UN reform and the Non-Aligned Movement

Mar 31 2005


By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

TEHRAN – Without taking account of dissenting voices, particularly by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which now includes some 115 states, the United Nations’ chief, Kofi Annan, has fully endorsed a hand-picked panel’s sweeping proposals for changing the UN structure, thus setting the stage for heated debates in the coming months leading up to the September UN gathering in New York.

In his report, aptly titled “In Larger Freedom: Toward Development, Security and Human Rights for All”, the UN secretary general has outlined a comprehensive plan of action aimed at making the UN a more efficient mechanism to deal with the daunting challenges of peace, prosperity and freedom in the new century.

It calls for structural reform of the UN institution, an increased economic role for the UN, a UN Democracy Fund, a new Post-Conflict Commission, and new guidelines on the use of force, among other things.

At a time when Annan is under intense scrutiny over the “oil for food” scandal causing a rupture in his credibility and leadership image, one may wonder if UN reform should not commence at the top with a new secretary general more capable of withstanding the US government’s increasing manipulation of the UN as a smokescreen for US foreign-policy interests and objectives.

A related issue is, of course, whether what is needed more than reforming the UN is a more faithful implementation of its charter’s agenda. After all, the present global (dis)order plays a significant role in generating the endemic underfulfillment of the UN’s original agenda. To map out the future, the first step is to look back to the immediate past and the increased anarchy wrought by the illegal military actions since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, prompting some astute observers to pen about the emergence of a “neo-medieval era”.

This “re-feudalization” of world politics is spearheaded by a Western superpower whose new envoy to the UN, John Bolton, has wasted no time in declaring that “US leadership of the UN” is an absolute “must”, indeed a far cry from president Harry Truman, in his speech at the founding conference of the UN, that “we all have to recognize – no matter how great our strength – that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please”.

With push-button predictability, Annan has conveniently overlooked in his report any mention of the US-led war on Iraq, which he has in the past billed as “illegal”, concentrating instead on “new threats” to world peace such as “catastrophic terrorism”. One may well raise a red flag: in ignoring big-power militarism and the gravity of inter-state conflicts potentiated by the unrestrained US superpower, are we not in danger of dimming the most important insight offered us by the bitter experience of Iraq’s invasion and continuing military occupation by the US and its handful of (shrinking) allies, namely, the need to strengthen international law and increase the fidelity to the UN Charter and its dictates for peaceful settlement of conflicts.

Sadly, Annan implicitly endorses the Bush doctrine of “pre-emptive” warfare in the section of his report on the “use of force” by maintaining: “Imminent threats are fully covered by Article 51, which safeguards the inherent right of sovereign states to defend themselves against armed attacks. Lawyers have long recognized that this covers an imminent attack as well as one that has already happened.”

As this author has demonstrated in an earlier article (Reforming the UN the Bush way of March 9), there is neither a consensus in the international legal community on “anticipatory use of force”, nor can we ignore the weight of contrary legal opinions that cogently argue that we must adhere strictly to the UN guidelines: The UN Charter, Article 2.4, expressly prohibits member states from using or threatening force against each other, and in Article 51 has clearly restricted the right to self-defense to the cases “when an armed attack occurs”.

Worse, Annan’s reform agenda is to bolster the elitist Security Council and to give it a freer hand than in the past to authorize the use of force even “where threats are not imminent, but latent”. Notwithstanding the United States’ domination of the Security Council, vividly demonstrated in the months leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a “reformed” UN in the near future may, in fact, mean a new staging ground for “preemptive” war ignited to, for instance, prevent a “rogue” state’s alleged proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, thus turning the noble neologism of collective security into a negative surrogate of closet unilateralism or pseudo-multilateralism.

Another key aspect of Annan’s report is his unequivocal embrace of the “emerging norm” of humanitarian intervention, albeit under the more benign terminology of “responsibility to protect”, delegating to the Security Council the task of determining when to ignore the UN taboo of state sovereignty in the name of preventing “genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity”.

It would be one thing if Annan had self-limited to genocide, where the moral imperative to intervene by the international community is rather clear, yet the standard for intervention is somewhat muddied by the addition of “ethnic cleansing” and the more imprecise “other crimes against humanity”.

No doubt it would be imprudent to ignore the role of the international community to protect the world’s citizens, whose survival is endangered within the confines of a “nation-state”, yet the evidence suggests that the majority of developing nations have become even more enamored of the “domestic jurisdiction clause” of the UN safeguarding them against interference in internal affairs by, to paraphrase a book, “a select group of states … agreeing on criteria for intervention among themselves” which would, in turn, “undermine the current system in international law” (Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical, Legal and Potential Dilemmas, edited by Robert O Keohane and J L Holzgrefe, 2003).

Indeed, this is precisely a gist of negative reaction of the NAM to the “Report of High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change” endorsed by Annan. The NAM “comments” submitted to the secretary general prior to his submission of his 62-page report, on March 21, clearly states, “NAM reiterates its rejection of the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention, which has no basis either in the UN charter or in international law.”

Yet by all indications, neither this nor any other serious misgivings of the NAM, eg regarding undue new powers to the Security Council while bypassing the General Assembly, have been heeded by the UN secretary general, whose ears have fallen deaf to the quest of countries of the South to deal more effectively with the epidemic-like post-September 11 infringements on their sovereignty in the name of the global “war on terror” or humanitarian intervention.

This is not necessarily to recycle NAM’s rather outdated, and certainly insufficient, recipe of action vis-a-vis cases of humanitarian crisis such as genocide, which requires genuine collective response by the international community. Instead of a blanket rejection of the “responsibility to protect”, what NAM needs to do is to push for a greater General Assembly role in this matter, perhaps by recommending a new General Assembly sub-organ, eg, a “special commission” that would engage in “burden-sharing” with the Security Council on the case-by-case issues of humanitarian crisis.

Unfortunately, both Annan’s report as well as the High-Level Panel’s Report, lack the minutest insight on how to make the General Assembly, where the true will of the world community is reflected, into a more active participant in the fundamental decisions of the Security Council; in fact, both reports unreasonably criticize the General Assembly for its “inefficiency”, without bothering to introduce any institutional remedy that would make this important body of the UN more relevant to the issues of collective security, peace and war. Instead, Annan’s report limits itself to “streamlining” the General Assembly procedure, involving it in terminological acrobatics over the definition of terrorism, and “with civil society”.

Again, this flies in the face of a strong recommendation by the majority of UN member states who are NAM constituents for enhancing the role and responsibility of the General Assembly and, hence, one may wonder why the secretary general continues to prefer to ignore them, embracing instead those inputs, directly or indirectly, by the US and its key allies (seeking a more smooth global management via the UN). Why should Annan limit his preference for Security Council reform to two options, regarding the expansion of non-veto permanent members, without addressing the NAM concerns for the abuses, and limitations, of veto power?

However, the widening gap between the UN secretary general and the NAM is somewhat ameliorated by a South-centric emphasis by Annan on developmental issues seeking to make the UN a more meaningful partner in world economic decision-making. Yet this initiative, aimed at enhancing the role of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), may be a remedy too late, given the High-Level Panel’s admission that “it would not be realistic to aim for the Economic and Social Council to become the center of the world’s decision-makers of trade and finance … decision-making on international economic matters, particularly in the areas of finance and trade, has long left the United Nations and no amount of institutional reform will bring it back”.

In all likelihood, most if not all of Annan’s economic recommendations, pertaining to the budgetary policies of nations developed or developing, debt relief, international financing, world trade and so on and so forth, will fall on deaf ears, as the five-year sad record of the UN Millennium Developmental Goals (MDG), adopted in the year 2000, clearly demonstrates; Annan’s own report grudgingly admits that “too few governments” have followed the MDG guidelines, such as devoting a segment of their gross national product for world poverty alleviation, preventing the spread of AIDS, and the like.

Another problematic aspect of the Annan-led agenda for UN reform is that it seeks to transform the idea of collective security by adopting a more expanded definition inclusive of “human security”, “environmental security” and so on, which has the side effect of turning benign economic and developmental questions into security questions picked up by the Security Council while, simultaneously, reverting to a more restrictive, and limited, notion of human rights that is almost exclusively political and lacks an economic dimension, as seen in the secretary general’s and High-Level Panel’s Report’s recommendations for changing the UN High Commission on Human Rights.

Thus, the (rather desperate and ultimately futile) economization of UN reform and the de-economization of its human-rights agenda go hand in hand, indeed a flash of irony.

In conclusion, while there is no doubt about the need to change the UN in order to make it capable of pursuing its lofty and noble missions in a “changed world”, the various shortcomings and flaws of the UN secretary general’s latest initiative cited above lead but to one conclusion and that is, despite his good intentions and irrespective of the redeeming value of some of his recommendations, such as on post-conflict peacekeeping, on the whole Annan’s recommendations are misguided and, if implemented, are bound to create new fissures and tensions within the world organization that could, in turn, weaken it instead of enabling it to tackle the burning issues of peace and prosperity.

In a word, Annan’s recipe for UN reform is the wrong turn at what he has described as “a fork in the road”, it is, in a word, a road better not taken for the sake of the UN’s, and the world community’s, common future.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and “Iran’s Foreign Policy Since 9/11”, Brown’s Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political science at Tehran University.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)

Reforming the UN the Bush way
(Mar 9, ’05)

Gunfight at the UN corral
(Feb 26, ’05)

site admin