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POLITICS: Security Council Reform Remains Deadlocked

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 5 2009 (IPS) - After 15 long years of closed-door bickering, the United Nations remains irrevocably deadlocked on how to revamp the most powerful political body in the Organisation: the 15-member Security Council.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Ambassador HMGS Palihakkara, a longstanding diplomat who has served both in New York and Geneva for more than a decade, remains sceptical about the political exercise.

"The reform of the Security Council," he told IPS, "is perhaps best described as one of the most successful failures in the history of the United Nations."

A U.N. Working Group, officially called the "Open-Ended Working Group" – meaning it is open to all 192 member states and is not time-bound – has succeeded only in surviving for nearly 15 years, trying to unsuccessfully figure out a plan acceptable to the entire world body.

But, it has failed to strike up any significant political compromises on the most controversial issue: new membership in an expanded Council.

"It was a good try in a lost cause," says one Third World diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Fr. Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the current president of the General Assembly, made another last-ditch attempt in February by initiating a new inter-governmental negotiation process.

A third round of talks is scheduled to begin on Aug. 27, two weeks before D’Escoto relinquishes his presidency.

Ambassador Zahir Tanin of Afghanistan, chair of the new negotiating process, told reporters last month: "We’re still mired in disputes about the rules of the game, but with President D’Escoto’s work plan, we cleared all the procedural hurdles on day one."

Asked whether any solution was in sight, he said: "After 15 years of stalemate, we could not be expected to untie the Gordian Knot within just the past five months."

He also said he has no knowledge of the intentions of the incoming President of the General Assembly, Ali Abdessalam Treki of Libya, who will preside over the 64th session beginning Sep. 15.

The most contentious issue is over the expansion of the membership of the Council which now consists of five veto-wielding permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – and 10 rotating non- permanent members elected for two-year terms.

An overwhelming majority agrees that membership in both categories should be increased. But the choice of members is in dispute.

Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have been unsuccessfully knocking at the Council door for more than a decade now. But the door remains tightly shut to these four countries on the short list.

Their entry into the august chambers of the Security Council as new permanent members is bogged down in deep-seated controversy – triggered mostly by those who have been shut out of the short list – that no meaningful changes are likely to take place in this generation. Or perhaps the next, predicts one senior U.N. official.

While Asia, Latin America and Europe have pretty much come up with their candidates — with predictable opposition from Pakistan (to India’s membership) and Italy (against Germany’s), the Africans are still unable to agree on any candidates at all (with contending countries including Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa).

The new permanent members, if any, will not have veto powers, creating a third category of membership.

But the African Union (AU), which represents all of the countries of that continent, continues to insist on the veto for new permanent members – a plan that is openly or implicitly opposed by the five countries currently holding veto powers.

The veto is also a subject of reform debate, and member states’ comments show how unpopular the veto is – as the sole prerogative of the permanent members. Yet a reform change in the short-run is especially unlikely because the permanent five (P-5) cling fiercely to their veto privileges.

A campaign to limit the veto requires the strength of the middle powers. But, as long as these powers aspire to permanency – and to the veto – themselves, they will not lend their support to this vitally important reform.

James A. Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, who has been monitoring the reform process since its inception, expresses doubts about any possible resolution in the near future.

The long-running battle over reform of the Security Council has again lurched into public view, as Brazil, Germany, India and Japan make a renewed push for permanent Council membership, he said.

"But their campaign to enter this oligarchy will probably not succeed, for the same reasons it failed earlier," Paul told IPS.

They must leap very high constitutional hurdles, including a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly and the assent of all the present permanent members – neither of which is likely.

"The complex political geometry in the General Assembly insures that the aspirants face opposition from their regional rivals and others who fear them, as well as those enlightened governments that oppose permanency because they see it as old-fashioned, anti-democratic and even despotic," Paul declared.

Still, often unnoticed in the reform debate is the matter of working methods: how the Security Council carries out its work, its rules, meeting formats, decision-making processes and the like.

A group of smaller countries has been working creatively on this topic for several years, with the aim of bringing much more accountability and transparency to the Council.

The Afghan ambassador said the model that has garnered the strongest support so far calls for the expansion of both the permanent and non- permanent membership.

But the idea of an intermediate, provisional arrangement has also drawn much interest, he added. But he did not spell out what those arrangements would be. "If there was agreement on nothing else, there was a consensus on continuing the [negotiating] process, and the process would therefore continue," he assured.

Paul, of the Global Policy Forum, said that beyond the doomed idea of enlarging the oligarchy, other reform ideas stand a better chance of adoption.

Member states, he pointed out, might approve an enlargement of the number of elected non-permanent members, either with the existing two-year, non- renewable terms, or for other, longer terms such as five years.

"This approach seeks to address the criticism that the Council is unrepresentative and unaccountable, but it does so at the expense of effectiveness, since enlargement will make the Council more unwieldy, slow- moving and hesitant than it already is."

He said the best way forward, whispered in the corridors of the U.N. but rarely stated publicly, is some kind of regional representation, each year more likely but still agonisingly far from implementation.

Paul also said that Security Council reform mirrors the world’s governance crisis: the most powerful claim for themselves the exclusive voice (as in the case of the G8 industrial nations), while the rising powers claim a share in the exclusive club (the emerging G-20).

The G8 countries comprise Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States while the G20 consists of the G8 plus the following 12: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the European Union.

Paul said neither option – each wrapped in secrecy and weak institutional structures – satisfies the aspirations and requirements of the world’s people, or the rhetoric of democracy and transparency that most of these governments profess.

"When will the states act beyond their own raison d’etat and at last give birth to a more viable global governance system, ready to address the great issues of our time?" That is the question, he said, that the Council reform debate poses and begs to be answered.

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