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UN: Security Council's Credibility Under Siege, Despite 'Considerable' Reforms

  • Robert McMahon

The United Nations Security Council finds itself these days challenged by U.S. President George W. Bush, criticized by Muslim countries, and urged to reform by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But the Security Council is also seen as an evolving chamber much changed from the days of the Cold War -- more willing to play an activist role in treating threats to international security.

United Nations, 30 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations welcomed a new member to the fold on Friday, the former Southeast Asian territory of East Timor, whose emergence is widely seen as one of the great recent successes of the 15-member UN Security Council.

At the same time, five permanent council members have continued intense discussions about whether to authorize tougher action against Iraq if it fails to allow unfettered weapons inspections.

And in a recent public debate, the council faced harsh criticism from Arab and Muslim states that claim it unfairly presses a hard line on Iraq while permitting Israel to commit abuses against Palestinians.

The credibility of the Security Council is under increased scrutiny these days, spurred by the strong speech of U.S. President George W. Bush to the UN General Assembly, the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, and the annual UN debate over reform of the council.

Its biggest test involves Iraq, which remains under 12-year-old sanctions and says it is now ready to permit UN weapons inspectors for the first time in four years. Bush's speech on 12 September outlined what he called Iraq's "decade of defiance" of Security Council resolutions and charged that Baghdad is attempting to rebuild its weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration is pushing for a strong resolution that would authorize force if Iraq fails to meet timetables on inspections. Washington has also made clear it is prepared to act on its own if the council fails to act forcefully. The council is expected to begin formal discussions on a draft resolution this week.

This is a key test for the Security Council, says David Malone, an expert on council affairs and president of the International Peace Academy, a think tank. "At the moment, the council, it seems, is torn between resentment of the bullying tone from Washington, which has been rather counterproductive, but also the realization that meaningful action on Iraq would be good for its own credibility and would probably be good for international peace and security," Malone said.

Another council expert, Yale University international-law professor Ruth Wedgwood, told RFE/RL that the experience with Iraq has exposed the flaws in the way the council operates. Iraq has faced a series of council resolutions aimed at eliminating its weapons of mass destruction, but Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, she said, has proven skillful at dividing council members and diverting their focus to procedural issues.

Wedgwood said the council at times is afflicted by what she calls the "collective-action problem" and a tendency to leave major enforcement issues to the United States. "When you have collective action, no particular country feels responsible for making it work. Everybody feels able to be a 'free rider.' So, the problem with the council often is that there's almost a sense that the council needn't do it because the U.S. will," Wedgwood said.

Part of the criticism of the council's performance stems from what is seen as an overly Western representation, including three states, Britain, France, and the United States, among the five permanent members with veto power. The UN General Assembly has been discussing council reform, including an expansion of membership, for nearly a decade.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week urged the General Assembly to revive efforts on reforming the council. Annan said the perceived shortcomings in the council's credibility are contributing to an erosion of its authority.

A few days after Annan's remarks, the council issued its annual report to the UN General Assembly, calling the past year one of the busiest in its history. In the words of Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani of nonpermanent member Singapore, this past year featured many successes.

These, he said, included the council's stewardship of East Timorese independence, assistance in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the strengthening of Sierra Leone, and the vigorous effort to combat international terrorism through Resolution 1373, passed within weeks of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States.

But Mahbubani also pointed to failures. He told the council it needs to review the numerous unsolved crises on its docket -- ranging from Somalia to the Middle East -- and be open to alternative and creative solutions. "The credibility of the Security Council will only erode over time if the council is habitually seen to be unable to meet its responsibilities in these long-standing files. Its press and presidential statements and resolutions could be ignored here if there's a perceived gap between the council's intentions and its actual accomplishments," Mahbubani said.

The council last week faced unusually sharp criticism from representatives of Arab and Muslim states during a debate on the latest escalation in the Middle East crisis. The diplomats said the council, pressed by the United States, adheres to a double standard by not holding Israel accountable for violating dozens of council resolutions issued through the past several decades.

Typical was the statement by Malaysian Ambassador Hasmy Agam, who recently served on the council. "The council must ensure consistency and evenhandedness and respect of all of its resolutions, including those pertaining to the question of Palestine, which has been ignored by Israel, with impunity," Agam said.

The United States has exercised its veto right most frequently to protect Israel from what it sees as biased treatment that ignores the country's security concerns. But it abstained from the vote last week that called on Israel to end its siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound.

International-law expert Wedgwood said the council is widely perceived as serving better as a platform for rhetoric than an enforcement body. But she also pointed to numerous ways the council has transformed itself since the paralysis of the Cold War days. "If anything, the council has reformed considerably by having new kinds of procedures where they can meet with NGOs and with insurgencies and nonstate parties. They've opened up more proceedings to the public. They have had consultations with troop-donating [peacekeeping] countries. Many of their members consult with their regional groups. So, the sense of the council being a closed boys' club [is not valid] anymore," Wedgwood said.

Since 1990 and the general thawing of the global political climate, there has been a sharp drop in the use of vetoes -- about a dozen compared to nearly 200 vetoes in the previous 45 years. Britain and France have largely given up the veto in practice, while the other three members of the permanent five, the United States, Russia, and China, also prefer to take action through consensus rather than block with a veto.

Malone, of the International Peace Academy, also noted the council's willingness in the past decade to use its Chapter 7 enforcement powers. These authorize the council to determine when a threat to peace has occurred and to impose economic and military sanctions. The UN Charter also gives the council the power to use force to maintain or restore peace and security.

Prior to 1990, the council authorized use of force in only two cases, Korea and Congo, and only two cases of sanctions, Rhodesia and South Africa. But as the Cold War ended and civil wars broke out, especially in Africa and the former Soviet Union, the council has instituted more than a dozen sanctions regimes and authorized the use of force in a number of resolutions.

Malone said it signals the council's new activism. "Many of the council's resolutions nowadays are adopted routinely under Chapter 7. This has two effects, of course. It devalues Chapter 7, but it also signals that the council is much more prepared to think in terms of enforcement than it was during the Cold War period," Malone said.

The debate over new steps to take on weapons inspections in Iraq could continue to highlight the council's flaws or signal a new sense of common cause. Aside from Iraq, many diplomats and UN observers say a review of recent council work will show it has become the essential institution for dealing with crises in most parts of the globe.

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