A couple of months ago in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar I saw my first white elephant. It was on display in an elegant pen that you get to view before going on to visit the city’s main temple. It fascinated me that this white elephant was more yellowish than white. I’m now writing, however, of a much less fascinating white elephant.
To begin from the beginning, sometime in 1944 when nations were negotiating toward the establishment of the United Nations, the consensus was that the collective security of the international community would be placed in the hands of a security council. There was also a widely supported proposal that regional organizations would form that council.
If that happened, perhaps a regional organization in Southeast Asia would have been formed earlier to immediately fill the region’s seat on the council. And perhaps today that regional organization, not necessarily named ASEAN, would be enjoying a permanent seat on the Council.
But that didn’t happen. The US President at the time, F.D. Roosevelt, was bent on having the UN Security Council dominated by the five principal victors of World War II: the US itself, the Soviet Union, the UK, France and China. These became the five permanent members (P-5) on the Council. That’s what happened.
Perhaps on a dream that the other four would always follow the US lead, or that they would reach consensus most of the time during a crisis, each of the P-5 was gifted with the power of veto.
But reason dreaming produces monsters. In this case, a white elephant. To my mind, that is what the Security Council becomes whenever there’s an issue in which a P-5 member has a conflict of interest.
Say the issue is the loss of legitimacy of Syria’s ruler, Bashir al-Assad. Any move against Assad is bound to be vetoed by the permanent member Russia, because Assad is Russia’s boy. Thus on this issue the Council is paralyzed.
The reality therefore is that regarding every controversial issue in which a P-5 member has a big stake, the Council simply morphs into the classic white elephant: useless but maintained at a sacrifice and impossible to get rid of.
Many remedies have been proposed for this anomaly. But none of the P-5 is willing to give up the power of the veto, nor is any willing to have that power diluted. So every proposed remedy is vetoed. The veto perpetuates itself.
Comes now France, a P-5 member, proposing, with Mexico seconding, that the P-5 “voluntarily and collectively pledge not to use the veto in case of atrocities or genocide or crimes against humanity or large-scale war crimes.” In each case, the mechanism for the non-veto would be activated by the UN Secretary-General, perhaps on the request of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, or 50 member states.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, and his Mexican counterpart, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribrena, hosted a meeting on this initiative late last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Many countries sent their foreign ministers to express strong support. Indonesia’s Marty Natalegawa, of course, was there, since thorough reform of the Security Council has been a longstanding plank of the country’s foreign policy.
The other P-5 members didn’t send their foreign ministers. I hear one sent a deputy foreign minister. Another sent an ambassador. According to my source, that’s as cold a shoulder as you can get from any group of countries in the UN.
This is a modest but well-advised and reasonable move that deserves to be championed by all humankind. But, alas, just one veto by a P-5 member will be enough to abort it
Very likely the UN’s white elephant will go lumbering on its way as usual.