The United Nation's 58th session opened in New York last month. Bitter divisions in that organisation and in the international community more generally over the
war in Iraq have given fresh impetus to the case for serious reform of the UN. As this session is the first time the full body of the UN has met after the acrimonious
Iraq episode, it is not surprising that numerous states and individuals are pressing for things to change.
Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer added to the chorus of calls for reform but his suggestions seemed to underestimate the depth of feeling against the West and especially against
the US-led coalition that now occupies Iraq. Downer has called for the Security Council to be expanded to reflect the new realities of international politics.
He is quite right to say that the Security Council's make-up and decision-making processes adopted in 1945 do not sit well with the majority of the world's states
and population in 2003.
The Council has been dominated since its inception by its permanent five (P5) members: the US, Britain, France, Russia and China, all of which can exercise
their veto to block, single-handedly, any resolution made by the Council. Although the Council also includes ten rotating seats, none of these carries the power
wielded by the permanent five.
For well over a decade there has been a push to expand the number of permanent seats - to include states like Japan, Germany, India, Brazil and others - in order
to include economically powerful states and to give a more balanced geographical representation to the Council. The second, and more difficult, part of the push
for reform seeks to modify, or even abolish, the veto power held by the P5.
Downer's call for reforms remind us that Australia has been at the forefront of UN activity. We were there in 1945, and successive governments have supported
the organisation vigorously, realising that Australia's security is best served by upholding a strong multilateral rules-based international order. In recent
years however, Prime Minister Howard and Downer have distanced themselves from the UN, preferring instead to throw their lot in with the US, as was shown most
vividly when they agreed to war against Iraq without UN support.
The problem of course is that the US stands accused of flouting international law and working with the UN only when it serves its own interests. It has refused
to sign important UN initiatives such as the Kyoto Accords, the International Criminal Court and numerous other proposals supported by large numbers of states,
both Western and non-Western.
Last month, George W. Bush appealed to the UN for help in bringing law and order to Iraq and for considerable financial and troop commitments from UN members
to help rebuild the country it bombed in March and April. Unsurprisingly, most states are not willing to do this, especially as it is clear that the US will
not in any case concede any real authority to the UN. Many remember too that Bush caustically labelled the UN "irrelevant" earlier this year because it
refused to approve a war most felt was unjustified. In the face of increasing American casualties, staggering costs and lowering opinion polls, however, Bush
has had to seek material and moral support from this now very relevant body.
What has this got to do with UN reform? For states like the US and Australia, the preference might be to expand the Security Council, but ultimately it does
not include any limiting of the power held by the P5. Downer has said that any new permanent members would probably not be given a veto power. Neither was he
confident that the existing P5 will give up their veto power. And - notwithstanding blistering US criticism of the French who indicated that they would veto Bush's
plans for war earlier this year - it should be remembered that of all the P5 states, it has been the US which has used the veto most often in the Security Council
since 1990. Often this has been to protect Israel from being asked to comply with
UN resolutions and cease its nuclear weapons program.
What most UN members want then is not simply more seats in the Council but also a serious re-think of the power wielded by the P5. Downer continues to claim
that while the UN is important, it might still be necessary to act outside the organisation. In other words, "pre-emptive strikes", based on questionable
evidence and regardless of world opinion or international law, are OK and we can expect more of it in the future. He suggests that the world should simply "move
on" after its differences over Iraq. Bush, too, showed no signs of remorse
or compromise over his actions in Iraq.
None of this bodes well for serious reform of the UN. The vast majority of states will not be prepared to tolerate a system that continues to allow unlimited power over, and selective use of, the UN by the world's large powers. It will undoubtedly be an enormous task to persuade the P5 to limit or do away with their
veto. In all likelihood this won't happen for some time, if at all. But unless UN resolutions and international law are seen to be applicable to all states,
regardless of their size and power, and regardless of the circumstances of 1945 which gave some the veto, we cannot expect that body to be a cohesive and effective
force in international affairs.
Australia cannot affirm the importance of the UN but at the same time undermine it, which is what Downer's remarks threaten to do. Rather, he should encourage
the US to return to the UN, to respect Security Council decisions and international
law, even if this means some loss of American power. In the long-term, this is far more likely to gain the broad-based international support the US requires to meet the important security challenges of this century.