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Editorial: Should thee Security Council be expanded?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-01

The rhetoric at the United Nations over the proposed expansion of the 15-member Security Council is escalating to the point where it's obvious that the issue is not going to be resolved by histrionics, nor by a special 16-member panel appointed by Secretary General Kofi A. Annan to make recommendations by December on the emotionally charged subject. The issue is actually quite simple: Shouldn't the Council be expanded to reflect contemporary demography in which four-fifths of the global population of 6.1 billion people lives in the 135 countries of the Third World? Since the establishment of the UN nearly 60 years ago, the Security Council has had five so-called permanent members, none of them from the Third World: the United States, the erstwhile Soviet Union - now Russia - France, Britain and China. They were the victors in World War II, and therefore presumably the powers who would influence peace and security in the post-war world. It turned out to be a world in which the major European powers began retreating from their colonial territories. As a result, the overwhelming number of the UN's 191 member-states belong to either the Third World or to the so-called "emerging nations" that are making the transition from underdevelopment to the sort of prosperity enjoyed by the world's 31 richest nations. Moreover, countries like France and Britain no longer enjoy the military and economic influence that they once did; Russia's gross domestic product, in fact, is lower than that of India. Still, these five permanent members enjoy tremendous power at the UN because any one of them can exercise a veto on issue of peace and security. Also, it's the Security Council that picks the UN's most prestigious post, that of the Secretary General. Ten other countries also sit in the Council, but they do so by rotation through limited two-year terms gained by elections that ensure regional representation.

Now four countries - Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan - want permanent member status in the Council. Japan argues that, after the US, it's the largest contributor to the financially ailing UN. Germany flexes its economic muscles, even though those have become flabby of late. India, the world's biggest democracy at 1.1 billion people, claims it's well on its way to being an economic superpower. Brazil highlights its leadership on issues such as environmental protection and poverty alleviation. Under one proposal being discussed by Mr Annan's panel - chaired by former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun - the Security Council would be expanded by nine members, some with four-year terms and others with the current two-year terms.

The current five permanent members do not wish any new members - permanent or otherwise - to be given veto privileges. What would be the point of the Council's expansion anyway? The kind of economic and social development issues that the aspirants wish the Council to consider more regularly are already the prerogative of the five major committees of the General Assembly. These committees are little more than talk shops and eating clubs. As far as the Council is concerned, its importance in a unipolar world in which the US is the sole superpower, is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Iraq is a case in point. The Bush Administration wanted to topple Saddam Hussein, and it went ahead without Council approval. Similarly, Israel has ignored numerous Council resolutions urging its withdrawal from Arab territories occupied through military means. An expanded Council would simply mean more cacophony, more resolutions of little consequence, and more vetoes by the permanent members. In fact, the larger question to be raised is whether the Security Council ought to exist at all. Granted, it makes for good political theatre and excellent photo-ops. But the General Assembly offers similar entertainment. Sensitive issues such as peacekeeping operations could be decided by the Secretary General's cabinet, perhaps in consultation with nations willing to provide money and manpower. What the UN desperately needs is more financing for humanitarian and economic development projects, not funds for extending membership in the Security Council to nations whose presence isn't going to make much difference to a diplomatically dysfunctional body.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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