Archive | Secretary General RSS feed for this section

A Weak UN Ensures a Weak Secretary General

13 Jun

 

 

There are many angles of interpretation relevant to the startling admission by Ban Ki-moon that he succumbed to undisguised diplomatic pressure when removing Saudi Arabia from the ‘shame list’ of countries whose armies are found responsible the maiming and killing of children, earning them dishonorable mentioned in an annex to the annual UN report on violations of children’s rights. The scale and severe nature of such violations, committed in the course of the Yemeni intervention carried out by the Saudi led coalition of countries is beyond serious doubt, detailed in the UN report and strongly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These most respected of human rights NGOs reacted with moral outrage that the SG would give way to such unseemly and crude pressure, which has the effect of undermining the precarious stature of the UN making visible for all to see how geopolitical considerations outweigh even these most fundamental of humanitarian concerns, the protection of children in war zones..

 

There is more to this incident than one more demonstration that this particular SG lacks the political will to uphold the integrity and autonomy of the UN. On display, as well, was the crude manner in which the UN Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al-Mouallami, threw around his political weight without enduring any backlash. This diplomat openly is accused of threatening the UN with ‘adverse consequences,’ and also with issuing a warning that UN emergency programs in such distressed areas as Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan would lose their Saudi (and Gulf coaltion) funding. Apparently, rather pathetically, Ban Ki-moon, thought it better to give ground, and so explained removing Saudi Arabia from the shame list until a joint review determined what to do as the lesser of evils. The greater evil the SG suggested would be to lose financial support for vital programs that affect a far greater number of children.

 

The ambassador made clear that this face saving procedure to review the listing was not to be construed as consenting to an objective inquiry, declaring that the removal of Saudi Arabia from the list was ‘unconditional and irreversible.’ Whether the disclosure of these sordid happenings will challenge the Saudi insistence remains to be seen. What is evident, and offers the world a glimmer of encouragement, is that Saudi Arabia, despite its notorious human rights record, takes seriously enough its international reputation as to make such use of strong arm tactics that are as demeaning as the UN report itself. The SG retreat also shows to the world that being a monetary heavyweight can matter in the UN as much as being a P-5 member or geopolitical leader.

 

What Saudi Arabia had achieved by relying on its economic leverage, Israel and the United States manage to gain more subtly by persuasion. Both governments leaned heavily on the SG to ensure that Israel would not be on the shame list in view of its violations of the rights of children in the course of the bloody 2014 Gaza War. In an earlier massive attack started at the end of 2008, the SG dutifully buried a report strongly condemning Israel for deliberately targeting UN facilities where Palestinian civilians were receiving shelter. So it is important to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is not by any means alone in applying extra-legal pressure to avoid losing face by adverse findings. The fact that the U.S. special relationship with Israel includes helping Israel cover up such serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards is also an added reason for disappointment.

 

The good news is that governments do their upmost to avoid moral and legal opprobrium as a result of UN initiatives, and this is because it matters. Recall the furious Israeli reaction to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that found Israel guilty of numerous violations of the law of war in the course of its attack on Gaza months earlier, which had the effect of burying the report’s recommendations for further action but did validate the allegations of criminality made in civil society, contributing to the discrediting of Israel’s occupation policies and practices, especially as enacted in Gaza. The bad news is that the leverage of the powerful and rich consistently leads the UN to buckle beneath the weight of backroom influence.

What gives this Saudi event salience is the transparency and effectiveness of the inappropriate behavior, which includes the SG’s unusually candid acknowledgement of what took place, producing a media shout out that encourages a critical assessment of the UN and its leadership. Perhaps, Ban Ki-moon in his final months as SG has decided to tell it like it is, having kept his mouth shut and mostly doing what he was told to do for the nearly ten years that he occupied the highest UN post.

 

There are two ways to view Ban Ki-moon’s handling of Saudi pressure. The first impulse is to condemn the SG for cavalierly disregarding the values of the UN Charter, human rights, and international law. From this perspective, Ban Ki-moon reinforced his overall image throughout his two terms as a weak international civil servant who is blown in whatever the direction of the prevailing wind happens to be. A second line of interpretation is more charitable, suggesting that Ban Ki-moon was confronted by a ‘Sophie’s choice’ dilemma: either to insist on the integrity of the shame list or balance the competing costs, and thus exhibit flexibility by opting to keep the economic assistance flowing to places of dire need.

 

What both interpretations suggest is the subordination of UN operations to geopolitical realities, not only as this incident unfolded, but also more tellingly with respect to the underlying structural characteristics of the UN. The manner of choosing a SG, requiring endorsement by each of the P-5, virtually guarantees the selection of a person of weak character and strong ambition. The fact that there have been some partial exceptions among the eight SGs that have so far served is mainly an indication that the gatekeepers have not always succeeded in doing their job of making sure that a person of unshakable moral character is ever selected. Political astuteness, which is understood to me a realistic willingness to be responsive to geopolitical pressures has been part of the job description all along. We can still hope for another Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, or Kofi Annan who will somehow get through the gate, imparting dignity once more to the office of Secretary General, but from a structural point of view such a happy outcome must still be viewed essentially as an accident.

 

Closely related is the even more fundamental recognition that the funding supply chains of the UN are tied directly to these geopolitical levers of influence. The UN is kept on a short financial leash so that the leaders of the Organization will not get the wrong idea, and think of themselves as independent political actors owing primary loyalty to the UN Charter and the ideals set forth in its Preamble. It would be a simple matter to impose a tax on international financial transactions or international flights that would generate the revenue needed to fund the entire UN system. This idea has been around for decades, earlier discussed as ‘the Tobin tax,’ named after the Yale Nobel Prize economist, James Tobin, who is credited with first proposing such a tax in 1972. Why it has never happened should not be a mystery. Those who control the UN have no incentive to loosen their grip. Civil society, although supportive of such an initiative, has never been sufficiently motivated to mount the sort of transnational campaign that succeeded in getting the International Criminal Court established despite geopolitical resistance. Absent political will from above or mobilization from below there is no prospect of achieving the degree of financial independence that would allow a SG in the future to react with anger to the sort of demand made effectively by the current Saudi Arabia ambassador.

 

It is evident that the combination of a discretionary veto conferred upon the P-5, which is a legalized exemption of unlimited scope from UN authority, and the leverage provided by the way the Organization is financed, ensures the primacy of geopolitics in the principal operations of the UN. This is what was intended from the beginning of the UN, and this is what has happened all along. It is written into the UN Charter, which provides the constitutional framework and is veto proof against any geopolitically unwanted modification intended to make the UN more responsive to international law rather than to the grand strategies of its dominant members and their closest friends.

 

Despite such disappointments and shortcomings, the UN plays a vital role on the global stage, and its contributions, actual and potential, should not be overlooked. The UN provides a forum available to all states, raising to global visibility the concerns of the weaker governments in a manner that can make a difference. The UN also provides the principal auspices for multilateral diplomacy, as in relation to such lawmaking events as the Paris Climate Change Agreement of a year ago.

 

As an organization of states, the UN fails to address the agendas of the peoples of the world, especially those so marginalized and vulnerable as not to be adequately represented by governments. Proposals for the establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, parallel to the General Assembly, have been forward over the years, but have not been realized because opposed by the representatives of a state-centric world order that are unwilling to share the formal stage of authority with civil society representatives even as the actualities of globalization have drained power and energy away from states.

 

Perhaps, the most overlooked, yet significant role of the UN is to be a major player in Legitimacy Wars, throwing their weight on one side or the other in the many ongoing struggles around the world. The UN can also issue reports and gather reliable information that disclose ‘inconvenient truths,’ which are influential with world public opinion, and provoke the sort of awkward responses that led to Saudi embarrassment, followed by anger, leading to the even more embarrassing accommodation by a much compromised Ban Ki-moon. At the same time, the incident also called wider attention to the abuse of children in the Yemen intervention than would have followed by its inclusion in a UN report. Political influence and change work in strange ways, and we cannot yet know whether the disgraceful, yet understandable, behavior of the SG will yet persuade the Saudi led coalition to abandon quietly their intervention in Yemen, or at least modify their tactics.

 

What needs to be understood is that symbolic issues with law, morality, and justice have exerted a major impact on the resolution of conflicts since 1945. It is the normative revolution principally brought about through the achievement of the right of self-determination that has changed the map of the world, and indicated that the anti-colonial flow of history has shaped the narrative of recent decades to a greater extent even than the series of startling innovations in the weaponry and tactics of warfare. The UN seems weak when challenged by geopolitics, yet its mark on the history of our time is the clearest demonstration that its presence still matters, and will continue to do so despite the likelihood of future weak SGs and in the face of its deep structural failings to fulfill the promise of the stirring words set forth in the Preamble of the UN Charter.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Dreaming of the Next UN Secretary General

6 May

 

 

“I solemnly swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other authority external to the Organisation.”

United Nations Secretary General’s Oath of Office

 

In 2006 Ramesh Thakur, one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable commentators on global issues, wrote a trustworthy account of what it takes to be selected as UN Secretary General, and then to be effective in the job. [Thakur, “In Selecting the New UN Secretary General,” Feb. 3, 2006, Daily Yomiuri] In many ways his assessment, although realistic, confirms the impression that the leadership potential of this titular position as head of the UN is structurally limited and inconsistent with the spirit of the oath of office. The reason for these low expectations, as Thakur points out, is that the “most important” requirement of the job is to be regarded when selected as acceptable to the five permanent members of the Security Council (the so-called P-5), and especially to the United States.

 

It is a tribute to the potential of the position of SG that the P-5 governments are exceedingly careful in vetting potential candidates, and have not yet ever been deeply disappointed by selecting a rogue SG, although once in office an individual may in some instances become somewhat more responsive to the oath of office than to the secondary wishes of his or her geopolitical masters. Such unresponsiveness, especially as it involved the United States, helps explain why Boutros Boutros-Ghali failed to obtain support for a customary second term in office back in 1996.

 

In practice, the selection process is ultra sensitive to this overriding need for a Secretary General to be someone that will be respectful of the geopolitical winds that blow at a given time in world politics regardless of the spirit and letter of the UN Charter. Appreciating this pattern makes it misleading to read the Charter as if it is intended to provide an authoritative framing designed to regulate the behavior of its 193 member states. It should be accepted for better and worse what it is, a constitutional framework of the UN that privileged the winners of World War II, and at the time of its founding opted for a state-centric international body that subordinated international law and the equality of sovereign states to the inequalities associated with international hierarchies of hard and soft power. In effect, the Charter itself embodies this tension between its geopolitical operating logic, as reinforced by the lack of independent funding, and the idealistic mandate of its Preamble, Purposes, and Principles. In effect, the tension can be understood as between the affirmation of juridical equality and the constitutional loophole ensuring geopolitical inequality. The UN was intended from the outset to be an Organization that enforced standards of accountability on the multiplicity of states to the best of its ability while deferring to the discretion of those deemed in 1945 to be most powerful, a status formalized by the vesting of this unrestricted right of veto in the P-5 bolstered by permanent membership in the Security Council.

 

The Charter is astonishingly silent about the qualifications that should guide the selection of a secretary general, but it is clear on the procedure: a recommendation must be made by the Security Council to the General Assembly for its approval. This means that the any one of the P-5 can use their veto to block a candidate. In this context, the veto has not been necessary as the P-5 have managed, even throughout the entire Cold War, to reach agreement on an acceptable candidate for SG by reliance on this method of secret backroom negotiations, which undoubtedly included much wrangling. The first eight secretaries general emerged from these dark shadows of great power bargaining, but this process gave rise to an increasing cascade of complaints from non-P-5 governments and from interested civil society organizations. These players objected to the secrecy and non-transparency of the way in which the SG was chosen.

 

In an accommodating response, the next secretary general is to be selected by a more seemingly democratic procedure: government nominations of multiple candidates, vision statements by the candidates, and give and take dialogues with civil society representatives. [For a helpful overview of the reformed selection process see Arabella Lang, “Selecting a New Secretary General,” UK House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper No. 7544, 3 March 2015] But we should not be misled. The decisive influence in the selection process remains the Security Council, and there the preferred candidate must still win the unanimous approval of the P-5. In the past, this has produced a race to the bottom, essentially a candidate that is not objectionable to any of these governments. As a result past SGs, with a few notable exceptions, have been ‘company men’ who have been careful not to use leverage of the position to shift the balance of world opinion on a geopolitically sensitive issues. What emerges over the year is that the SG is not expected to manifest a globalist orientation or engage in strong advocacy insisting on the universality of international law.

 

At the same time, the nature of the office requires that the occupant be held in reasonably high regard throughout the world and have a background of credible leadership such as to ensure confidence that the administrative and ceremonial demands of the position will be competently discharged. In other words, for the sake of the UN bureaucracy and for the morale of civil society, it has been accepted that a SG should be able to run the organization and grace ceremonial occasions with uplifting rhetoric. These secondary, but still crucial concerns, may explain why several secretaries generals have proved to be more than geopolitical placeholders, most notably Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961), U Thant (1961-1971), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), and Kofi Annan (1997-2006). Surely, some SGs have been better than others at upholding the dignity and appearance of political independence attached to the position. Kurt Waldheim and Ban Ki-moon have been embarrassments to the Organization because of their failures to project the kind of public leadership that lifts spirits without damaging structures.

 

Against this background, even with the welcome reforms of greater public vetting, transparency, and multiple candidacies, the end result is still likely to be the selection of someone who, above all else, can be expected not to rock the geopolitical boat. Symbolically these reforms seem a step in the right direction, especially if a woman is finally chosen, although the seeming adherence to the principle of regional rotation, which means that the chosen one seems destined to be an East European. This does not augur well for the Organization given the available pool of candidates from that region. If indeed it is to be a woman, then let it be Helen Clark of New Zealand (who has been nominated by her government) or Angela Merkel of Germany or Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile (these latter two seem qualified but are unlikely to be nominated, much less selected), each a proven and principled political leader, as well as being highly experienced in managing organizations. Yet even, as seems unlikely, Clark, Merkel, or Bachelet were to be selected, the best we can hope for is a performance that is graceful and competent but that would be less than what the world needs and what the peoples of the planet deserve. The geopolitical obstacles remain firmly in place and too strong, and even if somehow circumvented, a SG who transcended the demands of geopolitics would likely run the UN into the ground in short order.

 

Such a pronouncement is sad. There is a severe leadership deficit at the global level, and it centers on the absence of mechanisms to uphold the human interest, as distinct from national and geopolitical interests. This is why I must comfort myself by dreaming of rather than hoping that the selection of the next secretary general is a person, ideally a woman, that would think and act globally as representative of the species, and not to uphold the ways and means of the established order. We have witnessed for decades the sorry spectacle of the failure of the UN to tackle the challenges posed by the development of nuclear weaponry or by the dangers associated with global warming. Instead of serving the human interest by achieving nuclear disarmament, the world has ended up with the protection of hierarchical arrangements as embodied in the regime of nuclear nonproliferation, which allows for the development, possession, and possible use of these weapons by the most dangerous countries in the world while enforcing double standards by precluding the acquisition of these weapons by weaker states even when threatened with an overwhelming attack by stronger neighbors.

 

With climate change, the search for a solution involved broadening the diplomatic format to include all 193 member states, but with an end result that what was agreed upon was essentially an aggregation of national interests as well as voluntary, with what was agreed upon falling far below what the scientific consensus has determined to be necessary for the health and wellbeing of future generations.

 

In more flagrant disregard of the Charter itself, and signifying Western as well as P-5 hegemony, has been the reluctance of the Organization or its principal officer ever to challenge the United States and its friends when in the face of flagrant disregard of the UN Charter provisions limiting the use of force to instances of self-defense against a prior armed attack (e.g. Vietnam, after 1965, Iraq, after 2003).

 

What the world urgently needs at the UN is an unshackled guardian of the global public good who articulates human interests as these arose in international life, and had the institutional capabilities to take effective action. At present, we depend on a religious leader such as Pope Francis to fill this normative vacuum, and occasionally political figures such as Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King rise above their national identities to represent the human interest, but such figures lack any institutional capacity to carry their words into deeds. At present, we can only dream that such a figure would be selected as the next secretary general, but we should be aware that dreams often disclose deep aspirations and can offer necessary guidance, and thus should not be ignored.

 

The carnage around the world, as well as the massive migrations of desperate persons, underscores the growing need for a strong United Nations led by a person who above all is dedicated to the promotion of global and human interests, and has the will and mandate to disregard geopolitical pressures. Of course, this now a private pipedream that is politically irrelevant unless it becomes embodied in a global movement for peace, justice, ecological stewardship, and the survival of the species. We have experienced the integrative wonders of neoliberal globalization, with their attendant ravaging of human wellbeing and our natural surroundings. We have also seen the dawn of moral globalization in the rise of international human rights and the call for a global rule of law, but as yet there is not visible on the horizon an organized political undertaking capable of bringing into history these faint gropings toward humane governance of planetary proportions. We still sit around expecting the next SG to continue arranging the deck chairs on a sinking vessel. I feel we are entitled to hope that the ninth UN SG will have the awareness and courage to upset these settled expectations of business as usual.