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– With more than 20,000 civilians killed last year in conflicts in 10 countries — including Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen– UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated his call for a “global cease-fire”: a proposal which failed to generate a positive response since he first announced it last March.
But with the UN’s most powerful body remaining deadlocked– and facing a bloodless confrontation between two major powers– the United Nations now seems to be in need of a “political cease-fire” at its very doorstep: inside its own 15-member Security Council (UNSC).
On the opening day of the annual high-level debate in the General Assembly September 22, the US and China, two veto-armed members, battled it out with accusations and counter-accusations.
The public confrontation between the two countries is likely to bring the UNSC to a standstill – perhaps with a worse-case scenario of the US and China vetoing each other’s resolutions—proving the Security Council has outlived its usefulness.
Dr Richard J. Ponzio, Director, Just Security 2020 and Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center, told IPS that beginning in March, the U.S. blocked passage of a UNSC resolution (until July) endorsing Secretary-General Guterres’ call for a global cease-fire, to ensure that during the pandemic, life-saving assistance can reach the most vulnerable.
Similar to its rationale then, he said, President Trump’s main emphasis in his annual General Assembly address was to pin the blame on China for the spread of the coronavirus.
In both tone and substance, Dr Ponzio pointed out, President Trump’s UNGA speech contrasted with his contemporaries, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Whereas President Trump elected in his brief remarks to mainly attack China for spreading COVID-19 and other transgressions, the other world leaders spoke at length about the need for global cooperation and a rules-based international order to better cope with global threats and challenges,” he noted.
Trump intensified his long running battle with China, including an acrimonious bilateral trade war, when he launched a blistering attack on Beijing, during his address to the General Assembly.
While singing the praises of his own achievements, he blamed Beijing for COVID-19: “We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China”.
Trump also accused China of “controlling” the World Health Organization (WHO) and dumping millions and millions of tons of plastic and trash into the oceans, overfishing other countries’ waters, destroying vast swaths of coral reef, and emitting more toxic mercury into the atmosphere than any country anywhere in the world.
One news site ran a fitting headline which read: “Trump at the UN: America is good, China is bad”.
Taking a passing shot at Trump’s unilateralism, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Assembly “humanity will win this battle” against the virus, and “any attempt of politicizing the issue, or stigmatization, must be rejected”.
COVID-19 reminds us that economic globalization is an indisputable reality and a historical trend, he said.
“Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich, in the face of economic globalization, or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance, goes against the trend of history,” he noted.
China has “no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot one with any country” “Let this be clear: The world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries,” Xi said, pointing out that China will not “engage in zero sum game.”
In his 75th anniversary speech, Xi was equally hard-hitting: “No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself. Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world. Unilateralism is a dead end.”
Meanwhile, as the UN commemorates its 75th anniversary, one of the most widespread criticisms against the world body is focused largely on the Security Council where member states have failed, over the last 25 years, in their longstanding efforts to reform and expand it.
Perhaps the harshest criticism is its inability—and its monumental failure — to resolve long-outstanding military conflicts and political problems: including finding a homeland for the Palestinians.
Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council, told IPS it is noteworthy that the majority of vetoes in the Security Council in recent decades have been in regard to resolutions addressing violations of international humanitarian law.
“Both the United States and Russia have repeatedly abused their veto power to protect allied governments from accountability. This does even include the dozens of other initiatives that were tabled or otherwise prevented from coming up to a vote”.
Virtually all of these resolutions were under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, so these were simply about recognizing and deploring such violations and did include military intervention, sanctions, or anything else, but they were still blocked from being passed, in most cases by a single negative vote, he pointed out.
Both Moscow and Washington have essentially sent a message that their allies, such as Syria and Israel respectively, can act with impunity.”
“In 2002, I wrote this article (link below) in response to the Bush administration’s effort to justify its planned invasion of Iraq by emphasizing the importance of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions”.
However, in addition to the dozen or so resolutions they alleged were being violated by Iraq, a conservative estimate reveals that there are an additional 88 Security Council resolutions about countries other than Iraq that were also then being violated, said Zunes.
“This raised serious questions regarding the Bush administration’s insistence that it is motivated by a duty to preserve the credibility of the United Nations, particularly since the vast majority of the governments violating these resolutions were close allies of the United States, which blocked the Security Council from enforcing them”.
The total now is closer to 100, said Zunes.
Dr Courtney B. Smith, Acting Dean, School of Diplomacy at the Seton Hall University in New Jersey, told IPS the UNSC balance sheet at 75 is decidedly mixed.
On high-profile issues and structural reform, the Council repeatedly falls short of hopes and expectations due to the continued willingness of members states, in particular the permanent five (the US, UK, France, China and Russia), to view the Council through the lens of nationalism and patriotism, extolling the virtues of putting their domestic interests and audiences first.
“This is most vividly demonstrated in the recent posturing of the US and China across a number of Council issues”, said Dr. Smith who has interviewed over one hundred UN delegates and staff members for his research on the organization and its members.
He said an alternate “silver lining” view of the Council is rooted in the sometimes-significant innovations in how the Council conducts its work.
An expanding agenda in the post-Cold War period has been joined by informal procedural innovations designed to make the Council more transparent to non-members without compromising efficiency and effectiveness, he noted.
“These developments are certainly helpful because they provide the Council with the opportunity to gather more diverse information from a wider range of viewpoints, which in turn can result in better decisions.”
However, these changes do not necessarily make it any easier to make these decisions, and therein lies the cloud hovering over the Council’s political dynamics, said Dr Smith author of Politics and Process at the United Nations: The Global Dance, published by Lynne Rienner in 2006.
Assessing these efforts, he argued, reveals “a tale of two Councils,” one that is developing new working methods to facilitate shared interests and another that is clouded by great power disagreement.
While an anniversary celebration might present an occasion to push beyond these contradictions, the current reality is that the two Councils remain firmly intertwined and that future performance will remain uneven, he added.
“The ultimate result will be a Council that tries desperately to remain relevant while all too often showing its age, which will cause moments of both hope and despair for all of us who yearn for a more robust and effective Council in the years to come,” declared Dr Smith
Dr Ponzio said expanding the composition of the Security Council to align with present-day political realities and to modify the use of the Permanent-Five’s (P-5) veto authority in cases involving mass atrocity prevention is long-overdue.
It is a shame, therefore, that the new UN75 Declaration’s only contribution on the matter is to simply “commit to instill new life in the discussions on the reform of the Security Council …” he said.
Perhaps the last real (albeit unsuccessful) attempt at serious Security Council reconfiguration was in 2005 (UN60).
If the global political conditions remain inadequate today for meaningful change, a transitional compromise may merit consideration.
For example, by amending Article 23 of the Charter, he said, major non-permanent members could be allowed to seek election for consecutive terms on the Council (thereby able to pursue a kind of de facto permanent status).
Moreover, the P-5 could be made more accountable by having to publicly defend their no votes on resolutions pertaining to the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect principle.