Face the Nations:   Security Council Candidates Make a Public Pitch, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 May

There was so much of value to write about this week at the UN.  Jordan and Italy convened the last of three experts’ events to examine the phenomenon of degraded and trafficked cultural artifacts by organized crime and terror groups.  The Security Council with leadership from Spain and Ukraine organized a useful session on the security implications of climate change and desertification on Sahel states. Also in the Council, Egypt presided over yet another discouraging briefing on the state of Syria humanitarian assistance by UN “Relief Chief” Stephen O’Brien.  Others welcomed International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Bensouda who both briefed the Council on her Libya activities and held a smaller, well-regarded consultation on a broader range of topics relevant to international justice for a group of ICC “friends.”

But minor ‘historic’ events trump even the most insightful briefings. One such event took place this week over two half-days when, for the first time, candidates to become non-permanent (N-10) members of the Security Council faced an audience of their peers.  While two of the regional groups that contribute such members produced candidate running unopposed, the Asia Group (Kazakhstan and Thailand) and the European (and other) group (Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands) held separate, non-binding, “public” discussions consisting of statements by Ambassadors (mostly a recitation of their national priorities and UN contributions) followed by questions and answers from the curious audience.

The event was organized by the World Federation of UN Associations (WFUNA) and the questions were generally helpful.  Perhaps the best of these was posed by Poland during both sessions, making the point that the Ambassadors on the podium are not at all guaranteed to be the ones sitting around the oval after a successful candidacy, thus begging the question about the degree to which the respectful salesmanship in evidence actually reflects relevant state priorities.   Other questions raised during both sessions related to matters ranging from a Council “code of conduct” to priority issues (such as climate health and gender balance) that the elected N-10 would wish to highlight on the Council’s agenda.  NGOs, mostly New York-based were also invited to participate though, as we explained directly to organizers, this was often a matter of the usual questions posed by the usual suspects.

As readers of this blog are likely aware, the UN community has several Security Council “reform” movements afoot.  In a variety of contexts, the general membership remains concerned about the power imbalances within the Council, its limited regard for other relevant UN organs and agencies, and its willingness to entertain interventions from other states without evidence of how any of those disclosures actually impact Council working methods or policy outcomes.  It seems at times, as we have written before, that the Council has established a large and lovely picture window allowing all to peer into a dinner party to which they are too-rarely invited.  This distance makes non-Council members understandably nervous as some articulate forcefully and routinely during Council “open debates.”

As these discussions ended, and as an organization which has witnessed hundreds of Council meetings, we collectively wondered if the sessions (which we were mostly grateful for) actually got to the heart of the matter.  We know the work of these five delegations well.  They are all worthy of Council membership; they are all making important contributions to core UN objectives; they are all taking leadership on structures, issues and delegate groupings that have become indispensible to the UN’s core mission, including on promoting women’s participation in peace negotiations (such as the Netherlands has for Syria) and for Secretary-General candidature. (More women’s voices on the Council would help also.) Moreover, each is doing significant work to enhance key UN objectives beyond the UN itself, including Italy’s stirring rescues of desperate immigrants and their capsized vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus there is some reason to believe that at least a significant measure of what the five Ambassadors pledged at these sessions will ultimately be honored by their capitals.

Of course, Council membership remains quite demanding, especially on small and mid-sized missions.  The responsibilities related to subsidiary committees, for producing statements at many “open” meetings, for weighing in on consultations and participating in private briefings – these and other duties can be quite taxing on delegations from N-10 missions.  In addition, N-10 members receive requests to confer with non-member states that tend to see these diplomats (often so) as collectively having the interests of the general UN membership more “at heart.” Sweden was one of the candidates pledging to speak on diverse Council matters “with states, not at them,” but meaningful conversation takes energy, not a luxury that many small and mid-sized delegations can claim.

Given these burdens and given what these states have “taken on” to prove their mettle – from convening the G-77 (Thailand) or Peacebuilding Commission (Sweden) to the aforementioned work on the preservation of cultural heritage and the promotion of international justice – it would have been relevant to ask how mid-size missions plan to fulfill Council responsibilities on top of their many existing commitments?  As these states are selected, what will be the likely impact on their 2030 development work within ECOSOC?  What will happen to General Assembly and related duties for which these states are already known and about which expectations have already been generated?  What policy commitments are most in danger of falling by the wayside so that sometimes-relentless Council demands can effectively be fulfilled?

Moreover, it would have been interesting to ask these diplomats about their impressions of life as an N-10 member, drawing lessons from states now sitting around the oval, and from those that have previously served (including their own previous tenures).  There have been recent grumblings, including from current members Malaysia and Venezuela as well as New Zealand and Uruguay, that the Council is insufficiently democratic space, that permanent (P-5) members manipulate both the language and timing of resolutions in ways that exclude full member participation, and that Council mandates to “maintain peace and security” are often held hostage by the largest states, a reasonable accusation given that none can hold the P-5 accountable in the manner that these states seek to hold others.

Given these factors, it would have been valuable to ask candidates for specific impressions and concerns about the ‘office” for which they seek election.  In a similar light, it would also have been helpful to explore ways in which they believe that the N-10 can, individually and in unison, promote a more equitable Council structure both for themselves and for the states that will succeed them.  If there is any hope for meaningful and lasting Council reform, it seems clear that the N-10 members and alumni must do more to lay out issues, structures and implications that continue to impede peace and security progress and compromise the overall reputation of the UN, especially in the eyes of the most vulnerable. N-10 alumni know a good deal about what these five states are likely to face.  Their wisdom remains indispensible to any efforts – as Kazakhstan recommended with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals and Thailand with regard to the Peacebuilding Commission – to broaden what the Council supports while limiting what it controls.

There are risks associated with asserting this preference of course, including risks to political “favor” and careers from a too-bold confrontation with the largest and most powerful states.  But if the UN is to preserve a global confidence, some measure of political risk-taking must be part of the N-10 job description. We urge in any future “public” discussions with N-10 candidates that their reflections on Council risks-worth-taking are accorded a higher priority.

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