This week about 100 world leaders, including Paul Martin, and nearly twice that many foreign ministers, will converge on New York for the UN General Assembly.
This year's hot-button item is Security Council reform. This question, a neuralgic one for governments the world over, will require national self-sacrifice on the part of some and a new, broadly shared vision on the part of all member states on the role they wish to see the council play at a time of growing Great Power unilateralism and significant international tensions.
After the deadlock at the UN over Iraq in early 2003, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan became acutely aware that the UN's standing in world public opinion had plummeted. To chart a way forward, he convened a so-called High Level Panel to recommend ways that the UN could better respond to threats in the future.
At the time, expectations of the panel were as low as perceptions of its composition; thanks to several energetic panel members and a dynamic staff, its report, due in early December, is now keenly awaited.
The panel has been tackling how the UN could play a more meaningful role in containing support for terrorism, in combatting proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, in doing a better job on state-building in countries at risk of, or recovering from, civil war. These are complex challenges.
Much of the world sees Security Council membership as unrepresentative because it excludes populous countries such as Brazil and India from permanent member status; some say this robs the council of legitimacy. The legitimacy that comes from achieving results is surely more crucial to the council's credibility; still, politicians and diplomats love institutional tinkering, partly because in an age of sharply reduced government power and resources, it costs little (unless it goes wrong).
Any realistic proposal for council reform must swallow the bitter pill of the five permanent members' privileged position; Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, were granted a veto over council decisions at the UN's inception in 1945. (The P5 can veto council reform.) Although Britain and France work hard to earn their permanent seats, by creative diplomacy and by pulling more than their weight in international peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, they no longer command Great Power status. But neither is willing to give up its seat -- nor to accept that a single permanent seat for the European Union would today make more sense. The power imbalance that favours Europe in the council would be aggravated by German claims to a permanent seat based on its share of the UN bill, and on Germany's active role in promoting security
in places such as Kosovo and
Until recently, the dominant proposal for reform was to create five or so new permanent seats for Germany, Japan, and each of Asia, Africa and Latin America, supplemented by several new elected seats for less prominent members. This idea was unattractive because the P5 don't actually favour a larger council (more complicated to dominate, perhaps, and involving greater competition), and because countries such as Canada failed to see what was in it for them.
Unresolved was the issue of whether new permanent members would be granted vetoes (perhaps risking council paralysis) or not (and, if not, creating a new tier of second-class permanent members). All of which makes council reform an unmanageable Rubik's Cube.
In July, The Economist detonated a bombshell in the UN community by purporting to reveal the high level panel's current thinking on reform. It involved an expanded 24-member council of three tiers: the existing permanent five; a second tier of seven or eight potentially semi-permanent members elected on a regional basis for a renewable term of four or five years (perhaps Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and South Africa); and a third tier of members elected, as now, for a non-renewable two-year term. Only the permanent five would have a veto.
The new semi-permanent seats would be granted to four newly configured regions -- Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas. Canada would migrate from a Western European-dominated hybrid to an Americas-only group. This could be electorally to our advantage. For example, if the Americas were granted two of these seats, as the panel apparently proposes, Canada might alternate in one with Mexico, while Brazil alternates with Argentina in the other.
These proposals have been hotly contested by the candidates for permanent seats, notably Japan, Germany and India. Meanwhile, Egypt insists that at a time of contentious relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, ensuring Islamic community representation is vital. Besides, it's hard to see why countries such as India and Brazil, whose clout is increasing sharply, should acquiesce not only in second-class status in the council but also to the uncertainty of election every few years to the newly created second-rank seats.
These discussions touch on broader consideration of the post-Cold War institutional architecture. At a time when Canada has suggested that a new Group of Twenty countries with generous participation by the developing world could usefully supplement the existing industrialized G8, it is obvious that shifts in the Security Council could either provide support for the Canadian ideas or detract from them. The panel is thought to be considering responsibilities in the economic, social and state-building fields to entrust to just such a G20. Not coincidentally, Prime Minister Paul Martin is expected to meet with panel members in New York later this week.
There are always strong arguments against meaningful change at the UN advanced by governments that take a narrow view of their national interests (most do). But a strong, credible UN is in the interests of most member states and this will require significant change in how the UN addresses global threats -- and who makes those decisions. Otherwise, the drift toward unilateralism by the powerful will gather momentum -- witness Russia's claims earlier this month to use preventive force to address terrorism, echoing the Bush administration's contentions over Iraq.
As citizens of the world, we should welcome reform. But for governments such as Canada's, the Rubik's puzzle, involving important elements both of national interest and of collective benefit, remains redoubtable and so far unresolved.
David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, is author of Decision-Making in the UN Security Council and The UN Security Council: From the Cold War to the 21st Century.