The Fabulous Five:  Non-Permanent Council Members Leave a Permanent Mark

15 Dec

As 2014 draws to a close, the Security Council bids farewell to five states which, as a group, significantly elevated the role of non-permanent members at a time when the Council has seemed by many to be simply overwhelmed by a torrent of global crises.

Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea and Rwanda all performed with various levels of distinction, taking on important and complex committee assignments but more importantly calling the Council as a whole to higher standards of performance.  Only occasionally over the past two years did any of these members seem to forget where they came from – the General Assembly – or where they are soon destined to return.  The Council can be a ‘heady’ place, especially for smaller states infrequently selected to take a seat around the oval.   But the Council also has problems of focus, follow-through and other working methods-related issues that impact the rest of the UN system, producing tensions with member states that this group helped take steps to resolve.

One failing of the current, uneasy consensus on working methods, as we have noted previously, is that the so-called ‘public’ events seem a bit too scripted, attempts to ‘brand’ policy rather than allow glimpses into the rationales for and limitations of Council efficacy. In our own global travels, it quickly becomes clear that what people would prefer to ‘see’ from Council members is a measured and thoughtful assessment of the many global crises on their agenda, the implications of these crises for international peace and security, and any changes Council members are willing to contemplate in order to more effectively fulfill the ‘primary’ Charter responsibility to which some of the members constantly call attention.

Having sat through hundreds of hours of these Council events over the past two years, there are things we wish we could have seen more often from these five skillful members.   We would have liked to see the ROK take more risks in their policy statements. We would have liked to see more independence by Australia from the influence of some permanent members.  We would have liked to see Luxembourg and Argentina get up to speed more quickly (no small task) so that other Council members could have taken greater advantage of their often-wise counsel.   We would have liked to see stronger guidance from Rwanda in support of still-fledgling AU efforts to maintain peace and security, especially given that Rwanda understands better than almost anyone the degree to which many Council responses to African conflict are late to evolve, capacity challenged, and lacking in cultural nuance.

Of the non-permanent members that are now vacating the Council, our ‘hat’ tips especially towards Argentina.  While the other ‘fabulous five’ states were certainly thoughtful in their policy statements – Luxembourg and Australia especially come to mind from this group – it was Argentina that attempted to take seriously the role of Council sage.  It was Argentina whose statements most often raised the question of why the Council bothers to convene to then share views that have no collective policy impact.  It was Argentina that insisted most strongly that the Council honor its obligations to peacekeepers, to the ICC, to other parts of the UN system that have (legitimate if unfulfilled) expectations of Council performance.  It was also Argentina that, more than the others, seemed to understand the mood of the audience behind the web cast, an audience uneasy about the state of the world and increasingly concerned that the Council might not have what it takes to bring wide-ranging chaos and abuse under effective international control.

As we have already alluded to in past statements, what policymakers and the global public need to glimpse from the Council is a body whose statements meaningfully reflect the full- spectrum burdens that it faces, the policy compromises that its working methods sometimes impose, the inability (or unwillingness) to seize on potential crises at their earliest moments, the commitment to play by the rules that it expects other states to play by, even the willingness to acknowledgement of policy blunders (Libya comes immediately to mind) that have wrecked many lives in states seemingly ‘permitted’; to fail.

In our view, this general vetting is the primary (albeit difficult) job of non-permanent members: using this temporary platform to revitalize Council methods, build stronger and more trust-worthy bonds with the rest of the UN system, and give voice to otherwise muted policy concerns.  Given the vast power disparities within the Council itself and the often unruly political machinations that sometimes proceed from this imbalance, we can only honor the contributions of this fabulous five.  They have set a high and inviting bar for their successors.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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