Issue 133: UN Reform, Advance and Retreat

News:   Plans for major reform of the United Nations are rapidly accelerating. Multiple competing proposals are on the table, with 191 member states vying for advantage through alliances old and new.  In February, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released his proposal, “In Larger Freedom”, following on a previous report to him by a high-level panel of experts in November. Two weeks ago, the President of the General Assembly, Jean Ping of Gabon, published a draft of the document being prepared for the September summit of world leaders in New York, which is expected to endorse at least several of the proposed reforms.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Hyde Bill, which, if it becomes law, would see the U.S. withhold half its dues to the U.N. unless 39 specific reforms are implemented. These include the U.N.’s establishment of an independent oversight board and an ethics office, denying countries that violate human rights from serving on the human rights commission, and eliminating agenda items that single out Israel for unequal treatment.

Analysis:   The General Assembly draft is weak, the result of being limited to consensus positions. Nevertheless, it does touch on a full range of issues:  development aid to the Third World, gender equality, the establishment of a new peace-building commission, an attempted definition of terrorism (which refutes the claim by certain countries that occupation justifies the killing of innocent civilians), and even a new fund to promote democracy. Most controversial, however, are enlargement of the Security Council, and trying to clean up the Human Rights Commission.

Changing the composition of the Security Council will not be easy. With the power to decide war and peace, it is the most consequential of U.N. bodies. Most of the permanent members are hardly keen to reduce their power. Beyond narrow national interests, though, the question carries significant global implications for peace and stability.  Some analysts note that any dilution of the U.S. veto might strengthen extremist blocs at the U.N., allowing powerful alliances like the 56-strong Islamic Group to push through injurious resolutions. It’s one thing for them to make a mockery of the Commission on Human Rights – where their automatic majority enacts resolutions that condone terrorism – and quite another to play with the Security Council.

Kofi Annan’s report suggested two alternative models for expansion, both of which would boost Council membership from 15 to 24. Model A would add six new permanent seats to the five currently held by the U.S., Russia, China, France and the U.K., but new members would not enjoy veto power. Another three non-permanent seats of two-year terms would be added, divided proportionally among the major regions. Model B would add no new permanent seats, but would create a new category of eight four-year, renewable term seats, and one two-year non-permanent (and non-renewable) seat.

Based on Model A, the “G-4” of Brazil, India, Japan and Germany banded together to seek permanent seats for themselves, and the addition of six other non-permanent slots.  The U.S., China and Russia are hoping to delay the G-4’s introduction of a resolution to this effect in the General Assembly. Apparently, too late: the G-4 foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels this week, agreed to go ahead and table it in July. Whether the G-4 will be successful is far from clear.

The U.S. supports a “modest expansion” to only 19 or 20 seats, with the addition of “two or so” new permanent members including Japan, and two or three non-permanent members.  The U.S. also wants admission of new council members to be based on specific criteria, including a sizable economy and population, a country’s contributions to the U.N. system, its potential to contribute to peacekeeping missions, and its commitment and record on democracy, human rights, counterterrorism and nonproliferation.

Even if the G-4’s structural change were to win two-thirds approval in the General Assembly, deciding on the particular candidates to fill the permanent seats would require a similar two-thirds vote. But the most difficult step is a final resolution to change the U.N. Charter, which not only requires a two-thirds vote but also approval by the Security Council’s five permanent members. China has already expressed strong opposition to giving Japan a seat.

Once it becomes clear that significant change of the Security Council is unlikely, pressure will increase on Kofi Annan – as well as on the U.S., which has been outspoken on the need for reform – to deliver on something. That something may well be a new human rights council.

As readers will recall from our last column, Annan boldly called for replacing the human rights commission with a new, credible council that would be of higher stature within the U.N., and sit not only for six weeks, but year-round.

Most importantly, Annan said the human rights council should be composed only of members bearing a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards. Perhaps it was to be expected, but the General Assembly draft has already abandoned this crucial criterion.

According to the Freedom House human rights survey, nearly one-third of the Commissions members are “not free”; China, Cuba, Zimabwe, and so forth and another quarter are only “partly free”. If the future human rights body continues to be dominated by member states whose regimes are inherently hostile to basic freedoms and democracy, all other reforms will be futile.

“Liberty”, said Learned Hand, “lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.”  At the Commission, the protection of liberty and human rights lies in the heart of member states; so long as it remains absent there, no reform, no new procedure, no added budget will be able to save it.

Speaking at a special debate of the Commission on Monday, states such as Cuba, and those from the Islamic Group, the Arab Group, and the African Group all expressed vehement opposition to the notion that notorious human rights violators be excluded from membership.

The Islamic Group, represented by Pakistan, also criticized “politicization” of the Commission and demanded that the new human rights body eschew the practice of reproaching specific countries for their violations. In the same breath, and with a straight face, the representative insisted on the necessity of preserving the special agenda item on alleged Israeli violations.

During the debate, only Australia had the moral courage to remind the world that reform of the Commission will be meaningless if it continues to ab initio single out one nation alone for differential treatment.

According to a former senior official of the Canadian foreign ministry in Ottawa, his government once tabulated the time and resources their human rights officers must devote to processing the endless anti-Israel resolutions introduced in U.N. bodies. The Canadians were astounded by how many global humanitarian issues are overlooked as a result. And yet, even while Ottawa has critiqued the discriminatory agenda in the past, and even though the phenomenon is a material obstacle that prejudices the commissions ability to function with any credibility, Canada and other nations have chosen to keep silent in the current debate.

Among non-governmental organizations, the UN Foundation, close to Annan, is one of the few to speak out. “Reform must also embrace the full inclusion of Israel as a normal Member State”, said Timothy E. Wirth, in recent testimony before the U.S. Congress. “Israel, as the only Member State that is not a member of one of the regional groups, has no chance of being elected to serve on main organs such as the Security Council or the Economic and Social Council, and we must work to rectify this anomaly.”

The Secretary-General made similar remarks in March. He should include it in his proposal, which then ought to be endorsed as a whole. Regrettably, what is clear from the General Assembly draft, and from statements made by the non-democratic member states, is that support for any meaningful change is weak at best.

Instead, we seem to be facing the danger that the world will empower a body that has been condemned by Annan himself as lacking credibility – he said it “casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole” – without first curing the underlying problem, the body’s composition.

A standing Council, elevated to the status of a Charter body, only makes sense if it is to be animated by the spirit of liberty. Otherwise, we are about to arm the enemies of freedom and human rights with even greater jurisdiction, legitimacy and influence, which will only empower them as they continue to sit in judgment on others, and to shield their own records of abuse.

UN Watch