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UN Reform and Collective Security: A Summit in Danger of Collapse

Notes for Panel presentation by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group, to DPI-NGO Conference, New York, 8 September 2005

All of us in civil society, or claiming to represent some part of civil society

whether as international or national NGOs

whether focusing, like my organisation, on analysis and advocacy, or engaged (like many more here)in on-the-ground operational activities have a common set of interests when it comes to the traditional collective security issues we are debating in this session.

What we want and need is a more effective collective security system

operating at all stages of the conflict cycle: conflict prevention, conflict resolution (whether by peaceful or if necessary coercive means) and peacebuilding,

with clearly articulated and agreed basic principles,

with properly working institutional machinery,

and with sufficient resources.

We have all been nursing the hope that next week’s World Summit would mean a major leap forward - generating a new consensus and a new momentum for a collective security system able to cope effectively with the whole range of threats to both state security and human security the 21st century is throwing up. It’s the best chance we have had for decades, and the best chance we are likely to have for many years more, to make some fundamental changes, because three big things have come together:

widespread recognition of the need for change, with the Iraq war standing as an awful warning of what can go wrong when the collective security system is bypassed, and the Oil-for-Food debacle showing how much is wrong with the UN's management systems

a detailed agenda for change, with the High Level Panel (of which I was a member) and the Sachs Commission coming up with proposals across the whole spectrum of interrelated development, security and human rights issues, and the S-G superbly distilling them into his own In Larger Freedom recommendations; and

the opportunity for change with the 60th Anniversary and all the summitry and heightened expectations that went with it.

But it has become sadly apparent that we are in real danger now of blowing this opportunity – with the Summit coming and going with nothing more to show for it than a bland set of generalisations and weasel-words that commit nobody to anything much, and maybe (given the current state of negotiations) not even that. The best information available to me coming into this session is that the whole process of producing a document for endorsement next week is on the verge of total collapse.

Let me make the point by giving you a quick stocktake on the major collective security issues, as the negotiations on them now stand four working days away from the start of the Summit. Starting with the key issues of principle:

Responsibility to Protect: the idea that when it comes to catastrophic human rights violations, involving genocide, ethnic cleansing or the like, the frontline responsibility may rest with sovereign states, but if they abdicate that through ill-will or incapacity it shifts to the wider international community. Widely accepted as an emerging international norm in recent years, and particularly embraced by sub-Saharan Africa, this is now being contested by a small group of developing countries (recently joined by Russia) who basically refuse to concede any kind of limitation on the full and untrammelled exercise of state sovereignty, however irresponsible that exercise might be.

Principles Governing the Use of Force: a proposed set of guidelines for the Security Council identifying criteria for legitimacy such as magnitude of threat, force as a last resort, proportionality of response and the need for such action to be likely to do more good than harm – designed essentially to create greater consensus around when force should and should not be used, and to limit the chance of the Council being by-passed. This for all practical Summit purposes now dead, killed by a combination of resistance from the US to having any guidelines at all which might constrain the Security Council’s (and by extension its own) freedom of action, and some not very intelligible arguments from a number of so-called NAM countries that to have any principles purporting to limit the use of force to exceptional, highly defensible cases, is somehow to encourage it.

Terrorism: recognising the UN’s crucial role as a norm setter, the idea is to reach agreement once and for all on a definition of terrorism, in essence making attacks on civilians – whatever the context – as indefensible as slavery and piracy. But rearguard attacks are still being fought by significant sections of NAM against any such clear new definitional norm, and initial hopes for consensus on this have more or less disappeared.

On some key policy issues:

Non-Proliferation and Disarmament: there is no sign of agreement whatever on any of the key issues, including nuclear testing, new weapons programs, or fissile material production. Nobody can begin to agree on action either on the supply side - to constrain the availability of material and technology, or the demand side – to reduce the motivation for acquiring WMD. Following on from the debacle of the NPT Review Conference earlier this year, failure to even begin to find a new consensus on these issues is potentially quite disastrous, bringing closer what the HLP feared would be a ‘cascade of proliferation’.

Conflict Prevention, Peacemaking, Peacekeeping, and Peacebuilding: there has been general agreement on the need to strengthen capacity and effectiveness in these areas, but the only agreed language is of the general motherhood variety, valuable as far as it goes, but with no new resource commitments being undertaken – and with much in practice depending on the implementation of managerial reforms on which there is presently no consensus.

The problem here becomes evident when one looks at the one big new institutional innovation being proposed in this area – a new Peacebuilding Commission, designed to fill a huge gap in the present system by bringing together all the key stakeholders for each particular post-conflict situation, including not only the UN’s own programs and agencies, but the international financial institutions, the donor community, the relevant regional organisations and of course representatives of the countries in distress, in order to work out coherent recovery and reconstruction plans and systematically, and with sustained rather than ad hoc attention, ensure their implementation. The idea has been broadly accepted - but there is no agreement whatever on its structure, authority and mode of operation, with the spoilers here arguing for the whole issue to be referred back to the General Assembly – which is of course a recipe for, at best, endless further delay in start-up.

On other institutional issues:

Human Rights Council: a talismanic issue for the US, which is determined once and for to replace the totally dysfunctional Commission on Human Rights with a less politicised, more professional body actually committed to advancing human rights, not defending the indefensible. But a fierce rearguard action is being fought by a group of countries – Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan and Cuba prominent among them – who have blocked every attempt to reach agreement on the structure, mandate and mode of operation of the new body.

As to the most important institutional reform of all – to the Security Council itself – the lynchpin body for the whole collective security system, which almost everyone acknowledges needs to be restructured to reflect the world of the 21st century, not the middle of the last, prospect of reform has completely collapsed. The chances until recently seemed quite strong that the first of the two alternative models proposed by the HLP and SG – for 6 new permanent members, though with no change to the existing veto arrangements – would in fact command the necessary 2/3 support. But that fell apart, essentially because of intra-African politics - anxiety among other sub-Saharan Africans at the prospect of Nigeria and S Africa permanently ascending to heaven, and resistance by all of them to the prospect of Egypt taking one of the two African seats potentially on offer: with no consensus for change within Africa, any hope of the necessary overall majority disappeared.

What’s gone wrong? Why are things looking so dreadful at this late stage?

The basic answer is that politics has usual has prevailed – not enough of the key players have been prepared to look at the larger picture, as distinct from their own immediate interests; and there has been an absence of leadership in devising a process which might have made it possible for some kind of reasonable product two emerge.

Basic problem is that good policy has been crushed in a pincer movement between two forces, while a large majority of other states stand either passively or impotently by, allowing practically everything of substance to be ground down from either one of these forces or the other, in a process which has not made it possible to bring anything to a reasoned conclusion:

the U.S., which – while rightly determined to make the UN system more efficient and accountable, and to reform the human rights side of the house - has been insufficiently sensitive to, or interested in, or (worse) outright hostile to a number of other issues, including on the development agenda, which have been of immense concern to others : apparently not able or wanting understand that the rest of the world is not quite persuaded that U.S. interests are indistinguishable from collective interests, and that US values indistinguishable from global values. Obviously the atmospherics have not been helped by either the style or substantive contribution of the new U.S. Ambassador: putting so many amendments on the table so late in the process has unleashed a flood of other spoiling amendments from others. There have been some conciliatory noises in the last 2- 3 days – with increasing signs from Washington that they don’t want, in the aftermath of all their other problems with Katrina, to be blamed for a zero outcome next week- but it all seems too little too late.

a hard core group of developing country members, led by Pakistan and Egypt (and increasingly India), who – while rightly emphasising the need for a genuinely multilateral and collective approach to security, and for the most part knowing perfectly well that the world has moved on from the 50s and 60s, that state sovereignty can no longer be unchallengeable, and that quotas and cronyism are no substitute for effective management - have nonetheless found grounds for opposing specific movement forward in nearly every single one of the areas under debate. Two explanatory factors stand out – their unhappiness with the non-movement on Security Council reform (which seems to be the key factor underlying India’s robust spoiling role on a multitude of issues) and their even deeper unhappiness with the proposed new Human Rights Council – leading them to lay down poison pills in multiple other areas to secure their own objectives here.

On all available evidence, there are negligible chances of reaching a reasonable consensus document before next Wednesday through the existing process - involving line by line debate on a document now 45 pages line with a myriad of square bracketed provisions, with no voting on anything, by a cast of participants ranging from a ‘core group’ of 30 (which involves having around 130 in the room at any time) to in effect the whole GA membership.

The President of the GA, under enormous pressure from the major forces, has been unable so far to produce a modest sized document embodying centre-of-gravity positions, and unable or unwilling to propose votes - either line by line, or up and down on the whole.

And there does not for the moment seem to be any kind of plan B in existence, involving some effort perhaps by the SG himself to cut through the present morass with a document of his own. He is showing signs of engaging on the issue, now that the trauma of this week’s Volcker report is for the time being behind him, and I hope very much that he will take a strong leadership role in the few days remaining until the Summit.

All of which makes a desolate scene for us in civil society to be now contemplating. All we can do at this stage, I fear, is to make our voices loudly and clearly heard – to say that we feel utterly let down, not for the first time by the diplomats and their governments, that what is going on right now is not just not good enough for us – above all its not good enough for all the people around the world living in desperate insecurity who we as NGOs try to help and try to give a voice.