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Global Governance

A UN Power Monopoly That Cries Out for a Break

Ambassador Chowdhury presiding over a Security Council session. Credit: United Nations

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 7 2020 (IPS) - Will four strong contenders for permanent seats in the UN Security Council (UNSC)– Germany, India, Japan and Brazil—help break the monopoly now being held by the big five, namely the US, UK, France, China and Russia?

But if they do eventually succeed in their attempts—after more than 20 years of foot-dragging — they have to put up with what is best described as “second-class citizenship”, because the five, veto-wielding permanent members (P5) have given no indications that any new comers to their ranks will be offered veto powers.

Still, African leaders have long insisted they will not accept any permanent memberships in the UNSC, the only UN body with powers to declare war and peace, without veto powers.

And rightly so, because it entrenches political discrimination at the highest levels in a world body which preaches the virtues of equality to the outside world but refuses to practice it in its own backyard.

Speaking on behalf of the 54-member African Union, and addressing a General Assembly debate back in November 2018, the representative of Sierra Leone made it unequivocally clear “Africa demands no less than two permanent seats, including the veto power, if it remains, and five non permanent seats”.

But that position has not changed—and the deadlock over the reform of the UNSC continues—and perhaps will continue during the rest of the lifetime of the 75-year-old United Nations.

With the appointment of two new envoys — Ambassador Joanna Wronecka of Poland and Ambassador Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani of Qatar as co-chairs– there is a renewed attempt to resume the stalled Intergovernmental Negotiations on UNSC reforms.

In an interview with IPS, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, a former President of the Security Council (March 2000 and June 2001) held out a bleak prospect: “As a pragmatic, realistic UN watcher and practitioner for nearly 50 years, I believe the painstaking efforts for the SC reform has no prospect for a meaningful achievement and the status quo ante is doomed to continue”.

Asked if the current attempt is just another exercise in political futility, he said any worthwhile initiative to revive the repeatedly stalled efforts for the “Security Council reform” generally creates a nice feel-good ambience full of expectation, full of hope of the otherwise most-attainable success, full of preparations to finally breaking the deadlock.

Such an ambience was perceived in every such occasion of resumption, but unfortunately it ended in coming to a grinding halt with the formal closer of that exercise, said Chowdhury, who was Permanent Representative Bangladesh to the UN (1996-2001) and UN Under-Secretary-General (2002-2007).

However, in the true UN tradition, he pointed out, the agenda-item stays on and every President of the General Assembly (PGA) hopes against hope of a breakthrough.

In fact, resuming that multi-stalled effort for a quarter of a century has given subsequent PGAs a sense of glory and an aura of leadership – and also, many of us a feeling of déjà vu.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: Why do you think the exercise is doomed to fail?

Ambassador Chowdhury: What is the rationale basis for exploring “the possibility for the Intergovernmental Negotiations to start early in 2021 and to increase the number of meetings this session…”? Just for the cosmetics of the exercise because the “Security Council reform” is on the agenda of the General Assembly? It should be understood that the general membership of UN and all well-meaning, peace-loving people aware of global realities are not interested in the so-called reform of the Security Council.

There exist bigger challenges facing humanity which require more intense engagement of UN. The much-expected change in view of the Covid-19 pandemic has bypassed the needed change in the divisive negotiating atmosphere at the UN. It is still business as usual.

IPS: What are your thoughts on the expansion of membership of the Security Council?

Ambassador Chowdhury: If the past trends of the UNSC reform exercises are any guide, the reform is envisaging four tiers of Security Council membership – one, five permanent members with veto (known as P-5); two, new permanent members without veto; three, 2-year non-permanent members both existing 10 plus the new ones; and four, the rest of the UN membership who are not the Council members.

Such expansion would not help in any way except adding to lop-sidedness of UNSC work and satisfying the nationalistic aspirations of new permanent members. The lofty objective of the reform exercise to reflect the realities of the current expanded UN membership of 193 would lose all credibility if this is the intended outcome.

Also, it is absolutely fair to allocate two permanent seats to Africa as it is the largest regional group along with the fact that it did not have any permanent seat since the creation of the UN.

IPS: Do you think the closed, non-transparent decision-making by the Security Council is an area concern in the reform exercise?

Ambassador Chowdhury: By itself, the current SC decision making is not what the Charter had envisaged – role of P-5 occasionally joined by their “friendly” non-permanent members make a mockery of their responsibility for the maintenance of the international peace and security as the SC members.

The history of the Council decision-making makes it clear that its membership has been basically used for reflecting national perspectives and advancing the geo-strategic objectives of the P-5. Like many, I believe any meaningful reform of the Council has to start with the abolition of veto.

It is well-known to all keen UN watchers how the veto — or in most cases the threat of veto — has been used and abused during 75 years of UN’s existence to subvert the best interests of global peace and security.

IPS: In addition to the issue of expansion, the reform of the working methods is also being addressed. How this concern can be addressed properly?

Ambassador Chowdhury: Working methods reform would not work just readjusting the procedural functions – without changing the policy considerations, without coming out of the failed state-oriented security strategies and replacing those with more people-oriented human security-oriented strategies.

Reforming working methods without change of policy orientation would only be robotic in nature, without any focus on human dimensions of the Council’s actions.

IPS: Civil society has called, again and again, for an opportunity to present their thoughts on the SC reform. Is that deemed useful and necessary?

Ambassador Chowdhury: Though the “process is an intergovernmental one and thereby Member States-driven”, as PGA has reiterated, absence of civil society involvement would seriously undermine the role and contribution of “We the Peoples …”.

When civil society in general feels it has no role, no opportunity to share its points of view, I believe that such a narrow non-inclusive, non-participatory exercise is bound to fail. PGA himself has also asserted that “civil society is the pillar of democracy, and we must, after some time, find a way that civil society is (re)presented here”.

IPS: What are some of the biggest failures of the UNSC over the years?

Ambassador Chowdhury: I would not go into identifying the cases where the Security Council failed big — the global peace and security situation testifies for that. I would rather identify the reasons which caused those failures and would continue to do so in future, again and again.

Structural issues and leadership opportunities within the Council is a major impediment. P-5 is happy with the status quo – the way the Council works – because they have shaped it that way over the years to their advantage. All the substantive change initiatives have come from the 2-year tenure of non-permanent members.

The pro-active role and guidance of the Secretary-General to the Security Council, without being unduly mindful of P-5 “sensitivities,” can bring in marked change in the directions of the Council’s work. PGA has identified that “the Secretary-General is the engine and the transmission system”. After all, the Secretary-General has the moral authority and full mandate of the high office he holds.

IPS: Is big power rivalry, and protection of client states, one of the reasons for the frequent deadlocks in the UNSC over the years?

Ambassador Chowdhury: Not only big power rivalry has caused deadlocks, big power “collaboration” has also resulted in halting a positive initiative in the best interest of the Security Council from the non-permanent members. My own experience as the President of the Security Council in March 2000 explains that situation amply when I initiated the political and conceptual changes in the Council to recognize the equal participation and age-old contributions of women in global peace and security which finally resulted in the adoption of the most-widely acclaimed UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

Here, I would add that the only silver lining I find in the resumption of the reform negotiations is the fact that the two Co-Chairs (Ambassadors of Poland and Qatar) are both eminent women Permanent Representatives to the UN and, of course, fully qualified for this onerous and complicated responsibility.


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