Home > Opinion
  print button email button

Monday, Sept. 27, 2004


Reforming the United Nations

LONDON -- The Japanese government is understandably frustrated by the delay in reaching agreement on enlargement of the Security Council. Japan makes the largest contribution to the running of the United Nations, but still has to take its turn as an elected member of the Security Council.

Britain, the United States and other leading powers have declared that they support Japan's application to become a permanent member of the council. There is also general support for permanent-member status for Germany, India and Brazil, but there is no consensus yet among the smaller powers, which ask why special preference should be given to larger powers.

The issue of whether permanent membership should give new members the same veto power as that granted to the initial five permanent members (the U.S., Russia (then the Soviet Union), China, Britain and France) must also be settled. The five original member-states are unwilling to give up the veto and cannot be compelled to do so, but there is opposition to extending the veto to additional permanent members.

A solution could be found in having two groups of permanent members: the original members would retain the veto, the new members would not acquire veto powers. To adapt the phraseology of George Orwell's "Animal Farm," some powers would be more equal than others. But that is probably inevitable in the world as it is today and can be explained as a quirk of history.

If the U.N. was being formed today the charter would be different from what it was in 1945 immediately after a devastating world war. Britain and France would not necessarily both expect to be permanent members with a veto, although the fact that both have nuclear weapons is still a relevant consideration. But the basic problem facing the U.N. -- how to keep the peace in a divided world -- would be largely the same now as it was in 1945.

The League of Nations failed to ensure peace. One reason was that it lacked enforcement powers. The U.N. has an enforcement mechanism in the Security Council, but it can only function effectively if all the five permanent members are in agreement. This issue has been circumvented in the past by use of the General Assembly's "uniting for peace" procedure, but this is far from satisfactory and can be divisive.

As we saw over the war in Iraq, the Security Council is powerless if the world's leading military power is determined, in pursuit of its own interests, to take action without Security Council endorsement. This is the rationale for the veto, which has sadly been misused on a number of occasions, especially by the former Soviet Union and the U.S. The misuse of the veto makes the U.N. less effective in keeping the peace, and means that actions in defiance of the majority go uncurbed. It also undermines the prestige of the U.N.

The U.S. refusal to take part in the League of Nations after World War I and the absence of any enforcement mechanism other than the adoption of economic sanctions -- which can so easily be circumvented -- were the main reasons for the League's failure.

The U.N. is unpopular in Washington because opinions expressed at the U.N. are often critical of a number of U.S. policies, especially in the Middle East. U.S. President George W. Bush's recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, even if it was hardly a reflection of realities in the Middle East and refused to acknowledge the extent to which U.S. policies in Iraq had failed, at least paid lip service to the role of the U.N.

Even the neocons in the Bush administration should now recognize that America, despite its preponderance of military power, cannot go it alone everywhere and that "might is not right." The neocons nevertheless go on accusing their critics of being appeasers and argue that anyone who does not support their line condones the tyranny of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorism.

This is nonsense. It is possible to both condemn wholeheartedly Hussein and to be outraged by suicide bombers -- condemning them as murderous fanatics -- while at the same time argue that the fight against terrorism cannot be won by military means alone.

It is not appeasement, for instance, to urge that efforts should be stepped up to find a two-state solution to the Palestine problem, which would involve Israeli concessions in accordance with U.N. resolutions. Nor is it appeasement to argue for more sensitive policies by U.S. forces in Iraq that take more account of Iraqi nationalist aspirations and Muslim feelings. Nor does the expression of concern about the autocratic tendencies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his nation's behavior in Chechnya equate to condoning the appalling recent atrocities at Beslan and in Russia.

The U.N. needs to be strengthened and helped to recover from the weakening effects of the Iraq war, which have made it more difficult for the world body to take the sort of effective action it should have taken to deal with the Sudan government and the crisis in Darfur region.

I believe that the U.N. would be strengthened by early agreement on permanent-member status in the Security Council for Japan, Germany, India and Brazil, and at the same time on better arrangements for representation of smaller countries on the council.

In any enlargement it is important that the council does not become unwieldy. This means that member states will need to exercise self-restraint in debate and appoint only representatives of the highest caliber with an understanding of current international issues.

The best solution of the veto problem would be to remove it altogether, but this looks unlikely. Efforts should be made to try to find ways of curbing its misuse, perhaps by arranging that all vetoes should be referred to the General Assembly for public debate. It would not be possible for the assembly to overturn vetoes but it could put the spotlight on the veto power and perhaps make for restraint in the use of the veto. For their part, the new member states should voluntarily agree to forgo the right of veto.

The Japanese people and government have shown their firm support for the U.N. and the basic principles of the U.N. charter. I am confident that Japan as a permanent member of the Security Council would, as it has done as a nonpermanent member, exercise a moderating influence.

Japanese membership would reaffirm Japan's status as a leading world power. It would also reinforce the ability of the U.N. to deal not only with the military threats to peace but also with the multifarious issues that need to be solved in order to enable further progress to be made throughout the world in establishing stability and economic prosperity. Japan is a major aid donor and could help to give further impetus to efforts to deal with poverty in the Third World.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.