05 October, 2012

South Africa's Campaign to Reform the United Nations

by Hussein Solomon

As the annual United Nations jamboree began in New York this week with the focus shifting from the ongoing turmoil in Syria, to the Iran nuclear question to the territorial dispute between China and Japan over islands both claim, President Jacob Zuma and his Minister of International Relations have sought to pursue the issue of the democratization of the august body itself – and more specifically the UN Security Council (UNSC).

At face value the arguments make sense. The Permanent Five (P5) veto wielding states reflect the power configuration of the post-World War II world. It scarcely resembles the power balance of the world in 2012. How can Western Europe have two seats on the Security Council (Britain and France) given its relative demise in global influence whilst the rising power of India and its billion-plus population is not reflected as a permanent member of the Security Council? President Zuma is also correct to note that a UNSC which does not reflect the planet’s seven billion citizens will have its authority repeatedly questioned.

Let me be clear, I do believe that the UN needs to be thoroughly overhauled if we are to have a more representative and effective world body. But, the devil is in the detail. If we increase the UNSC considerably with the addition of new members, would this not result in a more unwieldy body? In other words, increased representation might well result in decreased effectiveness. One way out of this is to possibly look at regional representation – in other words ensuring that one country represents a particular region. Here too there are problems. Mexico contests Brazil’s view that it should represent the region on the UNSC, Pakistan contests India’s incorporation into the UNSC and Nigeria, South Africa’s.

There is yet another problem and this relates to what values the new members will uphold. Could one imagine Mswati’s Swaziland or Asad’s Syria on such a reformed UNSC? Let us be clear, South Africa’s first stint on the UNSC was an embarrassment to all South Africans who assumed that post-apartheid Pretoria will be upholding human rights and freedom. Our country chose to ally itself with rogue regimes and sought to protect others from international censure. This is unacceptable. This is not to say that the P5 have been models of ethical behaviour. Too often the collective interests of the UN and humanity were sacrificed at the altar of national interest by the P5.

Perhaps one way out of the impasse is for the Zuma administration to campaign for gradual change regarding the rules of the existing UNSC as opposed to opting for revolutionary change in membership which is sure to be opposed by vested P5 interests. One such constructive way is for Pretoria to mobilize around the issue of when the veto could be used at the UNSC. It is in such incremental ways that the process of UN reform can begin.

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