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Opinion

February 16, 2015

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Threat to the UN’s universality

Perhaps the greatest asset of the United Nations today, deeply flawed as its working and structure is in many ways, is the universality of its membership. It is the only forum in which states comprising the entire world can meet periodically to deliberate upon political, economic and social questions that cut across international borders. With the exception of Palestine, every country of the world is represented.
The performance of the UN certainly leaves a lot be desired and much needs to be done to restructure it and to streamline its working in order to give it the capacity to deal with international problems of growing scope, diversity, complexity and magnitude. Within the UN, no organ is more in need of reform than the Security Council.
The Security Council has a narrow base. It is not truly representative of the nations of the world, is often paralysed by the veto of its permanent members and when it acts, and is mostly to defend the national interests of that small group of countries. These flaws stem from the way the Security Council was designed by the victors of the Second World War. They wanted it to entrench their power in perpetuity and to serve as a tool of their foreign policy.
At that time, the other countries had no choice but to submit to the diktat of the victor powers. They were too weak, too small or too dependent on the Big Two to question the new order imposed by the victors. That was the geopolitical reality of the time.
Now, 70 years later, the geopolitical reality is very different. Of the original two superpowers that were born at the end of the war, one has been toppled from its pedestal; a new superpower is emerging; and the two European countries that once boasted vast colonial empires in far-flung parts of the globe have forfeited all claim to be world powers. Another very important geo-political reality is the emergence of about a dozen and a half large and medium-sized states that are no longer prepared to accept a

world order in which the big powers from a bygone age still call the shots.
Because of the growing gap between the current composition of the Security Council and present-day geopolitical realities and abuse of the veto power by its permanent members, the Security Council has steadily been losing its credibility and legitimacy. If it is to win some respect from the international community, two steps would be necessary. First, effective checks must be devised on the abuse of the veto power. Second, the membership of the Security Council must be enlarged to give equitable representation to the general membership.
France has proposed that permanent members should voluntarily agree to an informal code of conduct placing limits on the use of the veto in cases of large-scale atrocities, but even this very modest proposal is not acceptable to all permanent members. Nevertheless, it is significant as an acknowledgement that absolute veto power cannot continue forever.
The expansion of the Security Council to reflect the increase in the number of UN member states should have been relatively simpler. When the number of elected members was increased from six to ten, the entire process took a few years. The General Assembly resolution was passed in December 1963 and the charter amendment came into force in August 1965 after ratification by two-thirds of the members including the P-5, even though none of these was enthusiastic about it.
But the current debate in the General Assembly on Security Council expansion has been going on fruitlessly since 1993. The main reason expansion has not been carried out this time is that a small number of countries around a core Group of Four (G-4) consisting of Brazil, Germany, India and Japan have linked reform with an acceptance of their claim to be given permanent seats.
Countries clamouring for permanent seats base their claim on the ‘geopolitical realities’ of today. But they ignore the fundamental reality that the status to which they aspire was won in 1945 by the victors of the Second World War after they had completely vanquished the other side. The current aspirants to permanent seat have not won any war – not to speak of a world war – and yet they would like to have the fruits of victory. This goes against the logic of history.
If they still manage to win permanent seats, that will not be a reflection of geopolitical realities but will be due to the fact that some of the current permanent members see an expansion in that category as a way of legitimising their own tenuous position on the Security Council. It is inconceivable that the dozen or so large and medium-sized countries that will be excluded from permanent membership will willingly accept being thus reduced to the level of second-class states. Some of them at least will seriously consider saying good-bye to the United Nations. There is therefore a very real possibility that expanding the permanent membership of the Security Council will result in the loss of the world body’s universality.
C Raja Mohan, one of India’s most prolific writers on security matters, wrote in a recent article that in view of India’s “decisive contribution [in the Second World War]”, India should have been a permanent member of the Security Council from the start. He is completely wrong. India’s contribution was very far from being ‘decisive’, the country was not even independent at the time and even its admission as a member state was controversial. The Soviet Union objected to it and agreed only after two constituent republics of the Soviet Union – Ukraine and Byelorussia – were also admitted. Mohan’s talk of a permanent seat to reward India for its “war contribution” points to a loss of contact with geopolitical reality, caused most likely by the warmth of Washington’s courtship of India.
Members of the Uniting for Consensus group, which opposes the creation of new permanent members, have made a proposal that would create a new category of Security Council members who would serve for a longer term than the two years for the current elected members and would be eligible for re-election. About one week ago, this proposal received the backing of The Elders, an unofficial group of senior statesmen headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. But there is a catch. As the Elders wrote, the proposal would enable the new semi-permanent members to become de facto permanent members, and the group urged the aspirants for permanent seats to accept it “at least for the time being”.
Pakistan has been generally supportive of the proposal for semi-permanent members but we should not agree to making it a backdoor to permanent membership. One way would be to disallow election for more than two consecutive terms.
My former Foreign Service colleague, Khaled Ahmed, who now writes a weekly column in an Indian newspaper, wrote mockingly about two weeks ago that some Pakistani “clerics” had recommended that Pakistan should leave the UN if India joins the Security Council as a permanent member. Whichever Pakistani ‘cleric’ made this suggestion was certainly more diplomatically savvy than our government, which seems to think that Pakistan can block India’s path to the Security Council by complaining about India’s refusal to implement Security Council resolutions on Kashmir.
The Nawaz government still does not know that justice and equity count for very little in diplomacy. Nations are guided not by the rights and wrongs of a dispute but by what serves their interests. The next time Nawaz speaks to Obama, he should also tell the US president that if India – or for that matter any other country – was ever to become a permanent member of the Security Council, some member states of the UN would seriously consider leaving the world body. A loss of universality of membership would diminish the utility of the UN as a tool of US policy and would be given much more importance than Pakistani complaints on India’s defiance of Security Council resolutions on Kashmir.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]

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