Are we reforming the United Nations or maintaining the status quo?

05 July 2019 | Opinion

By Alexactus T. Kaure

Reforming the UN is a topic which is on everybody's lips nowadays. At the centre of the debate is the UN Security Council - the body which is supposed to maintain peace and security, but which has been found wanting in recent years, judging by on-going conflicts around the globe. That's why some people now cynically refer to it as the 'Insecurity Council'.

But some naïve souls still have faith in it and apparently all that is needed is to 'reform' this ailing body. I found the reform narrative/agenda to be otiose because it revolves around one singular issue - the membership of the Security Council. Every region/continent now wants to have a (permanent) member on the coucnil with its contentious, contested and controversial veto power which at present is being wielded by China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States, who can veto any “substantive” resolution.

If the reform is singularly centred on the issue of increasing the number of the council membership with both veto and non-veto rights, then I am afraid we are maintaining the status quo because a “no” vote from one of the five permanent members kills the resolution. The “nay-sayers” have always been spoiling the party.

It is thus obvious that increasing the membership with veto power will not solve the problem that has made UN ineffective as a keeper of peace. The veto power is the most un-democratic arrangement in the whole UN system. Here the concept of majoritarian rule has been jettisoned in the Hudson River. The veto system has been misused and abused by those who wield power and the USA has been the main culprit in this game of political chess. There were about 43 times the US has used veto power against resolutions on Israel.

Thus the proponents/exponents arguing for increasing the numbers of veto and non-veto members should tell us how that will change the system which, in my view, is already flawed from the get-go. This debate about the UNSC is pretty much akin to the on-going issue of increasing women representation in politics, national parliaments and other institutions. Last year, for example, President Hage Geingob said Namibia was fully committed to implementing gender equality. Swapo took a principled decision at the 1997 congress to increase the proportion of female delegates to the party's congress up to 50%. According to him, this was the genesis of the now constitutionally mandated Swapo Party, a zebra style 50/50 policy.

As a human rights issue, I have no qualms with the zebra style or even a 60/40 representation in favour of women. But the point that gender mainstreaming activists and their zealots seem to miss is that the 'stream' might already be highly infected/polluted with bacteria. Thus unless one cleans the 'stream' first you are not likely going to change the system in any significant way.

We have had and still have a number of former and current women presidents and prime ministers. They number more than 50 by my count. Lets just cite some that might sound familiar: Teresa May, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Corazon Aquino, Mary Robinson, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, Angela Merkel, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Aung San Suu Kyi, Isabel Martinez de Peron, Benazir Bhutto, Milka Planinc, Joyce Hilda Banda and Sahle-Work Zewde.

Did these women change the social, economic and political order in their respective countries and societies - especially the conditions of women? Prime Minister Thatcher fought Argentina over the Falkland Islands and Aung San Suu Kyi is unable to do anything about the plight of the Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar because the military holds sway there. The point is that the systems in our societies/countries have been defined and structured from a deep-rooted/dominant patriarchal culture. It is still a man's world.

Likewise, from its very inception, the UNSC has been structured by its framers to suit their own political and ideological interests. The five permanent members gave themselves this right when the UN was set up in 1945 and have clung to it ever since.

The fact that the United States refused to join the United Nations in 1945 unless it was given a veto says it all.

But many uncritical individuals don't seem to grasp that elementary fact. Listen to this screaming headline from last year New Era newspaper: 'Geingob slams UN's exclusion of Africa'.

“The world has moved on; the old and unjust order cannot persist. Africa and its 1.2 billion inhabitants can no longer be excluded from assuming its place on this primary decision-making body,” Geingob said. Of course, referring to the UNSC here. One wonders where is Geingob's crop of advisors on foreign policy?

But who can blame him because even his trusted international relations minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, is in agreement with the president's position on this issue. Here is one headline: 'Lack of UN reforms disappointing - Nandi-Ndaitwah'. This is like the proverbial blind man leading another blind man. Don't get me wrong because they are not the only ones on this issue.

There is a 'common' African position crying for permanent members with veto powers like the big five. But it would be disingenuous of me if fail to say that the debate about expanding the council to include new permanent seats is being debated at the United Nations by all member states, so it's not just Africa.

But what surprises me is that even an academic like Charles Mubita has fallen for this. 'Africa's Demand for a Permanent Seat on the Un Security Council'. That's the title of Dr Mubita's book. Africa is demanding a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to enable it to effectively contribute to the peacekeeping and conflict resolutions of the UN Security Council, whose agenda is dominated by African issues. That is the gist of Mubita's book.

But how will a veto or two by an African country solve African problems? What happened to the much touted 'African solutions to African problems'? Would an African veto have prevented the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 for example? What does this tell us about the African Union's Peace and Security Council or SADC's Organ on Politics, Defence and Security as keepers of peace on the continent? Charity should start at home.

Quo Vadis the UNSC reform agenda? We all agree that the veto makes the council “dysfunctional, unaccountable and undemocratic”. The veto is a violation of foundational principles of the United Nations, namely the sovereign equality of states. Nowadays, the principles of sovereignty, equality and non-interference are openly disregarded by the council and the organ is rife with unilateralism. The only way to achieve reform is to pursue consensus-based solutions.

Yes, you can expand the council, but without a veto in place. Because with or without a veto in place, the three superpowers, USA, Russia and China, can actually take unilateral decisions/actions on their own. Russia's annexation of Crimea and bombings of Syria, USA's total destruction of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and involvement in the Yemen war, and China saying it would annex Taiwan even by military force if necessary. Internationalism, multilateralism and the multilateral institutions are facing serious threats.

Now the month of September is around the corner for the annual UN General Assembly indaba. I urge our president to sing a different song this time - not the veto one which will never 'reform' this world body. Envoi: short of abolishing the veto we cannot talk of reform.

Alexactus T. Kaure is a freelance writer and social critic. He is the author of Angola, From Socialism to Liberal Reforms, published by SAPES Books, 1999.

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