UN Reforms

A contentious report by UN panel
Two options are no option
by T. P. Sreenivasan


BY an unhappy coincidence, the much-awaited UN high-level panel report on “Threats, Challenges and Change” came within hours after the Wall Street Journal carried the opinion of an influential Congressman that Mr Kofi Annan should step down for his responsibility for the biggest scandal that has ever hit the United Nations. The suggestion of the panel that the Secretary-General should be given substantially more latitude to manage the Secretariat, and be held accountable sounded ominous in the circumstances. The general membership has rallied round Mr Annan, but the timing of the allegations will have a bearing on the discussions on the report.


The report itself has enough to complicate life for the Secretary-General and the member-states in the coming year and beyond. With much less to chew, the UN spent a few years to deal with Mr Boutros Ghali’s “An Agenda for Peace”, which was the first post-Cold War effort to update the mandate of the UN. The exercise ended with much of the Charter language being reinstated in the Agenda, leaving Mr Boutros Ghali exasperated. Mr Ghali was accused of harbouring ambitions to be a General rather than a Secretary-General.


With the divisive recommendations on an expansion of the Security Council and other far-reaching recommendations across the board, most of which require additional resources, the panel report will be even more contentious.


Chairman Anand Panyarachun’s fear that the UN might commit “a major error” by concentrating on the recommendation on Security Council expansion to the exclusion of other recommendations may well prove right. The panel has lived up to the reputation of the UN for presenting two alternatives with equal merit. The story goes that a Head of Government once asked the UN Secretary-General to send “one-handed” experts to his country as he was fed up with the “on one hand — and on the other hand” kind of recommendations. As anticipated, the panel could not, like the relevant committee of the UN, come to an agreed formula on the expansion of the Security Council and it resorted to presenting two options, which have already been considered and found not to enjoy consensus.


According to the Panel, the new figure of 24 should be arrived at either by adding six new permanent members and three new non-permanent members or by creating a new category of eight rotating members elected for four years, with the possibility of renewal and one new non-permanent member. Either way, the four regions — Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Americas — will end up with six members each in the council.


As for the criteria for new permanent members, it is suggested that the top three financial contributors, top three voluntary contributors or top three troop contributors should be considered. The panel is strongly opposed to the veto, but realises that there is no way to abolish the existing veto. It appeals to the veto-wielding members to refrain from using the veto to the extent possible and suggests an “indicative voting” without counting the veto first and then a second formal vote with the veto in play.


It remains to be seen whether one of the two recommendations will gain greater acceptability as they have been short-listed by the panel, but if the debate of the last 25 years (India mooted the expansion first in 1979) is any indicator, no consensus is likely to emerge on either of the two. A region-wise election of six permanent members, even with the guidance given by the panel, will be an impossible task. The rotation idea, which is likely to enjoy greater support, would be categorically rejected by the aspirants to permanent membership.


In fact, External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh has fired the first salvo by indicating that the new permanent members should have the veto. The battlelines are clearly drawn and it is quite likely that the whole debate will open up again and all proposals will come back on the table, thus putting the clock back. Permanent members will agree to use the veto with restraint, but will not accept the “indicative voting”, which will only highlight their use of the veto to secure their point of view.


The panel’s other 100 recommendations have the merit of being within the realm of possibility except for the vast resources required at a time of strict enforcement of zero growth budgets. Its main contention that security is the shared responsibility for all is not new, but the argument that a threat to one State is a threat to all will be hard for many to digest. The list of old and new threats to international security is comprehensive and the chilling prospect of a nuclear or biological attack by terrorists must cause grave concern. But the panel’s brave attempt to spell out the elements of a definition of terrorism will be dissected again and possibly discarded as inadequate. The Secretary-General’s optimism that the governments will give up their arguments about the use of armed forces against civilians and the right of people to resist foreign occupation does seem wishful thinking.


The panel has done well to delineate the conditions in which force could be used either to resolve or prevent violence, but in the context of the Iraq war, which the panel unequivocally criticises, some countries are not likely to accept them. Humanitarian intervention is a concept that many small countries dread. Many of Mr Boutros Ghali’s suggestions have been revived to strengthen the peacekeeping and peace-building capability of the UN. Those who did not like the idea of placing its forces at the disposal of the UN in 1993 may not do so readily in 2005. The various suggestions regarding the setting up of new institutions, offices and funds (Peacebuilding Commission, a second Deputy Secretary-General, more capabilities for mediation, etc.) will be drastically amended by the budgetary authorities of the major contributors. A useful compilation of the UN action so far in several areas and the way forward in each will be a good guide for the various inter-governmental bodies to proceed with further action.


An unfortunate development from India’s point of view is that Kashmir is repeatedly mentioned as a festering conflict with a potential threat to international peace and security on the same level as Palestine and the Korean peninsula. On one occasion, Kashmir comes even before Palestine. The long period of relative peace in the valley after India had taken the issue to the Security Council appears to have been forgotten and terrorism in Kashmir finds no mention in the panel’s exhaustive review of the phenomenon.


Doubtless, the panel report will be analysed by governments, NGOs, lawyers, students and the civil society in the months to come and a special summit in September 2005 will adopt a set of decisions, based on the report. For those who have been through “An Agenda for Peace” exercise, it will be déjà vu, but many of them have disappeared from the scene. UN reform is cyclical in nature and reform often simply codifies whatever has been done at times of crises. Neither the Charter nor the dearth of resources has stood in the way of drastic action on occasions like 9/11. The merit of the Charter is that it is resilient enough to bow to the will of the international community.


Outdated concepts and nomenclatures have remained in the Charter without any damage to the credibility of the United Nations. Unless the panel’s recommendations on an expansion of the Security Council gain acceptability, it will go down in history as another well-intentioned and well-written document by worthy individuals, who contributed their mite to the betterment of the United Nations and the world, but did not make much of a difference to the ways of the world.


— The writer, a former ambassador, has represented India at the UN in New York, Nairobi and Vienna