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Not-So-Musical Chairs

The current debate over enlarging the U.N. Security Council distracts from more important reforms Kofi Annan has proposed.
 
 
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For every U.N. diplomat, the only thing better than being a permanent representative to the Security Council is being a permanent representative for a permanent member. It does for the machismo of member states and their representatives what V*gra or C*alis (and all those other spam-filterable potions) do for individuals. This obsession with having a seat at the Big Table is now threatening to stymie desperately-needed UN reforms that are being debated now in New York, ready for adoption at the 60th Anniversary Summit of the UN this September.

So far, in the lucky absence of the still-unconfirmed John Bolton, who is on the record as advocating that the U.S. should be the only permanent member of the UN Security Council, delegates at the UN have tied themselves into a knot that makes the Bolton solution seem almost plausible in its simplicity.

As befits an organization whose Charter was mostly drafted by Americans, it reflects a compromise between the promise of principles and the reality of power. In the General Assembly, Nauru, with fewer people than a Manhattan block, has the same vote as China or India. But having made that concession to notional national equality, the big powers put the muscle in the Security Council. What Stalin said about the Pope applies; how many divisions can these smaller states throw at a new threat to world peace?

Since 1945, five countries -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the US -- have had a veto and a permanent place on the Security Council. The other 10 members are elected on non-renewable two-year terms.

Back in 1945, France and China were only added as a courtesy, and a war-bankrupted Britain was already looking a little pretentious as a permanent member. To add to the anomalies, for a quarter of a century China was represented by the defeated nationalist government on Taiwan.

For some time after Beijing took the seat, there was a pragmatic justification for the permanent five members. They were all substantial military powers, and all had nukes. It is difficult to enforce a UN decision against an uncooperative nuclear power.

But since then, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have blasted their way into the nuclear club -- and no one wanted to give an incentive to Iran to be on the Council!

According to the UN Charter, the Council is the only body that can authorize military activities by member states, although like most commandments, this one is honored more in the breach than in the observance. The Charter also says that any one of those five can veto any changes to the Charter, such as any attempt to remove their veto, or add more members to the Council.

For fairly obvious reasons, Japan and Germany were not in the running for seats back in 1945 -- indeed, clause 103 of the Charter still essentially says that it's OK for anyone else to restart the Second World War on them. Now, however, Japan pays almost as much in dues to the UN as the U.S. -- and what's more, it pays on time, and without some Tokyo version of Henry Hyde threatening to cut funding if the UN does not do what it's told. Germany also pays more than Britain, France, Russia or China -- the latter, incidentally, paying at a rate based on its economy more than a decade ago, not at current boom levels.

The problem is that the Council is already top-heavy toward the industrialized world -- and adding these two would make it even more so, unleashing a flood of me-tooism from India, Brazil and other developing nations.

To complicate matters even further, if you add more permanent members, then you have to add more elected members, and it begins to look less like an executive committee and more like a mass meeting. Current proposals take its membership up to 25. For those who step back and consider how long it took the Council, with only 15 members, to act on Sudan -- let alone Rwanda or Bosnia -- this is not a happy prospect.

Strangely, the U.S. delegation is actually talking sense for once: it says that two dozen is too many, which is true. But liberals can be reassured. The U.S. is correct like a stopped clock -- occasionally. It reached its reasonable conclusion from more traditionally-sordid premises: If the U.S. could not bully a mere 15-strong council into backing the invasion of Iraq, then how much harder would it be to twist the arms of 25 members? All the more revealing is that the U.S. made it clear that it would not support permanent seats for any country that snubbed the Bush administration in the buildup to the invasion. In fact, the U.S. would not commit to supporting anyone but Japan. Which is embarrassing, because the Chinese, and both Koreas, unite in saying "no go" to Tokyo.

The proposal to enlarge the Council has been on the agenda for more than ten years -- and the British made sure that it was enlargement, and not "reform," which might have questioned the status of their permanent seat. Earlier this year, to break the logjam, Kofi Annan originally proposed two alternatives.

"Plan A" was for six new permanent members, including two from Africa, but with no vetoes. Everybody, except those who thought they would be one of the six, agreed that adding six new vetoes into a frequently gridlocked body was hardly the way to make it efficient, even if it allowed the six lucky ones to parade their enhanced membership. This plan would also add three new temporary seats for the South.

Annan's plan "B" called for eight new "semi-permanent" seats which would be re-electable and sit for four years, and one new temporary seat.

This month, the G-4 -- Brazil, Germany, India and Japan -- put forward a version of Plan A which would call for reconsideration of the veto powers in 15 years time. The African contingent muddied the waters by putting up a counter-resolution calling for the new members to have veto powers, and added yet another temporary member to bring the Council up to 25.

What complicates things even more is that there is no consensus on who would occupy the African seats. In the earlier versions, there would only have been one, and it was the Arab League's representative on Annan's reform panel, who happens to be the former foreign minister of Egypt, who fought for two seats.

If there were only one African permanent seat, Egypt would have a snowflake's chance in the Sahara of getting it. If there were two, then a promise of Arab and Muslim support for the African proposal could land a place for Egypt, leaving Nigeria and South Africa to fight it out for the second spot.

There is a problem here, of course. The Europeans and others can accept a grandfathered China, but may not accept a dubiously-elected Hosni Mubarak in a permanent seat, let alone with a veto.

Then there are the regional rivals. Argentina and Mexico are not sure how a permanent Brazil would represent Latin America; Spain and Italy look askance at Germany; and Pakistan and Indonesia fail to see how a permanent India represents them.

Although the U.S. and China, the two states on the Council who most often wield their veto power, have indicated their opposition to all the proposals and candidates, the would-be permaments hoped that by getting a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly they would shame Washington and Beijing into not using their vetoes. This almost proves that they are diplomatically unfit to be on the Council, since the shamelessness of China and the U.S. is pretty much written into the standing orders of the body. And these aspiring states should know this, since several of them have been fairly shameless themselves in courting the Bush administration's favor in hopes of changing its mind.

Then there are the principled states like the Canadians, who have always supported the United Nations and want to see it work. They are more concerned about what the Council does than who does it, and agree with the Americans that current proposals make the Council too large and unwieldy. The Canadians also make the entirely reasonable point that permanent membership is itself an unfair anomaly, and even if we can't do anything about it, then extending it to six more states is still unfair to the other 180 or so lesser members. Canada is supporting the uniting-for-consensus proposal in a tactical way, although they think it would still make the Council far too big.

The real tragedy is that the obsession with Security Council seats is taking attention away from much more important UN reforms that Annan has proposed, such as a hard-hitting Human Rights Council, a clear definition of terrorism, clear guidelines for humanitarian intervention, and of course, addressing the whole range of development issues, from AIDS to poverty. The millions dying with AIDS in Africa will not raise their eyes to heaven in exultation just because a couple of African diplomats in New York do not have to seek re-election.

One of the problems with the existing Council is that elections for the temporary seats occur very rarely anyway. Many of the regions, such as Africa, have a long-term rota system, which puts up members who could be weak, pliable, law-breakers and recidivist human rights violators. Morocco, for example, on the Council in 1992-3, still occupies the Western Sahara despite decades of resolutions, while Rwanda held a seat during the genocide there. The current African proposal promises more of the same.

If you think a monarchy is regressive, you do not solve the problem by doubling the size of the Royal Family. We are stuck with the five permanent members, but that is no excuse for adding another six.

It would be better for the G-4 to use their prestige to revive the General Assembly and make it a more relevant body. For example, at the height of the Korean War, the U.S. secured a "Uniting for Peace" procedure that allowed the General Assembly to bypass the Security Council when a veto led to deadlock. At the time, the Russians were the biggest obstacle on the Council, but these days it is the US, and occasionally the Chinese, who dish out the vetoes. Most members are, frankly, too chicken to reaffirm a bypass procedure.

The idea of renewable four-year terms is a good one, because to justify re-election, the G-4 and other new members would have to report back to the General Assembly on their past behavior in the Council.

In fact, even paying careful attention to which countries join the Council as it stands now would do far more to reform that body than any of the discordant musical chairs moves now being plotted. After all, it was not France, Russia and China that blocked approval of Iraq. If the Bush administration had had the diplomatic sense to pledge that the other Big Players could keep their oil contracts, it would have had far fewer problems.

Rather, it was the smaller, more principled states, such as Ireland, Jamaica, Mexico, and Chile, that stood up for principle under heavy pressure on Iraq. None of them is under consideration for a new permanent seat, but members like these would make formal reforms much less necessary.

Ian Williams is the author of “The U.N. for Beginners,” and his latest book is Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 .