The failure of the United Nations to ensure a peaceful resolution of the Iraq crisis has amplified the doubts about the organizations ability to play a substantial and meaningful role in the 21st century. Amid mutual incrimination between the pro- and anti-war camps regarding the damage inflicted upon this role, its very relevance as warrantor of international peace and security was called into question. Some even made comparisons to the pre-WWII League of Nations, that had been reduced to debating European railway issues the day the German army marched into Poland.
Iraq was admittedly something of a catch-22 for the UN Security Council. The thinly disguised unilateralist intent of the US administration, enabled by an unrivalled military might, seemed to leave the other members with two options: either to confirm the Councils irrelevance by obliging the US or ensure it by not doing so.
The UN, of course, as a whole has a brief that goes far beyond conflict resolution. Its various councils and commissions are dealing with refugees, development, humanitarian and disaster relief, cultural co-operation, the environment, human rights, health, education and a range of other issues. Proponents of the organization stress its indispensability in these areas, while critics point out that many of its stated objectives regarding peoples well being in the developing world (e.g. the Millennium Development Goals) represent little more than wishful thinking, due to inadequate resources, lack of political will, powerful (national) vested interests and the absence of mandatory implementation of decisions.
The focus here will be on the Security Council, whose effectiveness the war in Iraq highlighted as highly problematic. To put things into perspective, it is hardly the first time that the SC has fallen short of its role in safeguarding peace and security around the world. The tragic impotence in preventing or even mitigating the unimaginable violence that engulfed Rwanda and the atrocities in a supposedly safe haven in Bosnia are two of the most frequently cited examples. More recently, Russias threat to veto any resolution over Kosovo that would authorize the use of force against Yugoslavia resulted in NATO waging the war, while in Afghanistan the US did not even find it necessary to consult, claiming self-defense.
As a matter of fact, sanctioning and guiding the use of force through the UN, as it happened during the first Gulf War and the Korean war in the 1950s, has been the exception rather than the rule. On both occasions, incidentally, that was mainly providing cover for geopolitical undertakings dominated by the US. So the paralytic antagonism of a bi-polar world during the Cold War has been replaced by a situation in which a sole superpower can do as it pleases unchallenged. The optimism of the new world order of the early 1990s, if there ever was such a thing, has long melted into air.
It is rather commonplace to say that only a Security Council endorsement confers legitimacy to an action in the international arena. The suggestion, at best, implies the pragmatic acknowledgement of interest-guided foreign policies. At worst, is like not daring to say that the king is naked.
As the Guardian columnist Gary Younge put it, the Security Council operates, by and large, according to the golden rule those who have the gold make the rules. Its structures are outmoded, its methods undemocratic and its record of defending, restoring or establishing democracy weak. The law of force regularly takes precedence over the force of law. The human rights records of certain members are extremely poor, while, rather ironically, the five permanent members also happen to be the worlds main arms traders. Its resolutions quite often have nothing much to do with principle or international law but everything to do with the balance of power within it, being results of intimidation, coercion, bribing and horse-trading (who has forgotten the most expensive no in history certainly not the Yemenis).
It can be argued, of course, that the Iraq crisis proved that not every countrys vote in the Security Council is for sale in any given circumstances or subject to irresistible arm-twisting. The US failed not only to turn the minds of other powerful veto-holders but also to secure the support of the six so-called undecided countries that were doubtless in great need of all the financial and other help they could get. However, that simply resulted in a complete bypassing of the Security Council.
The main problems of the Security Council
First, the veto-holding permanent members have the power to block any decisions that go against their interests or those of their allies. The examples abound: the SC has not condemned, let alone acted upon, the US invasions of Grenada and Panama, the oppression in Tibet or Chechnya, Iraqs invasion of Iran when Saddam was regarded an ally against Islamic fundamentalism, while nothing much has been done to control Israels aggression in Palestine.
Second, even when decisions are taken, they often account for little more than lip service. The lack of political will to commit the resources and provide the capabilities that are needed to enforce resolutions that are not vital to the main powers interests, makes decisions inconsequential, an argument that was used, albeit hypocritically, by the US and Britain in the Iraq case. There have been numerous cases where even the deployment of peacekeeping forces has been so inadequate that it represented all but an empty show (Somalia, Haiti).
Finally, when a country is powerful enough, if it can not manipulate the system, it just bypasses it.
Could it really be otherwise? As a senior UN official argued, the UN, at its best, is a mirror of the world, adding that it is far better to have a world organization anchored in geopolitical reality than one too detached from the verities of global power to be effective. In the same vain, some maintain that the one nation one vote system of decision making in the UN General Assembly bears no relationship to the actual distribution of power in the world, therefore it is hardly surprising that its decisions are only recommendatory rather than binding. At the end of the day, the argument goes, once we accept multilateralism as an imperative element for dealing with international affairs, the UN is the only existing instrument that effectively embodies that principle, and dismissing it is like Adam asking Eve whether there is someone else.
It is probably true that multilateralism is the only answer to a global Hobbesian nightmare. What matters, though, is not only the principles that underpin it, but also the fact that certain countries can afford to support multilateralism only when multilateralism supports them.
The UNs structure is by no means the only possible one. As with any of our social arrangements, it represents just one of the potential responses to the existing challenges, formulated through co-operation and contest. We created it, and we can replace it by someone else. If it mirrors the current state of our global community, that does not mean we should not look for alternatives.
We need an organization that addresses the problems mentioned earlier, that is able to deter and prevent aggression between states and effective in brokering and enforcing settlements. I would also argue that we need it to be able and willing to intervene and that does not necessarily or primarily mean the use of armed force when humanitarian principles are at stake. If we accept that gross and systematic infringement of citizens well-being can not be tolerated in the name of national sovereignty, the right to intervene is the logical consequence.
Proponents of cultural relativism have warned of a new imperialism based on a Western conception of human rights, while humanitarian considerations have all too often been used as a pretext for interventions with an altogether less innocent agenda. Nevertheless, the UN is the only international body that could conceivably develop an authoritative framework for specifying when intervention is justifiable. But the present structure of the SC makes it difficult to see it as having the necessary moral authority for this task. We need a body whose judgement, motives and intentions can be as trusted as possible. A body that is transparent and accountable and that embodies international laws that are collectively debated, democratically decided upon and retain their credibility by being applied fairly, complied to universally and implemented consistently.
What needs to be avoided at this point is an abstract conception of the UN as a entity somehow independent of its collective membership. It can only have the power and the resources assigned to it by its members. In the current situation, no nation has signed the “Article 43” agreements that were intended to provide the United Nations with a military capacity to execute Security Council decisions. In addition, we would have to be careful not to replicate what has happened with institutions such as the IMF and the WTO, which on top of everything else seem to have developed a self-referential, autonomous logic and agenda that is essentially detached from, if not against, the majority of its members.
Pragmatic reform proposals
The reform of the SC has been on the international agenda for quite some time. Even by conservative standards, there seems to be an agreement on the existence of certain problems with the SC structure. Based on who happened to be on the winning side of the war 60 years ago, it is not representative of UN membership and out of key with the UN charters requirement of equitable geographical distribution of seats. It could even reasonably be argued that the original 1945 bargain, which conceded privileges to certain nations in return for commitment, has broken down and should be revisited.
By the end of the year, a committee set up by the UN secretary general will provide a blueprint for UN reform. Reportedly among its recommendations will be for Germany, Japan, India and Brazil to be added as permanent members of the SC, without, however, veto powers. Quite similar are the recommendations of the British government that suggest five new non-veto holding permanent members and a total of twenty-four seats. There have been numerous other proposals coming from all kinds of directions. With regard to SC membership, they range from a three-tiered system of scaling privileges based on current criteria of power and geography, to the allocation of permanent seats to nations or, interestingly, groups of nations that exceed a stipulated value threshold calculated according to a population based democratic/demographic principle combined with a capability principle (contributions), a scheme that encourages co-operation between nations and provide an objective, nuanced and flexible SC membership that can remain consistent with changing realities. With regard to veto power, suggestions include anything from the need of two members to block a decision, to a gradual phasing-out to an immediate termination that will allow, for example, a majority to reach decisions.
The above proposals, even when they do away with the veto, do not address the problem of resolution enforcement, neither do they prevent a powerful aggressor to bypass the whole system. More importantly, they hardly represent a meaningful shift of the present global governance paradigm. What follows is an epigrammatic blueprint for a democratic and empowered UN that is able to fulfil the aspirations for a truly benign new world order. Its main points are:
1. Abolition of the Security Council. 2. 3. The General Assembly as the decision-making body. 4. 5. Representatives directly elected by national constituencies for relatively short terms and subjected to recall provisions. 6. 7. Voting system: From one country one vote to a differential system based on criteria such as population, degree of democracy and contributions to the UN budget. 8. 9. Majority decision-making that is completely transparent and open to public scrutiny. 10. 11. A collectively agreed upon brief that could be limited to cases of aggression between states and systematic violation of citizens welfare within states. 12. 13. Increased efficiency through some thematic and geographical division of labour within the body. 14. 15. Once ratified by national constituencies, financial and other material contributions will be obligatory and open to revision. 16. 17. Decisions will be binding for member states and enforced in a fashion similar to that of the EU or the WTO. 18. 19. While states will retain some defense capacities, there will be a gradual shift of military power under UN command that will result into a sharp reduction of military spending. 20. 21. Guaranteed protection of any nation that is under threat, although individual state capability for aggression will be greatly diminished. 22. 23. Rapidity of reaction ensured through the geographical distribution of bases, equipment, infrastructure and personnel. 24. All that will amount to little less than the creation of a global monopoly of military power, but one that is democratically controlled and collectively owned.
The global civil society as agent of change
The obstacles to any change of the status quo, even the most moderate one, are all too obvious. Technically, any amendment of the UN Charter requires a 2/3 majority vote in the GA and unanimity in the SC. But, of course, the essence of the matter is not legal, but entirely political. Peacekeeping, for example, is a concept never mentioned in the UN Charter and being done in an ad-hoc fashion. It is clear that when political will exists, the implementation vehicles will eventually be found.
Realpolitik suggests that countries never readily surrender power. So, while the overwhelming majority of UN members would undoubtedly support a change, it seems unlikely that the five permanent members would voluntarily give up their privileges, and there does not seem to be a carrot big and juicy enough to compel them to do so. That is probably more true for the US, whose persistent default on its dues to the UN budget is just one expression of a rather deeply suspicious predisposition and lack of support towards the organization even in its current form. Unsurprisingly, any idea of collective decision-making could not be much more unpopular with a sole superpower. Even the promise of a more just, orderly and peaceful world does not seem to appeal to sort-sighted dominance-prone elites.
Could starting without the US, as has been the case with the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto agreement, be a way forward? A whole range of issues arise from this suggestion, but for the purposes of this article let us just say that such an initiative could act as a counter-balance to the current overwhelming concentration of power, while the US might eventually find isolation unsustainable.
What about a stick then? That might well have to be picked up by what has, if rather optimistically, been called the second superpower. This parallel global citizenry, still in its infancy, which the 3rd European Social Forum has been the latest celebration of. Reform prospects are dependent upon transnational, popular initiatives that coalesce as a movement. Without such a base, it is difficult to solve the agency problem of how to get from here to there. As conventional politics increasingly fails to respond to or resolve global concerns, and thereby destroys trust and confidence, this global society of peoples as opposed to governments poses a growing challenge to multilateral institutions. It is hard, of course, to envisage a transnational movement of sufficient potency to shake prevailing geopolitical structures and their corresponding ideological frames. However, a deterministic pessimism is not justified. History, even the recent one, is full of supposedly impossible things happening, at least partly due to the struggle of dedicated men and women. Circumstances change, opportunities arise. Let us keep on working on formulating, refining and championing alternatives and another world could be much more possible than we are led to believe.