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5 Small Nations Propose Reforms for U.N.

The group aims to make the giants of the organization more accountable and open.

November 10, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Like Lilliputians trying to pin down Gulliver, a group of small nations launched an effort this week to pressure the U.N. Security Council to change its ways.

Their proposed reforms would have the exclusive power club interact more with the rest of the U. N. membership and follow up on resolutions it passes. The proposal even takes on the council's most sacred symbol of power -- the veto.

So far, the permanent powers are treating the small states like a swarm of gnats, but if the General Assembly adopts the resolution, as looks likely, the Security Council will be under pressure to respond.

A separate reform effort has focused on adding seats to the 15-member Security Council, but the five small U.N. countries forming the group -- Switzerland, Singapore, Jordan, Costa Rica and Liechtenstein -- say that it is just as important to make the council more accountable and open.

"Bigger is not better," said Christian Wenaweser, the U.N. ambassador from Liechtenstein. "Better is better."

Their effort reflects the United Nations' struggle to reform itself: How can the power holders be persuaded to dilute their control? "It's like asking a turkey to vote on Christmas dinner," said Lloyd Axworthy, Canada's former foreign minister, at a conference on U.N. reform earlier this year.

But the small states insist that the changes would be in the council's own interest: The Security Council can legislate for the world, but it depends on the rest of the member states to implement its decisions. If the others don't feel involved, the sponsors point out, the resolutions may be ignored.

"More than half of the U.N. membership is made up of small countries that normally only get a chance at a seat in the Security Council every 10 or 20 years," said Swiss Ambassador Peter Maurer. "So it is important for the council to interact more with the general membership and to be more representative."

The small states point to a raft of resolutions having to do with Israel, Sudan and especially Iraq that languished for years without enforcement and ultimately exacerbated conflicts rather than helping solve them.

Most contentious, the new proposals touch on the hallowed veto. Only the permanent five members of the Security Council -- the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia -- have the right to unilaterally reject any proposal that comes before the council. The small states say that with that power comes responsibility: They want to require the permanent members to explain every veto to the General Assembly and to not use the veto on humanitarian emergencies, such as intervention against genocide or war crimes.

So far, reactions to the proposal have been dismissive. U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton has said he won't even look at the resolution.

"I believe that the Security Council needs to reform," he said. "But it should come from the Security Council." Bolton told a U.S. Senate committee hearing on U.N. reform last month that the permanent five members should work more closely to decide issues rather than opening up the process.

Russian Ambassador Andrey Denisov feels the same way. "I don't like the idea of discussing it because there is no matter to discuss," he said. "If we raise such issues, it means that the G.A. [General Assembly] has doubts that we apply the veto in a proper way." He said the council had never wielded the veto inappropriately and added that Russia had exercised it only twice in the last 10 years.

"I don't like it," British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said of the reform resolution, which will be debated today by the General Assembly. "It presumes the General Assembly should tell the Security Council what to do."

He said he agreed that the council should be more accountable but has his own ideas how to bring about change. French diplomats have echoed this sentiment.

Even nations aspiring to permanent membership on the Security Council, such as India, Japan, Germany and Brazil, are wary of the idea. Indian Ambassador Nirupam Sen said that the proposals might create the illusion of reform when nothing had really changed.

"If they are really serious about reform, they should move directly to amend the charter," Sen said. "That would also be a test of the General Assembly's effectiveness."

The proposal appears to have the solid support of most of the General Assembly's 191 members; they think it will make the Security Council more responsive and accountable. But even if the General Assembly votes to endorse the measure, the Security Council doesn't have to change -- the assembly's votes are nonbinding. Still, the sponsors hope such an approval would create moral pressure on the Security Council to adopt some of the recommendations.

"We consider it an invitation," said Britain's Jones Parry, with a polite smile. "But not an obligation."

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