Five’ technically makes Articles 1(2) and 2 (1) ineffective. The developing countries are compelled to play the role of underdogs within the organization.
This is even as some of them are making great contributions in various areas including international peacekeeping and scientific and technological development. As part of efforts to concretely address the question of reforms, in 2007, Sheikha al-Khalifa, president of the General Assembly outlined “five key cluster areas”: the size of an enlarged Security Council, the categories of membership, questions concerning regional representation, questions regarding extending the power of the veto to additional member states and the working methods of the Security Council and its relationship with the General Assembly.
Though al-Khalifa’s proposal was criticized, analysts agree that it provided a good working tool.
Over the years, there had been divergent views without a consensus being reached. In 2010, Italian ambassador Cesare Maria Raglaglini highlighted the position of one of the groups when he said: “Uniting for Consensus argues that creating more permanent seats would postpone rather than solve the problem, as the Council would have to add more of these seats in 15 or 20 years to accommodate new geopolitical changes.
“Rather, the Council should be opened to new long-term non-permanent members and consider the possibility of regional representation.” At a point, there were suggestions that the veto power should be scrapped. The debate has, since, remained on the front burner but with no hope that the voice of the majority would be heard soon.
The Future of UN
Some analysts believe that the future of the world body would depend on the willingness of the super powers to remain members. They argue that if the veto power is scrapped, the ‘Big Five’ may decide to withdraw their membership or remain but would refuse to fund the organization’s operations. Thus the organization would become moribund.
Whatever be the argument, the importance of the membership of the rest of the nations cannot be understated. As it is now, the future of the organization is wobbling. There comes a time when the ‘small’ nations would decide to ignore the orders of the Security Council as in the case of North Korea nuclear tests. It is hoped that the ‘Big Five’ will allow good reason to prevail and accept the calls for a comprehensive review of the UN system.