Unilateralism or Multilateralism: U.N. Reform and the Future of the World

Wednesday, 1 October 2003

On 23 September, the 58th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations opened in New York City. Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary-General, opened the general debate with an address to diplomats and heads of state and government from around the world. He set the stage for his remarks by discussing the troubling situation in Iraq and the tragic bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. In light of these events, he raised the issue of the future of the U.N. In the Millennium Summit held in 2000, he noted, all nations agreed on a vision of global solidarity and collective security. Events in Iraq "have called that consensus into question." The dispute, as he described it, involves the response of member nations to real or perceived threats. Will nations act together, working through the U.N. in a multilateral approach, or will they arrogate to themselves the authority to act militarily to solve their own and the world's problems unilaterally?

Since this Organisation was founded, States have generally sought to deal with threats to the peace through containment and deterrence, by a system based on collective security and the United Nations Charter. Article 51 of the Charter prescribes that all States, if attacked, retain the inherent right of self-defence. But until now it has been understood that when States go beyond that, and decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, they need the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations. Now, some say this understanding is no longer tenable, since an "armed attack" with weapons of mass destruction could be launched at any time, without warning, or by a clandestine group. Rather than wait for that to happen, they argue, States have the right and obligation to use force pre-emptively, even on the territory of other States, and even while weapons systems that might be used to attack them are still being developed. According to this argument, States are not obliged to wait until there is agreement in the Security Council. Instead, they reserve the right to act unilaterally, or in ad hoc coalitions. This logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last fifty-eight years. My concern is that, if it were to be adopted, it could set precedents that resulted in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without justification.

Although he didn't mention the United States by name, his suggestion that the U.S. seems to be taking a path of unilateralism was clear, and Kofi Annan was not the only one to point it out. Speaker after speaker rose to address the assembly and proclaim the virtues of a multilateral over a unilateral approach. France, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, China, and many others came down firmly on the side of a multilateral approach to the world's problems, both military and economic. Only the U.S. trumpeted the virtues of a unilateralist approach, albeit in veiled language.

U.S. president George W. Bush spoke to the general assembly of "coalition" successes in Iraq, especially the removal of a brutal dictator. He linked Saddam Hussein with terrorism and claimed that he was building weapons of mass destruction. He justified the attack on Iraq by the U.S. and Britain as an attempt to fulfill the wishes of the Security Council and salvage the credibility of the U.N. itself. "The Security Council was right to vow serious consequences if Iraq refused to comply. And because there were consequences, because a coalition of nations acted to defend the peace, and the credibility of the United Nations, Iraq is free, and today we are joined by representatives of a liberated country." Few nations agreed with Bush's justification of the war, however. (British foreign minister Jack Straw attempted to justify the war as well, but with Tony Blair's current approval numbers hovering around 30%, it is questionable whether it can be justly said that the U.K. as a whole agrees with the decision to go to war.)

To most nations, the right of a powerful country to decide the fate of a weak country unilaterally is extremely troubling and threatens the world community and the U.N. itself. South African president Thabo Mbeki summed up the issue succinctly: "Does the United Nations have a future as a strong and effective multi-lateral organisation , enjoying the confidence of the peoples of the world, and capable of addressing the matters that are of concern to all humanity! " This is an issue, he said, that the war in Iraq brings to the fore. The world community is at a crossroads, and the future effectiveness of the U.N. is in doubt, "unless we answer the question about the future of the U.N. as the legitimate expression of the collective will of the peoples of the world, the principal guarantor of international peace and security, among other global issues."

In a direct challenge to the actions of the Bush administration, French president Jacque Chirac challenged the way of unilateralism directly. "In an open world, no one can live in isolation, no one can act alone in the name of all, and no one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules." He then proceeded to tout the advantages of multilateralism.

Recently elected Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva--a rising force in world politics, particularly with regard to globalism and international trade, and a leader of the G-22 group of poor countries at the recent WTO summit in Cancun--also championed the idea of multilateralism. While recognizing the horrendous tragedy of 11 September 2001, he decried using the memory of this event to "attempt to discredit our Organization and even to divest the United Nations of its political authority." He then reminded the General Assembly of the historic purpose for which the U.N. was originally created. "No matter how invaluable its humanitarian work, the United Nations was conceived to do more than simply clear away the rubble of conflicts it was unable to prevent. Our central task is to preserve people from the scourge of war, to negotiate settlements inspired by the principles and objectives of the San Francisco Charter. Let us not place greater trust on military might than on the institutions we created with the light of Reason and the vision of History."

Mexico's president Vicente Fox, a staunch Bush ally at the beginning of the latter's term in office, opposed the unilateralism of the U.S. "No country, large or small, can conquer on its own either the challenges of the present or those it will face in the future. The situation which threats to peace, security, and international development impose on us is nothing other than the co-responsibility of the nations." Rather than unilateral action against rogue nations, Fox said, "It is imperative to examine the commitment of states by means of the ideals and the observance of international law, making use of the existing mechanisms to enforce compliance with the resolutions of the Security Council." He called for reforms to the U.N. that would ensure the collective nature of the decision making process and sustain multilateralism.

The call for U.N. reform was widespread, beginning with, but not limited to, reform of the Security Council. It began with the Secretary-General's speech. "In my recent report on the implementation of the Millennium Declaration, I drew attention to the urgent need for the [Security] Council to regain the confidence of States, and of world public opinion--both by demonstrating its ability to deal effectively with the most difficult issues, and by becoming more broadly representative of the international community as a whole, as well as the geopolitical realities of today."

Jacque Chirac concurred. "There is no alternative to the United Nations. But in the face of today's challenges, this fundamental choice, as expressed in the Charter, calls for a far-reaching reform of our Organization."

Vicente Fox outlined some of the changes that he deems necessary, beginning with the Security Council.

Reform ought to concentrate on the functioning of our multilateral system. The work of the Security Council illustrates this need. Without a doubt, the debate over its composition is bound to the need for attaining a greater degree of representation, and in this way to strengthen its legitimacy. . . . It is necessary to ensure an adequate degree of representation, to limit the veto and regulate it, to advocate for a greater transparency, and to create a relationship that is more balanced with the other organizations of the United Nations, particularly the General Assembly.

Thabo Mbeke called for greater equality in the decision-making processes of the world body.

The reality is that the same processes that bring all us closer together in a global village, are simultaneously placing the residents of the global village in different positions. Some have emerged as the dominant, and the rest as the dominated, with the dominant being the decision makers, and the dominated being the recipients and implementers of these decisions. To the same extent that our political collectives have not designed the institutions responsive to the evolution of the global village, so have they failed to respond to the imbalance in the distribution of power inherent in contemporary global human society. . . . Among other things, this paradigm means that, naturally, the powerful will set the agenda for all residents of the global village. Again naturally, they will do this to advance their own interests. This will include the perpetuation of their dominant positions, to ensure the sustenance of their capacity to set the agenda of the global village, in the interest of their own neighbourhoods within this global village. Inherent within this is, necessarily, reliance on the use of the superior power of which the dominant dispose, to achieve the objective of the perpetuation of the situation of the unequal distribution of power. In this situation, it is inevitable that the pursuit of power in itself, will assert itself as a unique legitimate objective, apparently detached from any need to define the uses of such power.
Then, drawing on the tradition of liberation theology embodied in the Kairos Document, a South African theological statement that condemned the apartheid system in which he lived for so long, Mbeke concluded, "This also signifies the deification of force in all its forms, as the final arbiter in the ordering of human affairs."

How does a nation ensure that individuals cannot rule as despots or warlords within its borders? By establishing democratic institutions that limit the power of individuals by balancing their desires with those of the other citizens of the country. How can the world ensure that powerful nations cannot impose their will on their weaker neighbors? By reforming the United Nations and making it more representative and democratic.

The current structure of the Security Council might have made sense in the aftermath of World War II, but it is a dinosaur now, and the world--with two or three notable exceptions--is clamoring for reform. The first and foremost reform that is needed is the elimination of the veto, a privilege accorded only to the five permanent members: Britain, France, Russia, China, and the U.S. The idea that any single country can veto a Security Council resolution is grossly undemocratic and unjust. (Interestingly, even though the U.S. has complained vociferously about France's use of the veto to stop a resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq, it is the U.S. that has used the power of the veto most frequently throughout the history of the U.N., often to block resolutions that have been critical of Israel.) The need for a veto could be replaced by the requirement that all Security Council resolutions pass by a two-thirds majority. In any case, the General Assembly should always be empowered to override the Security Council, either to pass or to quash a resolution or action, by some sort of supermajority.

Second, the number of permanent members should be expanded to include representatives from Africa and Latin America, as well as new representatives from Asia and perhaps Europe. Jacque Chirac suggested adding Germany and Japan, as well as unnamed "leading countries" from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I would think that India, the world's largest democracy, is vital to add to the list, and perhaps Brazil, Indonesia (the most populous Muslim country), South Africa, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. The last is not an ideal choice, certainly, but a member of the Arab League should be a member. Or maybe the best idea of all is to eliminate permanent members altogether. Why not force the U.S. and the other current permanent members to face re-election every year? As long as they've done a good job for the world community--as opposed to their own narrow interests--they should win a seat in every election. Or perhaps it is more appropriate for regions and/or politico-cultural blocs to have permanent representation, but allow individual countries to change. Then, for example, each continent would be guaranteed at least one representative, as would NATO, the Arab League, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.

Third, the voting process in both the Security Council and the General Assembly must be completely transparent. In particular, attempts to bribe, pressure, or extort member states to vote one way or another should be outlawed. The attempt to buy votes in a democracy will result in the perpetrator going to jail (ideally). In the international community, attempts to sway votes through promises of loans, or the cancellation of military support, or trade sanctions, or the withholding of foreign aid, should be outlawed. Nations that attempt to sway votes illegally should face loss of voting rights or positions in key U.N. organizations, such as the Security Council.

Fourth, representation in the General Assembly should reflect population as well as national sovereignty. It is not fair for Tuvalu to have as many votes as the United States, nor is it right that Luxembourg have as many votes as China. Every nation should be represented in the General Assembly, of course, but some sort of weighting should apply. If the Security Council and other organs of the U.N. treat every country equally, regardless of size, then it makes sense for the General Assembly to consider population when counting the votes.

Fifth, the power of the General Assembly, the most representative body in the U.N., should be increased. The ability of the General Assembly to override the decisions of the Security has already been commented upon above. Lula da Silva sees the need for greater authority to rest with the General Assembly.

The General Assembly, in turn, must be strengthened politically so as to focus on priority issues and avoid duplication of efforts. The General Assembly has fulfilled a historically important role by convening major Conferences and other meetings on human rights, the environment, population, women's rights, racial discrimination, AIDS, and social development. However, the General Assembly should not hesitate to take on its responsibilities for maintaining international peace and security. Our organization has shown that there are legal and political alternatives to a veto-induced paralysis [see above for a proposed solution to this problem] and to actions lacking multilateral endorsement.

U.N. reform and a commitment to multilateralism go hand in hand. The current system is becoming increasingly unworkable. Developing countries, and some industrialized countries as well, see the need for reform as obvious. Even staunch U.S. ally the United Kingdom recognizes the need for reform. As British foreign secretary Jack Straw said in his remarks to the General Assembly, "The U.K. is committed to making the Security Council more representative. The issue is not whether but how to do this." If the U.S., and perhaps Russia, oppose reform, they will stand against the rest of the world. The ultimate goal of U.N. reform should be the creation of a world community where human rights are universally upheld, people are free to live where they want, and violations of international law are dealt with by a U.N. police force rather than with war planes and bombs (cf. Chirac's comment about the International Criminal Court, "whose jurisdiction, " he said, "is universal"). The world is far from that point now, but it must aim for that goal, or perish.

In his speech to the General Assembly, Kofi Annan challenged world leaders to make reform of the U.N. a priority. "I respectfully suggest to you, Excellencies, that in the eyes of your peoples the difficulty of reaching agreement does not excuse your failure to do so."

For the complete texts of the speeches to the U.N. General Assembly, see http://www.un.org/webcast/ga/58/debate-23.htm.

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