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The alternative UN The United Nations dossier



What kind of new worldwide organisation could be established that would truly defend humankind’s common resources and limit the major powers? Here are some suggestions for further debate.

                                                     By Monique Chemillier-Gendreau

THE reform of the United Nations is an old problem (1). UN bureaucracy, grossly inflated over the years, is widely thought inefficient. The Security Council, the main UN peacemaking body, still dominated by the victors of the second world war, has not lived up to its mandate. It has allowed conflicts to proliferate and intervened arbitrarily. The peace dividend promised at the end of the cold war was an illusion. Arms sales have soared again because the major powers chose to militarise their economies. Peacekeeping missions have developed exponentially, often leading to fiascos (2). President George Bush’s unilateral decision to invade Iraq removed a dictatorship only to plunge that country into chaos and violence, further confirming the helplessness of the UN.

The subject of reform was raised again recently in a study on threats, challenges and change made by a high-level panel of experts and presented to the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, at the end of 2004. It was also taken up in his report published on 21 March 2005 (3), which contained an analysis of the challenges of a changing world - wars between states, civil violence, poverty, infectious diseases, environmental degradation, terrorism, organised crime, nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons - and emphasised preventive action, with peacekeeping linked to the conditions for establishing peace.

He incorporated the detailed proposals put forward by the panel for the control of weapons (marking and locating light weaponry, transparency of arms stocks) as well as its definition of terrorism: “Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act.”

He proposes setting up a peacebuilding commission to help counter the risks of disintegration faced by any country emerging from conflict. The report insists that all member states sign and ratify many treaties covering the protection of civilians, aspects of disarmament, and particularly the Rome Statute that gives authority to the International Criminal Court. But these seem empty words, given that international law, which remains the framework for any reform, leaves sovereign states totally free in their commitments. One wonders what impact his appeal will have on power-hungry states that have so often demonstrated that they were above regulation.

Despite the importance of these considerations to the environment in which vital peacekeeping mechanisms are deployed, they do little to mask the limits of the proposals on the main issue: the institutional reform of the UN. Annan avoids this heart of the problem. The permanent members remain unchallenged, even though the legitimacy of the five second world war victors has been eroded.

So despite promising statements on democratising the council, tantamount to an admission that its composition bears no relation to the declared intention of equality between members, there is no hint of any advance in the democratic process. The status of the permanent members and their veto remains intact as unjustified positions of power. Yet the record of the member states who have held the reins for half a century should be grounds enough to plead for an end to this system. The impunity of those nations, the consolidation of their powers, and their global militarisation are all arguments against their privileges. Germany, Japan, Brazil and India, the “G4”, are open candidates for this privileged status, and many other nations are standing by.

The permanence of power remains unchallenged even though it is ephemeral by nature. New members who could be admitted to the club because they are powerful today may be overtaken by those more powerful tomorrow. What really needs to be questioned is power itself as a criterion for appointing leading members. The history of democracy has been a constant struggle against the usurpation of power by the richest and strongest. The proposed changes will leave the Security Council as the same aristocratic body at odds with the egalitarian essence of democracy. The proposal to democratise the council is a sham.

The veto is also a subject of acrimonious debate. G4 candidates for permanent membership accept that the price of entry to the circle of power is a postponement of their veto for 15 years. The Africans have resisted this, and what happens this month is mostly in their hands, because any amendment must receive two-thirds of the vote in the General Assembly. To be enforced, it must then be ratified by two-thirds of the member states, including the five permanent members.

The proposals for the assembly are weak. Those for the replacement of the Commission for Human Rights by a human rights council are only a relative improvement, since the function and powers of this new body have not been stipulated. The only reform that would improve efficiency in human rights, as desired by many victims of abuses, would be the establishment of an international court of human rights, which would enforce the rights laid down in international treaties and hear individual appeals in special circumstances. Europe has had such an organisation since 1959 with the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, giving Europeans an advantage over other continents. This gap should be closed soon. The proposed council will not be enough.

Although the report seriously analyses the causes of insecurity in the world, security is not equated with the definition of common resources within the global political community. That is the major challenge of our era. Two factors block the measures suggested: the continuing dominance of the victors of 1945, and the universal spread of extreme free-market values since the collapse of communism. All of us have something to lose.

If we want to imagine another worldwide institutional system, we must examine the world we live in and ask ourselves what our goals should be. In 1945 the predominant idea was collective security, at a time when threats were between states, military force pitted against military force. As Annan points out, the threats have changed.

The spread of conventional and nuclear weapons, and terrorism and genocide through such rudimentary means as the machete, are violence that goes beyond state borders. We need to examine the reasons for this violence. Hunger, indecent development gaps, inequality in the face of natural disasters (particularly climatic ones), the major powers’ encouragement of arms sales and other trafficking, ideologies that breed racism and discrimination (neo-Nazi factions in European and Russian countries, “Ivoirité” in the Ivory Coast, discriminatory Zionism against Arabs in Israel, with implications for the failure of the peace process, radical Islam). Human beings will always be confronted by their own violence. Globalisation is leaving many more poor by the wayside, provoking new forms of violence and widespread terrorism.

The UN response to these problems, even the redrafted version that adopted Annan’s proposals, is not enough. The complexity of a global society is totally ignored. The UN manages inter-state relations, albeit feebly. The intense relations established directly between populations outside state control are developing into a power struggle to the detriment of the human rights they pretend to observe. Despite warnings by the UN Development Programme, the UN has done nothing about the protection and equitable sharing of such vital resources as water, energy, knowledge and medication.

If the UN cannot be reformed, and the major powers refuse to give up their prerogatives and hog most of the world’s resources, then a new organisation of the global community must be invented soon. Those states that bear the brunt of globalisation would be well advised to consider quitting the UN immediately and founding a new organisation adapted to their requirements.

What might it be? The new organisation could establish its headquarters in Jerusalem, as Regis Debray has suggested, or in Africa or Latin America, as a symbolic move away from the West. Its purpose might be to construct a universal political community, not to replace national communities but to complement them and cater for the complexity of a society that combines inter-state and inter-individual relations. The main challenge would be to define and defend mankind’s common resources. Peacekeeping could then become more than a belated, often useless, stopgap.

The institution required for such a project could be built around four political bodies. A general assembly would represent the states. A second assembly would deal with the difficult problem of representing peoples. It would not be directly elected, to avoid manipulation. A special section devoted to civil society through NGOs would not be a good idea, since they are set up independently and their geographic spread is uneven. An acceptable solution for the present might be a second assembly for national parliaments, each of which would send a number of members proportionate to its population, in accordance with a system that would prevent over- or under-representation. Small states would have to group together to send representatives. This would offset the first assembly’s one state, one vote system that would give them too great an advantage. Both assemblies would work together bicamerally with commissions to deal with political, economic, social, military and cultural matters of global importance. The laws voted would no longer be soft laws, but would be enforceable. The Economic and Social Council would disappear, as would the Trusteeship Council (4).

Two councils would be attached to the two assemblies, one charged with preventive (non-military) action and peacekeeping, the other with intervention in the event of conflict. The 25 members of the first council would be parliamentary representatives elected solely by, and from, the members of the second assembly, all for the same duration. Their remit would be to enact measures taken by the organisation in the common interest.

The second council, in charge of security, would have representatives of the 25 states elected by both assemblies together, all with the same term of office and decision-making powers. The permanent-member category and veto would be eliminated. There would need to be a way of regulating the paradox of giving responsibility for peace to states that might have an interest in waging war. An ineligibility clause to council membership should block states that have voted for high military budgets in relation to their social expenditure, or that committed aggression in the two years before the elections.

There would still be a secretary general who would be accountable for his actions to both assemblies. The International Court of Justice would change status and merge with the International Criminal Court. The dual jurisdiction of the new body would be enforceable by law (5). An international court for human rights would complete the legal setup.

There is much discussion along these lines outside government circles (6). These proposals are made for discussion, but there are imperatives behind them: the need for democracy (by the elimination of all prerogatives that benefit only a few states), for law (by strengthening the competence of the general assemblies) and justice (by the mandatory nature of international law). These cannot be ignored for much longer.

Translated by Krystyna Horko

(1) See Joachim Muller, Reforming the United Nations, Kluwer Law International, The Hague, 2001.

(2) See Maurice Bertrand, L’ONU, La Découverte, Paris, 2004 (5th edition).

(3) United Nations document A/59/2005, see: ...

(4) The Trusteeship Council was one of the main UN organisations charged with supervising the administrations of the trust territories. After the independence of Palau, the last such territory, it suspended operations on 1 November 1994.

(5) The International Court of Justice settles disputes between states. The International Criminal Court may judge individuals accused of certain international crimes.

(6) See Daniele Archibugi and David Held, Cosmopolitan Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge 1995.

Le Monde Diplomatique