A Field Worth Playing On:   The UN recalibrates its laws and its leadership, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jun

Last Friday at the UN, as the Security Council held another unsettling briefing on Ukraine and as a Meeting of Government Experts sought common ground on technical aspects related to the elimination of illicit flows of small arms and light weapons, a rule-of-law lecture took place that highlighted the increasing value and robustness of leadership emanating from smaller states.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the UN membership of the Principality of Liechtenstein, HSH Hereditary Prince Alois made a presentation at UN headquarters that did what we would urge many states to do under similar circumstances – share why the decision to commit to multi-lateral engagement through the UN was a sound one.  The Prince cited difficulties in getting traction in the UN as a small state but also highlighted their national interest in the strong, accountable rule-of-law which the Prince rightly noted “is a prerequisite for a level playing field and the sovereign equality of all states.”

While the Prince did note some distinct national interests in matters such as the International Criminal Court and in reform of the UN Security Council, he avoided mention of other policy interests including in Women, Peace and Security activities at UN headquarters, areas where his government has displayed visible and welcome leadership.

Indeed, the key to any successful meeting or process at the UN is quality leadership – the kind that both takes risk and builds consensus, that highlights needs in the international community for which it is then willing to take some significant responsibility – convening and prodding rather than pointing figures and expecting solutions to come from elsewhere.

This kind of leadership has recently been in evidence in many UN forums – especially in the post-2015 sustainable development (SDG) negotiations where Kenya’s Kamau and Ireland’s Donoghue (and Hungary’s Kőrösi previously) navigated a challenging process that has produced an historic ‘zero draft.’  That draft has elicited some criticism but also represents a significant improvement over the prior MDGs and has a good chance of passing muster with Heads of State at the UN in September.  The draft also incorporates noteworthy interventions from many small states, including the Small Island Developing States, which will ensure among other things that climate health has a prominent place in SDG implementation.

Beyond the SDGs, this past couple of days alone has seen an important initiative by Lithuania and Malaysia pushing for Security Council responses to challenging cease fire violations in Ukraine, a site of dismay and sadness for the entire UN system.  At the same time, we note Moldova’s successful stewardship of the Meeting of Government Experts, a technical process related to ending the trafficking in small arms which took place amidst significant leadership changes in UN Disarmament Affairs and followed two frustrating and time consuming events related to armaments: the UN Disarmament Commission and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review.

What all of this leadership has in common is that it emanated from what at another time in the UN’s history might be considered ‘unlikely sources.’  Smaller states have always attempted to champion issues of global importance, but for most of the UN’s history these states have operated in the background as big power interests dominated the stage. Now these smaller states not only sit often in the chair’s seat, but do much inside and outside the Security Council to establish a fully functional global agenda in each of the UN’s core policy pillars.

Some of this agenda is related less to issues and more to structures and working methods.   Currently there are serious (and not so serious) proposals cascading through the halls and conference rooms of the UN to change the way the Security Council does its business, the UN system chooses its leadership, and more.  Part of what underlies these concerns is the quite sensible need to find ways to get permanent Council members to play by the same rules that they insist on for other states.  In these efforts, small and medium sized states are playing a growing, welcome role.

We believe completely that one path to UN reform is lies in the vigorous leadership of major UN processes by officials from smaller states.   This includes non-permanent Security Council members who are slowly eroding the assumptions and prerogatives of the veto-wielding states, not through their military or economic power but through their wise, vocal and even courage engagement with the opportunities provided by Council working methods and the UN charter.  The more good sense the non-permanent members communicate, the more resolve they show on policy, indeed even the more enthusiasm they show for the value and future expansion of multi-lateral contexts, the better our planet will be.  As we are seeing, commitment, wisdom and tenacity from smaller states can begin to wear down power imbalances in the UN system perhaps even more successfully in the long run than attempted charter revisions or the formation of new blocks of states at times as intransigent in their interests as the ‘privileged’ states they seek to counter.

This leveling is critical to the health of the UN system.  But it must be attained less by attempting to drag down the larger powers and more by smaller states stepping up and allowing their leadership and (to the extent they are available) commitment of resources to serve as their “balancing card. “  It also means promoting rule-of-law as the essential leveler, rules and standards that can coax more transparency and accountability from large states –including permanent Council members – than any single option currently available to us.

The “inequalities” that formed the basis for much discussion of post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals have their echo in other parts of the system as well.  Not only inequalities within states but also between states.   But it is never enough to lament the imbalances.   We all must — NGOs as well — be willing to pay our “dues” by increasing our practical interest in a UN system that is still desperately needed and still not fulfilling expectations.

Liechtenstein is one of the small states that have, individually and collectively, made positive contributions to multilateralism in large measure through its interest in rule-of-law.   If this system is ever going to truly balance — and it may not survive unless that happens – more states need to join efforts at rule-of-law based institutional reform.  Such states must also be willing to take leadership in areas of their greatest interests while affirming publicly the benefits to governments and peoples of UN-based multilateral arrangements.

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