Antonio Guterres’s United Nations: a democratic institution?
by Ian Sinclair
The New Arab
11 January 2017
“We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person”.
The humane, internationalist and poetic preamble to the United Nations (UN) Charter is one of the many reasons the UN continues to be a broadly popular institution, with the Pew Research Center noting in 2013 that “publics around the world continue to have a positive impression of the international organization”.
Having taken over from Ban Ki-moon on 1 January 2017, the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will, like his predecessors, become “a secular saint, an ambassador of peace and voice of the poor and downtrodden”, according to The Guardian’s Julian Borger.
Western governments have instinctively understood the importance of the UN’s popularity to their own foreign policy objectives. For example, the University of Connecticut’s Dr Stephen Benedict Dyson notes that in the run up to the March 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair “was aware that his stance on Iraq was not popular but remained confident that he could achieve support with a campaign of public persuasion, bolstered by the international diplomacy that would secure UN cover.” And Blair was right. Though he failed to get UN backing, polling conducted by Ipsos MORI just before the invasion showed that the backing of the UN would have massively increased support for the war among the British public.
Considering the global public’s high opinion of the UN, and the important ramifications this popularity can have, it is worth taking time to investigate just how democratic the UN is, and how the most senior position in the organisation is appointed.
With the UN set up in 1945 by the victors of World War Two, the 15-member Security Council dominates, wielding the real authority in the organisation, able to make and enforce decisions. In contrast, the far more representative 193-member, one-nation-one-vote General Assembly is relegated to a deliberative role, its resolutions recommendations only.
Within the Security Council itself the P5 – the permanent members of the Security Council, the US, UK, France, China and Russia – hold the real power. The other ten seats are non-permanent, with nations elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms. Importantly, the P5 have the power to veto any resolution put before the group, even if it has majority support among the 15 members.
“The US is such a big power that it has enormous clout in the Security Council as its defacto ‘majority leader’, putting together the votes and resources to make things happen”, notes international affairs specialist Jeffrey Laurenti.
Accordingly, “for almost 30 years (since 1984) the leading wielder of the veto in the UN security council has been the United States”, explained John Weston, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN between 1995-98, in 2013. Most of Washington’s vetoes have been deployed for a specific reason – since 1982 the US has used its veto 35 times to block resolutions critical of Israel.
Beyond using its veto the US has a variety of other methods it can use to get its way. When Yemen joined Cuba on 29 November 1990 in voting against a Security Council resolution authorising force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait, a US official told the Yemeni ambassador “That was the most expensive vote you will have cast”. Shortly afterwards the US aid budget to Yemen was severely cut.
With the US and UK once again looking for the UN’s stamp of approval as they geared up for war in Iraq 13 years later, massive pressure was again applied to the members of the Security Council. The US Ambassador to Mexico warned that if Mexico didn’t support the US it could alienate members of the US Congress. “Relatively straightforward issues related to Mexico” might be “difficult to pass”, he said. President George Bush was blunter, absurdly telling the Mexican President Vicente Fox “I want your vote, the security of the United States is at stake”.
Alongside this bullying diplomacy, the US, working with the UK, instituted a ‘dirty tricks’ spying campaign against the Security Council – involving the interception of the home and office telephones and emails of UN delegates – which was heroically uncovered by Government Communications Headquarters’s whistleblower Katharine Gun.
“When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow”, noted John Bolton, Under-Secretary of State for International Organizations under President George H Bush, in 1994. “When it suits our interest to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests we will not.” This arrogant pick ’n’ mix attitude to working with the UN is also held by members of the Democratic Party establishment, with Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN under President Clinton, telling the Security Council “We will act multilaterally when we can and unilaterally as we must.”
Sadly, the undemocratic structure of the UN is reflected in the secretive and opaque process used to choose the Secretary-General. Traditionally the Secretary-General has been chosen behind closed doors by the Security Council, and then presented to the General Assembly for approval. There is no public record of these discussions except for brief communiques from the Security Council President, and at any point the P5 can veto a candidate.
Borger notes Ki-moon was the US’s preferred candidate ten years ago. During the recently concluded contest, Borger maintains Vuk Jeremic, the ex-Serbian foreign minister, will likely have been vetoed by Washington because of his opposition to an independent Kosovo.
However, it is not all doom and gloom: there are chinks of hope in this relentless pursuit of national interest and power. Proposals for reform have been repeatedly raised by many nations.
Conveniently, in the West ‘reform’ has largely been interpreted at considering the UN’s financial management and inefficiencies. Writing in her essential 1996 book Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN, Phyllis Bennis has a different take: “The key UN problem… is the question of power.” Suggestions to equalise the existing rank power imbalance include enlarging the Security Council to be more representative of the planet’s population; restricting the Security Council’s currently wide mandate; curtailing or abolishing the P5’s veto power; and empowering the General Assembly.
One small victory was the opening up of the process to appoint Guterres himself, with the contest beginning with all the candidates publicly explaining their ideals and intentions to the General Assembly – the first time this has happened. This increased transparency arose from pressure applied by the 1 For 7 Billion movement, a campaign supported by 750 organisations across the world working for “an open and inclusive selection process, with genuine involvement by all UN Member States.”
The Security Council still got to choose the final candidate but it is a small step in the right direction. “What we are doing is raising the costs for the permanent five of parachuting a candidate in at the last moment”, Natalie Samarainghe, the Executive Director of the United Nations Association UK, told The Guardian last year. “So it could still be a stitch-up but it wouldn’t happen without an outcry.”