External Affairs

Why the Kutesa Consensus is a Victory for the UN

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Credit: United Nations

Despite stiff opposition from a handful of big powers – China, Russia, the United States – the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Monday unanimously adopted a decision to press ahead with the important task of reforming the Security Council.

Officially titled, “Question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council and related matters,” this landmark decision (69/560) was gaveled against difficult odds. The decision was welcomed by a large majority of countries and will most likely be termed the “Kutesa consensus” by succeeding generations after Sam Kutesa of Uganda – who, as  President of the General Assembly (PGA) piloted the decision through. Kutesa completed his one-year term on September 15, 2015, handing over the presidentship to Mogens Lykketoft – who will now preside over the 70th session of the UNGA. Individuals make history, though not always in situations of their own choosing. Kutesa opted for his legacy and a place in history when he decided to stay the course.

The story so far

The issue of Security Council reform is as old as the UN itself. The UN Charter calls for review and reform. Since the intergovernmental negotiations (IGN) started in 2009, member states have been discussing Security Council reform proposals that appeared to be going nowhere. For the past seven years, despite best efforts, there was no official document that could have the effect of transforming the discussion into a negotiation. The IGN was preceded by the waffle of an Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) established in 1993.

Kutesa issued a letter on November 10, 2014, encouraging member states to start “text based negotiations.” He appointed Courtenay Rattray, Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations as the new Chair of the IGN and he convened consultations, including an interactive dialogue that was held on May 14 and 15. In the process, the chair gathered views of member states and undertook the preparation of a draft text containing the proposals that had been submitted. On July 31, Kutesa issued another letter that included a text, that now “form[s] the basis for the Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Reform of the Security Council.” The process was conducted in a “consultative, inclusive and transparent process.” The decision adopted by the UNGA on September 14 endorsed the text as the basis for negotiations.

During the two hour discussion that followed the adoption of the text, a number of statements were made by countries either representing group positions or themselves. The decision was described as a “game-changer” and a “milestone agreement” by members of the L.69 – a group of 42 developing countries. The African Union, CARICOM, the Nordic countries and the Arab Group also welcomed the decision. Japan, on behalf of the G4 (Germany, Brazil, India and Japan) called the decision an “irreversible step forward.” The Indian delegation called it a “historic decision” and referred to the 2005 outcome document, in which world leaders promised early reform the Security Council “in order to make it more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and thus further enhance its effectiveness and the legitimacy and implementation of its decisions.”

France, a permanent member of the Security Council also celebrated its adoption and recognized the need for reform. The US and the United Kingdom, both permanent members, were conspicuous by their silence.

While the overwhelming majority of countries supported the decision, a small and established minority, as was perhaps only to be expected, was unhappy with both the outcome and the process. China, Russia and the 13 countries comprising the United for Consensus (UfC) – which includes Italy, Spain, Pakistan and Turkey – called the decision a “technical roll-over” only meant to keep the agenda item under discussion for the next General Assembly. They said the process was neither transparent nor inclusive and concluded that the text could not be a basis for negotiations. The Permanent Representatives of China and Russia maintained that the negotiations can’t be led by either the PGA or the Chair but solely by member states.

The real significance

Was this just a “technical” roll-over? Are the supporters of reform giving the adopted text undue hype? Consider this: if all the UNGA did was agree to a “technical” roll-over, why did several of the world’s powerful states demarche capitals around the world in an effort to stop the adoption of this decision, even minutes before it was gaveled? Why did the same countries exert pressure on Kutesa and force him to issue a modified version of the decision that that had the effect of diluting the text. If this was a “technical” roll-over why are these words not mentioned in the decision? In previous years, the technical roll-over was an oral decision and never merited an official written decision.

The draft decision circulated by Kutesa’s office and their subsequent versions are available to the 193 member states and to the world media. Words have meaning and the attempt to dilute certain aspects of the decision by obfuscating the issue was nothing short of an attempt to derail the entire process. It would have been a crying shame if the attempts by those who do not want Security Council reform had succeeded on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations and the 10th anniversary of the 2005 World Summit.

The explanations of vote highlight the fact that negotiations on decision 69/560 were far from easy. Behind the scenes, a massive campaign against the decision was witnessed simultaneously in New York and in capitals across Asia, Africa and Latin America. There were several attempts to water-down the text and to downgrade the credibility of the process. Unpersuaded by intimidation, the decision passed with the highest honour: by consensus, which makes those reluctant voices now a party to the decision.

Still a tough road ahead

Beyond the rhetorical debate, there appears to be broad agreement on what an expanded Security Council would look like.: A modest expansion of membership in both categories, permanent and non-permanent with no increase in those who wield the veto powers.

In fact, the present effort is to obtain a veto restraint agreement or eliminate altogether the veto in situations involving mass atrocities, genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. The Security Council was established in 1945, with 5 permanent members and 6 non-permanent members. At the time, the UN had 51 member states. In 1965, the category of non-permanent members expanded from 6 to 10, by then it had 117 member states. Now, the UN has 193 member states and its structure remains stuck in the world of 1945 that was cast in the mould of “to the victors belong the spoils.”

The Security Council, as presently comprised, is neither geographically representative nor effective. Perhaps the biggest blow to the Council’s legitimacy comes not from its ineffectiveness but its helplessness. Those that violate the Rule of Law do not even bother now to make a reference to the Security Council. It is good to remind ourselves that the waging of war can be justified in only two sets of circumstances: in self-defense or by authorisation of the Security Council. It is only the Security Council that has the authority to make a determination on whether there exists a threat to international peace and security and it is only the Council that can authorise countermeasures. It is clear that the Security Council needs to reflect new world realities and the new geopolitical balance.

The lack of an effective Security Council has led to tragic consequences of unparalleled proportions. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 59 million displaced persons fleeing from persecution and violence, the largest number since World War II. Half of the population of Syria has fled in a massive exodus and Libya has become the new “Somalia of the Mediterranean.”

The onus of all the perils of the world cannot surely be placed on the shoulders of the Security Council. On the other hand, it cannot absolve itself of the blame either. The need for an effective Security Council, capable of dealing with the emerging threats to peace and security, cannot be overstated. The reform of the Security Council will be an essential component to its effectiveness and legitimacy.

Decision 69/560 succeeded in achieving two objectives: first, it reiterated the urgent need for Security Council reform and second, those attempting to derail the process failed. The fact that they did not request a vote is itself of significance since it provides confirmation of their limited strength. They did not request a vote as they knew fully well that the tide had turned against them. The long-standing game of “shadow boxing” that goes on largely behind the scenes on this subject, was being webcast, in the presence of all member states and the world.

The statements of Russia, China and the UfC- plus the silence of the United States and United Kingdom – imply that the battles ahead will be long and difficult. Fashioning an outcome – meaning the shape and size of a reformed Security Council – remains to be negotiated. The enemies of reform are not only those that are openly opposed to it. The real enemy is in our minds, it lurks in the shape of risk and fear. Unless we shed the risk and fear, the Security Council will continue to retain its outdated, ineffective shape.

The writer is a former Indian diplomat. The views expressed in this piece are personal.

  • Shama Zehra Zaidi

    France and the UK need to be kicked out of the Security Council, and the new representatives should be according to geographical location, not the countries who were world powers a century ago.