Cosmetic Surgery: The Council’s Strategy for Changing Itself, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Jun

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.  George Bernard Shaw

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. Mother Teresa

When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it.  Andy Warhol

What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it.  If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.  Maya Angelou

This past week under the leadership of Kuwait as both president of the Security Council for June and Chair of the Council’s Informal Working Group on Documentation and Other Procedural Questions, the Council held a discussion focused on its Working Methods.

Though I can’t convince my interns of its entertainment value, this discussion is among my favorites, eliciting innovative joint statements (which should be more the norm) and a bevy of states coming to remind the Council that they are obliged represent the interests of the full membership, not merely the interests of the “club” and certainly not merely the national interests of a few permanent members.

Moreover, they come to remind the Council of the limitations of their resolutions to maintain international peace and security, the degree to which such resolutions are often more about what the Council’s culture can “tolerate” than about what the people urgently need.  As we have noted in other contexts, resolutions from this Council (and other parts of the UN system) put members “on the record” but less often “on the clock.”

The briefers for this debate were fine – two affiliated organizations present as much for their funding and program relationships with Council members as their working insight – but they did share effectively on the role that elected members can play in pushing Council reforms, on the value (and cost) of Council “missions” to conflict-affected areas, and on the need for greater fairness and transparency regarding the listing (and de-listing) of persons and entities under the Council’s various sanctions regimes.

And yet there was also a sense, echoed by Brazil and other states, that there is potential for danger here – allowing the important but sometimes cosmetic concerns associated with working methods to obscure the desire among much of the membership for deeper reform of a Council which does not and has not for some time represented current geo-political realities.  Some of this push for reform is related to the unrepresentative permanent Council membership, some to the power imbalances within the Council itself, imbalances that sometimes result in resolutions not properly responsive to member concerns or with implementation undermined by the very powers that promoted the resolutions in the first instance.

With this in mind, one shift that we have long advocated is related to Mexico’s intervention this past Thursday, that we give greater consideration to the creation of new “platforms” to allow a wider range of stakeholder views on ways to assess and address current peace and security threats.  In our experience, such conversations happen now throughout UN headquarters consistent with the “human security” framework pushed forward by Japan and others which we also advocate.  However, these conversations are often disconnected and involve input mostly from the “usual suspects,” especially on the NGO side of the aisle.  Given the multitude of recognized security threats as well as the broad swath of states and stakeholders impacted by security decisions taken (or dismissed) around the Council oval, we must ensure that relevant and available vantage points and expertise are integrated into all phases of security policy to the greatest degree possible.

Our own assumptions going into this debate were based in part on prior connection with working methods issues at the UN:   First, it does indeed matter how we do our business in the world as much as what that business is.   It matters how we get from A to B, in part because our values are embedded as much in our practical actions as our stated objectives.  “We are what we practice,” should be enshrined over every UN conference room, not to disparage norms and values (we would be the last ones to do so) but to reinforce the need to better align the values we espouse and the values which our practical priorities – indeed our working methods – suggest. Needless to say, there is room for improvement here.

Another assumption is that people and institutions tend to make the changes they are comfortable with more than the changes that are needed.  In both personal and institutional life there is often a form of “bargaining” that takes place – we’ll “give in” on a few points of contention in order to avoid having to make changes at larger levels. “Cosmetic” changes are not always to the detriment of more fundamental ones, but this “bargaining” does most often push fundamental reckonings to the “back burner,” indeed often off the cooking stove entirely.  It is a danger to which we must remain attentive.

The third assumption is that, while the Security Council is right to want to maintain significant control over its methods of work, both in the open chamber and in consultations –in order to retain as France noted during the debate, the “flexibility” to respond to threats to international peace and security by the best means possible — those many stakeholders with a compelling  interest in Council decisions are also right to demand a certain level of honorable predictability in Council behavior.   Non-Council members and other Council watchers have noted the many instances where “provisional rules of procedure” and other concessions to flexibility have been exploited by Council members (mostly permanent members) to make claims that are consistent mostly with national interests and only barely with global ones.

And this leads to our 4th assumption – that Council members speak too often in “national capacity” and not often enough as members of a deliberative and legislating body that they have a duty to help manage.   We do understand at least some the limitations impacting elected members, especially members from small states that have a “right” to Council membership but little demonstrated diplomatic robustness to hold the permanent members and larger states to task for dropping the ball (or failing to properly share it) on peace and security.  Indeed, the five members elected on Friday by the General Assembly – Tunisia, Vietnam, Niger, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Estonia – are as likely to have their interests dismissed by the larger powers as they are to hold these powers to account.  If these new members can prioritize open lines of communication with the General Assembly and other core UN bodies, including insisting on an annual report from the Council to the GA which, as India and Cuba advocated on Thursday, contains analysis well beyond a “laundry list” of “statistical markers” of activity, then they will have created the “ripples” from which real change can happen. .

And to reiterate, these states can also help effect a transition to a security system in which the Council plays a pivotal but not exclusive role, a system which understands the security implications of a wide range of policy matters – from food and water scarcity and pandemics to corruption and ocean degradation – taken up by diverse UN entities which, as Argentina smartly noted, the Council can engage more effectively “without absorbing their work.”  It is these matters which create openings for the rest of the membership, openings that the General Assembly and Peacebuilding Commission have already seized in part, openings that allow the general membership, in turn, to engage the Council more effectively “without absorbing its work.”

It is both tempting and foolish to dismiss the Council itself as a relic of a bygone era. At the same time, it would be imprudent to dismiss the Council’s structural flaws, from excessive threats of the veto and endless prepared statements in “national capacity” that stake no new policy terrain to the willingness of certain permanent members to publicly flaunt the international law they are pledged to uphold.

As Liechtenstein (a major proponent of the ACT Code of Conduct) urged on Thursday, it is important for member states to do more than come to the Council chamber and vent frustrations over the slow pace of Council reform and the even-slower pace of peace in places such as Syria, DR Congo and Palestine.   States must be willing to take more “ownership” of peace and security concerns, including more responsibility for the failures in this realm that continue to damage global respect for multilateralism.    Where security is concerned, member states must collectively renounce the tendency to beg the Security Council for their “allowance,” and do more to earn their own income.

Change is easy for virtually no one, but in UN contexts we can and must do more to prepare this system for changes that are more than cosmetic, more than creating facile markers of efficiency, more than setting up a larger window to view a “meal” in the Council chamber that we are duly prohibited from eating.   The changes we need now are cultural as much as procedural, specifically the willingness of the Council to work and play better with others, and especially (as recently noted by Iran and other states) to adhere more rigorously to the laws and principles to which it holds (or at least seeks to hold) other UN members accountable.

It is true, as noted above by Andy Warhol, that many of us will die before embarking on the path of change that others have long advocated for us. But we can’t allow more people to die waiting for the Security Council to embrace the changes – cosmetic and deeper – that will help restore global confidence in its decisions. If there was a takeaway from this week’s working methods discussion for me, if was the sense that the Council is slowly preparing itself – and being prepared – to make these life-and credibility-saving changes, in part based on the realization that the security threats we face at present simply cannot be managed by the Council acting alone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: