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Like foie gras

30 December, 2013

By Asif Ezdi

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The structure and composition of the Security Council, the most powerful organ of the United Nations, has remained unchanged since it was founded in 1945, except for the increase in the number of its rotating members from six to ten in 1965. This small expansion did little to loosen the stranglehold of the Permanent Five (P5) over the Security Council and there is now an increasingly vociferous demand from the rest of the membership for a reform to bring the UN into conformity with the present-day realities. Reform of the Security Council has been under intensive discussion since 1993.

Despite overwhelming support for reform, little actual headway has been made over all these years. There are two main reasons.

First, the necessary consensus on an enlarged and restructured Security Council has not been possible because of the ambition of a handful of countries allied in the Group of Four (G4) – India, Japan, Germany and Brazil – to attain the rights and privileges of the victor powers who set up the UN – permanent membership, ideally with veto power –without having won a global war. My article last week ('The nuclear option', December 23) was about this obstacle to reform.

Second, the P5 are not prepared to part with their permanent seats or even their veto power, which are becoming progressively more anachronistic, and increasingly undermine the credibility, effectiveness and legitimacy of the Security Council. The present article deals with this issue.

At the end of World War II, there were two real victors: the US and the Soviet Union. Britain, as the principal ally of the US and still a major colonial power, also qualified as a victor of sorts. They all gave themselves permanent seats on the Security Council.

Pre-Communist China, then under the nationalists, was included on the proposal of US President Roosevelt who wished to set up a world order overseen by what he saw as the "four global policemen". The entry of France, a country that had remained under German occupation during the war, was sponsored by British Prime Minister Churchill who wanted it restored to great power status to serve as a buffer against the rise of Germany. Stalin considered France to be a "charming but weak" country and at first opposed the grant of a permanent seat to it but later withdrew his objections.

If the P5 got their seats in 1945 because they were real or putative great powers, some of them revel in that status today only because they are permanent members of the Security Council. Deprived of those seats, they would be relegated to the position of middle-ranking powers. That is certainly true of Britain and France, and arguably of Russia as well. It is, therefore, no wonder that they are determined to cling to their Security Council seats at all costs and for as long as they possibly can. Nevertheless, their fall from previous glory is difficult to hide.

In the case of Britain, it was on full display during Prime Minister Cameron's visit to China at the beginning of this month. After he met the Dalai Lama last year, Beijing demanded that Cameron "correct the mistake". His visit to China to make amends for the error was a modern form of kowtow. An editorial in the state-owned daily, the Global Times, called upon Britain to recognise that it is not a "big" power, but "just an old European country apt for travel and study".

France, which also fancies itself a global power, is wrestling with economic and fiscal problems at home which threaten to pull it down into Europe's second tier. Still, the country is not prepared give up its great power pretensions and has tried to compensate for its economic decline with a muscular foreign policy. It has sent its troops this year to two African ex-colonies, Mali and Central African Republic, to restore law and order. On Syria, French jets were already on standby when US and Britain backed away from military action.

Both Britain and France are acutely conscious that with the emergence of new powers and their own relative decline, their claim to remain permanent members is becoming increasingly untenable. In order to legitimise their own seats, they have become enthusiastic supporters of G4's demand for permanent membership. It is difficult to tell these days which one of the two is more fulsome in voicing its public endorsement for Indian ambitions.

The claim of the P5 to veto power is also becoming more and more difficult to defend with the passage of time. During debates on Security Council reform in 1999, Ahmad Kamal, then Pakistan's Permanent Representative to the UN, labelled the veto discriminatory, anachronistic and undemocratic. This sentiment is shared by most other countries, with the exception of the P5 and of India, which itself aspires to wield this power one day.

The veto power is not only unjust and unfair, it has also reduced the Security Council to a foreign policy tool of P5 and has seriously undermined its credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness. The most glaring examples of its failure are the questions of Palestine and Kashmir. It is because of the veto power that the Security Council has frequently been paralysed in the face of pressing international crises, such as the 2003 Iraq War and the current civil war in Syria.

With the rise of new emerging powers which are no longer prepared to acquiesce in a global system dominated by a few self-appointed 'global policemen', the demand for a review of the veto power has acquired further strength. Some countries, which consider that its abolition would be unrealistic, have called for limiting its use.

Not surprisingly, the P5 countries have rejected all suggestions for abolishing or restricting the veto power. In a statement issued in September 1999, their foreign ministers "emphasised that any attempt to restrict or curtail their veto rights would not be conducive to the reform process".

But more recently, some P5 countries have also acknowledged that the continued abuse of veto power could solidify international opinion against this jealously guarded privilege of theirs. At the G20 Summit in Moscow last September, for instance, Obama cautioned Russia that the use of veto on the Syrian conflict would rightly make "people…pretty sceptical about the system."

In the same spirit, France proposed last September that the P5 should voluntarily exercise "self-restraint" in exercising their veto power, but without amending the charter. Specifically, the French proposal calls for a "code of good conduct" agreed by the permanent members not to use the veto in cases of "mass crime". Typically, the proposal also provides that this code would not be applicable if a permanent member declares that its vital national interests are at stake.

The French proposal is unlikely to gain much traction, but it is important because it acknowledges that the vast privileges enjoyed by the permanent members cannot continue in the 21st century. Now there are not four or five but about two dozen countries wielding significant power and influence beyond their borders, and able and willing to play their part in shaping the future of the global community. The international state system will have to be reconfigured to bring it into conformity with this new reality. If the existing framework does not provide the flexibility to bring about this restructuring, a new one would have to be devised.

Either way, the current scheme of permanent membership and veto power will have to make way for a more equitable system. This will surely take time -- measured not in years but in decades.

But the French – and British – permanent seats are already on track to becoming history. There will no doubt be a lot of kicking and screaming, like over moves to ban another French love, foie gras. French President Hollande has described it as "an honour to those devoted to it". He could have used those words also for the country's permanent seat. But French devotion to them will probably not be able to save either.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.

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