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U.N. Political Body Digresses into “Non-Security” Issues

Analysis by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 17 2011 (IPS) - When the U.N. Security Council, the only political body empowered to declare war and peace, decided to include climate change on its agenda back in 2007, the 131-member Group of 77 (G77) launched a vociferous protest.

Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan, then chairman of the G77 – the largest single coalition of developing nations – said climate change was not a threat to “international peace and security” and therefore should not find a place on the Council agenda.

“The concept of the Security Council, as I read the U.N. charter, is that the Council comes into action when there are actual threats to peace, and breaches of the peace,” he argued.

But over the years, and even before the G77 protest, the political landscape has been changing, slowly but steadily, as the U.N.’s most powerful body has continued to take up several “non-security” related issues, including children and armed conflict (Aug. 1999), women, peace and security (Oct. 2000), climate change (Apr. 2007) and for the second time last week, HIV/AIDS.

Addressing the Security Council last Tuesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that more than 10 years ago, then U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, pushed for the first discussion of HIV/AIDS in the Council chamber.

“Ambassador Holbrooke was the consummate diplomat,” said Ban, “but he was determined to raise the issue of HIV and AIDS even when it was undiplomatic.”

“We have come a long way since health issues were first discussed in this Council,” Ban added, hinting at the changing agenda of the Council.

Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, was sceptical about the impact of HIV/AIDS on international peace and security.

The July 2000 Security Council resolution (1308) stressed that “the HIV/AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, may pose a risk to stability and security”.

“With the highest prevalence rates and disease burdens being in societies that have nothing to do with conflict,” Puri told delegates, “HIV and AIDS has not created conditions of instability and insecurity, notwithstanding the apprehensions in U.N. Security Council resolution 1308.”

Asked about the growing trend, Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, who presided over the Security Council (SC) meeting which adopted the historic resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, told IPS: “I surely believe that the SC has to change the way it looks at the threats to peace and security and how those threats could be addressed effectively”.

Chowdhury said that this is a major challenge to the Council which is predominantly influenced by the P-5 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) which are the traditionalists in this context.

“But that militaristic approach to peace and security has to change and would change,” he added.

Also, the concept of human security has to be considered very seriously by the Council, said Chowdhury, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of Least Developed and Land-locked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

The so-called “non-security” issues that the SC has taken up so far, particularly resolution 1325 for the involvement of women in all decision-making levels, has the potential of making a real difference in the opportunities for success in the efforts of the SC in a substantive way, he declared.

Ambassador Colin Keating, executive director of the Security Council Report that closely monitors the activities of the Council, told IPS that the Security Council for many years now – well over a decade – has been actively addressing a wide range of thematic issues.

During that period, he said, a very large number of thematic Council resolutions and statements have been adopted by consensus.

“So there is clearly very wide support for this. And it is clearly not new [but] is a long established practice,” said Keating, a former Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations.

He pointed out that many leading members of all regional groups, during their terms as elected members of the Council, have supported this thematic agenda.

And in many cases, he said, G77 members have taken the lead in promoting new thematic issues: South Africa on women, during its last term on the Council, is one example; Brazil this year on the importance of development to achieving security, is another example; and Gabon this month on HIV/AIDS is another.

“It is fair to say from analysing statements of members of the General Assembly participating in open Council debates on thematic issues – that there is a wide acceptance in the U.N. generally that it is both important and legitimate for the Council to enter into these thematic areas, provided that there is a genuine connection with peace and security,” Keating added.

Chowdhury told IPS it is not appropriate to call these issues ‘non-political’. “All these issues – women, HIV/AIDS – all have political elements inherent in them.”

It is the SC’s mindset that refused to accept these issues that its permanent members (P-5) thought were not “hardcore” peace and security issues, he added.

Another similar issue which attracted Council attention is “children and armed conflict”, said Chowdhury. “It was considered before the 1325 resolution, when in 1999 the SC adopted the first resolution on children and armed conflict.”

For the HIV/AIDS, Chowdhury pointed out, “the driving force was U.S. Ambassador Holbrooke and, you can guess, no opposition would sustain long when he pursued something.” More so, when one of the P- 5 took the initiative to bring the issue into the SC, opposition was temporary, he added.

Keating told IPS that, “when you examine the Council decisions in detail, you will see that the Council always focuses on the thematic issues in the security context.” Thus its work on women and children is concentrated on the problems that emerge for women and children in conflict situations.

Similarly, he said, its decision last week on HIV/AIDS is also directly linked to the impact of HIV/AIDS in conflict situations and the role that U.N. peacekeepers can play to assist – and there was very wide support for this.

The issue of climate change, by contrast, remains controversial, said Keating.

There is not yet a consensus about the extent to which it is a threat to international security. However, one important change in recent years is that the G77 is now divided on this issue, he said.

Quite a large number of G77 members argue that climate change threatens their security in an existential sense – that their countries very survival is threatened by sea level rise.

“They strongly want the Security Council to take up the issue not for the purpose of taking decisions but to allow them to highlight the threat,” Keating said. Other G77 members remain cautious, perhaps concerned about the precedent if the issue is taken up in the Council.

“I think it is fair to say that there is very wide acceptance that climate change is a potential threat to peace and security, but disagreement as to whether it is yet an actual threat,” Keating pointed out.

The issue now is interpreting what is meant by the word “threat”.

Some see the word as including potential risks of conflict. Others prefer a more narrow definition, Keating explained. “Clearly there is a spectrum and a threshold point along that spectrum at which consensus could emerge. It remains to be seen what level of agreement on climate change can be reached in the Council in 2011.”

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