[threats, challenges and change]

Topic: United Nations

The buzz around the UN at the moment (to the extent that I am privy to any buzz) is over the report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which “sets out a bold, new vision of collective security for the 21st century.” Put together by a hand-picked group of eminent persons, it includes 101 recommendations on everything from minor changes to the UN Charter to the creation of a new Peacebuilding Commission to help countries either sliding toward disintigration or emerging from armed conflict.
The most controversial issue is likely to be Security Council reform. The report urges the General Assembly to get passed the dilly-dallying that has prevented any progress on this issue for over 12 years, but the difficulty of coming up with an acceptable formula is demonstrated by the report itself, which presents two different options.

To understand the issue, you have to first understand why the Security Council is so important, and how it works.

In the aftermath of World War II, the creators of the United Nations didn’t want to repeat the failure of the League of Nations, which failed to prevent World War II. The goal of the UN was to prevent another world war, so it had to be strong and capable of action. To that end, the Security Council was created: a small group of nations, including a core of permanent members, that would have the power to make binding international law and to authorize the use of force. No other part of the UN has these powers, which is why the Security Council is so important.

At present, the Council has 15 members: the five permanent members, plus ten others. The permanent members are the victors from World War II: the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia (back then it was the USSR) and China. When the Council votes on a resolution, a No vote by any one of the permanent members is enough to defeat the resolution; this is the famous “veto” power. The other ten members are elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly according to a complicated formula that ensures equitable geographic distribution. Countries cannot be immediately reelected at the ends of their terms.

Most nations agree that the Security Council is too small and doesn’t accurately represent current geopolitical realities. When it was created, the UN had 51 members, but decolonization and other changes have increased the membership to 191. The biggest financial contributors now include countries like Germany and Japan that obviously were in no condition to guarantee world security in 1946, while the biggest troop contributors include Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria and India — countries that didn’t even exist back then. What this means is that decisions are often made with very little consultation of those countries that will provide the troops or foot the bill, and this makes it harder for those countries’ governments to fork over the money on time and in full.

Both of the proposals for Security Council reform expand the council to a total of 24 members, but that’s about all they have in common. Model A would add six permanent seats (but without the veto) — two each from Africa and Asia, one each from Europe and the Americas — as well as 13 non-renewable two-year seats. The report doesn’t name names, but it’s fairly clear which countries think they would be getting those seats. Japan is the second-largest financial contributor to the UN (the United States is first), while India has the world’s second-largest population, so those would be the two Asian seats. The American seat would go to Brazil, and the European seat to Germany. The only real question would be over Africa, where Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa all want the two available seats. This plan is popular with the expected beneficiaries, who are pushing hard for it.

Model B takes a different approach. Instead of creating permanent seats, it adds a new category of four-year renewable seats — two for each region — and also adds 11 non-renewable two-year seats. This plan would allow the so-called medium powers — countries like Italy, Spain, Pakistan, South Korea and Argentina, as well as the major troop contributors — to take their turns on the Council alongside the larger powers like Japan and Germany, which would presumably take at least some of these new mid-level seats. This model is promoted, not surprisingly, by those middle powers who see it as their best chance for having a meaningful voice in international security.

The hope is that the General Assembly can agree on a complete package of reforms, including Security Council changes, by next September, when world leaders will gather for the Millenium Plus Five, an assessment of progress on the Millenium Development Goals five years on. Between now and then, the debate will be intense.

The Republic of Korea is very much in the Model B camp, and I have to say that I agree with them. Adding permanent members leaves a lot of important countries out in the cold, and it runs the risk that one or more of the new permanent members will no longer be all that significant a player 20 or 30 years from now. Beyond that, several of the expected new permanent members have serious problems that would, in my view, compromise the Security Council. One of the major issues currently facing the Council is nuclear proliferation, but India is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. There is still a great deal of tension between Japan and its neighbors over the events of World War II. Brazil is an emerging power, but still poor. Nigeria has consistently ranked as one of the bottom three or four countries in surveys of corruption. And Egypt — admittedly a long-shot candidate — faces serious danger of being taken over by an Islamist revolution.

Model A may be easier to push through than Model B, if only because it’s simpler. It has the support of Britain, France and Russia, although the US, still pissy about Germany’s opposition to the Iraq war, has pointedly refused to back their permanent membership bid, supporting only Japan. Frankly, though, I find it unlikely that either plan will be passed by September.

It should be an interesting summer.