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Culture Club:  Non-Permanent Members Impact Security Council Customs, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Dec


Photo by Rick McKee

As 2016 draws to a close, we make our annual review of the Security Council’s “migrating” non-permanent members.  Soon we will lose Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain and Venezuela, while welcoming new members Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Italy (in a shared-term arrangement with the Netherlands) and Sweden.

Each of these current non-permanent members has left their mark.  Spain has done noteworthy steering of Council activities on Iran and DPRK non-proliferation, and has worked closely with the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and other UN entities to develop thoughtful, full-spectrum responses to threats of violent extremism.  Angola for its part has been especially helpful in drawing the Council, the African Union and regional bodies into a more collaborative, trusting, functional partnership to promote peace and security across a still-unstable continent.  Malaysia joined the Council in the difficult aftermath (and subsequent investigations) of the downing of MH 17, has been a voice (including at times a woman’s voice) of passion and perspective on issues of Children and Armed Conflict, and has also done solid work on sanctions to help support Libya’s often torturous transitions.   Venezuela has taken strong stands in support of self-governing territories, for restraint regarding coercive interference (including South Sudan sanctions) imposed on smaller states by larger ones, and for an end to P-5 (mostly US-led in its view) backroom manipulations of Council procedures and working methods.

All have had impact on the often disabling “culture” of the Security Council, but New Zealand has been a special and welcome case.  From the earnest and wise declarations of Ambassador Jim McLay to more measured guidance from current Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen, New Zealand has understood better than almost all states serving on the Council in the 10+ years we’ve been paying attention, that the limitations plaguing the Security Council are, indeed, fundamentally “cultural” in nature.

New Zealand, which has rightly prided itself on its “fair and straightforward” SC approach, does not need me (or anyone) putting words in their mouths.  And yet we can safely say that the country has invested significant energy in determining the best ways for it to be “relevant” in matters such as Middle East peace that are so clearly dominated by large state interests and deterred by legacy working methods more appropriate to the century in which they were birthed than the current one.   Time and again, often thanklessly, New Zealand has placed itself in the middle of squabbling colleagues in an attempt to break negotiating impasses and clarify policy options. Time and again, in a manner that is clearheaded but not preachy, it has reminded Council members of their responsibilities as well as the consequences to lives and reputations when those responsibilities – as is too often the case – are delayed or denied.

Some have wondered why we persist in this ritual of elevating the accomplishments of rotating states in a Council that remains in almost complete (if acrimonious) control of the Permanent Five.  The answer comes about in part as the result of sitting in many hundreds of Council meetings over the years with our interns and fellows, all of whom were honored to be present in that space, but most of whom have been baffled by the extent to which such an august chamber often results in mediocre, compromised responses to compelling global threats.  Here are just some of the questions (paraphrased) they have posed (and that we have subsequently discussed) during our time together:

  • Why do Council members so often treat each other like strangers in formal and even non-formal sessions (a question raised regularly by Ambassador Rycroft of the UK as well)?
  • Why do Council members read statements that so rarely reference the content of statements delivered either by the invited briefers or by other Council members?
  • Why don’t Council members consider crafting more joint statements and fewer individual ones?
  • Why don’t Council members dispense with ritualized “appreciations” for briefings and use the time to highlight items in those briefings that have influenced their own policy priorities?
  • Why does the Council hold general “debates” when no debating actually takes place?
  • Why are end-of-the-month, “open” sessions on Council achievements and working methods apparently optional instead of mandatory?
  • Why are Council meetings so often lacking in reflection and commitment to careful, honest assessments of peacekeeping mandates and other policy decisions that (often) haven’t worked out as well as we had hoped? What are members learning that can improve effectiveness?
  • Why are some Council members reluctant to reference (let alone engage) other relevant UN bodies — including the Peacebuilding Commission – in helping to discharge its mandated peace and security responsibilities?
  • Why isn’t there some type of “alumni association” of recent past non-permanent members who can serve as a guide to new non-permanent members and as another experienced resource on culture and working methods for the Council as a whole?
  • Why do Council members allow some sessions to be concluded by often acerbic and self-serving comments from states such as Sudan and Syria rather than by more contextual, perhaps even hopeful, summary comments emanating from the Council presidency?
  • Why is “veto restraint” such a popular reform option for so many states but less so the reforms to our system of early warning and special political missions that could stem violence in its early stages such that vetoes might not even become an issue?
  • Why is it that some Council members are so comfortable with increased levels of coercive peacekeeping but are seemingly less interested in assessing the diverse (sometimes quite negative) impacts and implications of coercive response?

There is much frustration among member states and the global public regarding stalemates in the Council that impede responses to tragedies, such as Aleppo, that are splashed across our phone and TV screens.   Indeed, there are many days when our own twitter feed is inundated with digital “screams” directed towards the UN and more specifically the Council to “Do Something!!”  When the “screams” are not heeded, the blaming begins.  It’s the Russians in Syria, the US in Yemen, the French in Central African Republic: members and others casting a wide net of blame, though rarely accepting blame in return.

This blame dodging, too, is part of the “culture” of the Council that the non-permanent members must continue to interrogate.   This is the culture for which ideas like “veto restraint” are only partial solutions. This is the culture that New Zealand has so capably identified and on the basis of which they (and other states such as Uruguay) have endured many frustrating and even awkward moments.

And these (aforementioned) questions are ones that reasonable global constituents –including many who don’t have hours to spend studying the Council up close – have the right to have answered.

In this time of populist political transitions, when trust levels in multilateralism’s security effectiveness are too low and about to take another significant hit from Washington, it is incumbent upon all members – including this new group of influential states taking their seats in January — to ensure that the effectiveness of the Council does not continue to be undermined by its operational ethos. The world’s most important chamber deserves a culture to match.