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UN General Assembly Opens To Evergreen Talk Of Reform

  • Nikola Krastev

The General Assembly meeting is a high-profile event evvery year.

The General Assembly meeting is a high-profile event evvery year.

UNITED NATIONS -- When he left office in late 2006, the previous UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, declared that without reform of the Security Council the United Nations' global role would diminish and the organization would find itself less and less relevant in world affairs.

As the UN General Assembly kicks off its 63rd session on September 16, lingering questions about the world body's effectiveness in solving global problems are sure to be raised again.

One of the key demands for reform, from many sides, is to expand the ranks of the Security Council to better reflect the new realities of the 21st century. That's because even if the 192-member General Assembly sets the strategic course of action, it's the 15-member Security Council that executes the UN's most important political decisions.

But if there's been much debate about enlarging the Security Council, so far the discussion remains just that -- talk.

Edward Luck, senior vice president of the International Peace Institute in New York and a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, says that it's unlikely the five permanent members of the council will ever agree to accept the inclusion of other permanent members, especially members with veto power.

"Permanence is a synonym for being unaccountable. If you're permanent, then you are likely to be unaccountable to the other member states because you don't have to be reelected," Luck says. "So, any more permanent seats I'm not sure is the best way to go. And you have five countries with the veto; if that slows up the council, think if you have seven or eight or 10 countries with the veto. It will be that many more issues [on which] it will be harder to get action."

Luck says that what's realistic in the long run is to see a "modest increment" of nonpermanent members to approximately 20-22 seats.

Back in 1945, the UN's founding members discussed the idea of regional permanent representation on the Security Council. It was eventually abandoned, with the result being that three out of five permanent members are from a single continent, Europe.

Failure Of Multilateralism

Stewart Patrick, senior fellow and director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says that imbalance seems to encourage the permanent members to follow their own region-specific agendas, rather than take a multilateral approach.

Multilateralism "only functions when there's an agreement amongst the permanent five members of the Security Council," Patrick says.

"And what the controversy in Georgia has shown is that when there is a deadlock or major disagreement amongst the permanent five members, there really is no solution that can occur within the confines of the Security Council and that any forward movement is going to require some heavy negotiation either on a bilateral frame or with a smaller group of countries moving forward on their own."

Ban, who took the UN helm in January 2007, has made the reform process a top priority of his tenure. Luck says that Ban has set a very fast pace and is "extremely energetic." But, he says, Ban's attempted initiatives have had only "mixed results."

Luck says a major obstacle is resistance from the "well-entrenched" UN bureaucracy. Another obstacle is the broad definition of what reform means among different member states.

"In theory, all the member states want reform, in practice they all mean very different things by it. So it's very hard to get a consensus among the members for change in the organization," Luck says.

"The big powers are afraid that they'll lose some degree of control, the small powers are afraid that whatever pledges they've made on the bureaucracy will be lost in a more sweeping reform controlled by the bigger powers and bigger contributors," he adds. "So, there's sort of a mutual veto system between big powers and small powers on the reform."

Big-Little Split

Luck says that compared to 10-15 years ago, the degree of mistrust between the big and small players at the UN is "relatively high" today. In addition, he says, the ceremonial functions of the UN secretary-general seem to have only increased over time, whereas his executive powers have been diluted.

Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations describes Ban's success in pursuing reforms as "modest." The secretary-general, he says, is forced to tread the fine line between the interests of the big industrialized countries and those of the developing world.

"The secretary-general, and this is certainly true of Ban Ki-moon, is caught often between the major funders of the United Nations on the one hand, who tend to be advanced, particularly Western countries who contribute most to the UN's budget, Patrick says, "and on the other side a group of countries that are known as the Group of 77, or G77, which is basically just a phrase that is used to describe a group of developing countries that often have very different agendas for the United Nations than those that are bankrolling its activities."

The United States has traditionally been the biggest contributor to the UN budget. But the dynamic between Washington and the UN has always been uneasy and subject to U.S. political winds. This year, with the U.S. presidential election, the winds look particularly variable.

Patrick says there are considerable differences between the two major U.S. presidential candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, in their approach toward the UN.

Obama has indicated his willingness to engage much more broadly than the current administration in consensus-building at the UN, in the so-called retail diplomacy of give and take.

McCain on the other hand, Patrick says, is viewing the UN as simply one of the several instruments of multilateral diplomacy, a recognition that the UN is but one international forum among others.

Among the major issues to be tackled by the General Assembly in 2008-09 are development and financing, the so-called Millennium Development Goals, climate change, counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, Middle East peace, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, and peace and security missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.

The general debate is set to begin on September 23 and will be attended by more than 60 heads of states.