Read the fine print first

Some questions raised at the Science for Peace conference on UN reform

By Janet Creery | 1994-01-01 12:00:00

One energetic speaker at the Science for Peace Workshop on Reform of the United Nations threw a spanner in the works when he suggested that reform of the United Nations was really not that important. Peter Padbury, representing the activist Canadian Council for International Cooperation, was a bit of a misfit on a panel dominated by legal and diplomatic experts who treated the United Nation's grand mechanisms with affectionate awe, while Padbury saw them as threatening, ossified structures that sap initiative.

There are good people in the U.N. but they speak in a narrow language," he said, noting that U.N. negotiators "started out with mush and watered it down from there" at preparatory meetings of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). For Padbury, UNCED was the "coming of age" of NGOs," when they saw that action and talk among themselves was more effective than attempts to influence their respective governments' positions at the United Nations. He concluded that "reform of the United Nations is not a big issue in the development of a sustainable world."

Whether or not the Commission on Global Governance is itself concerned with sustainable development, is debatable. The commission is the latest in a series of weighty international think-tanks set up by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. One of its basic purpose': is to improve coordination in policy for the sake of stabilizing conditions for investment and growth worldwide. It also proposes to streng-then collective security-the process by which a number of states can agree to make war on another, if any are attacked-and progress towards "multilateral free trade."

These are big-business aims more than a commitment to sustainable development. Strangely, the Commission's progress report of April 1993 takes quite a different approach. It asserts the existence of universal values that can be embraced by governments, organizations, and people around the world. It sees an important role for non-governmental and non-U.N. bodies, and, recognizing that growth has "often produced uneven and sometimes questionable development," it encourages sustainable development.

Facing one another around a huge polished table in the University of Toronto's Croft Chapter House, the twenty or so participants at the Science for Peace Reform of the United Nations workshop heard some ambitious plans for change at the United Nations.

Dietrich Fischer, an American professor, held the U.N. up against the model of systems theory, showing some glaring shortcomings. He saw its decision-making body, the Security Council, as unrepresentative of its constituency, and concluded that the U.N. must have a second, elected, assembly. He also suggested that the U.N. be empowered to: monitor arms by satellite and random inspection; act in advance of outbreaks of conflict; develop international links and materials to undercut national prejudice and stereotyping; and create a treasury, whose funds come from taxes on deep sea minerals (see more on this on page 12), international flights, and international money transactions. Not all the participants believed that Fischer's proposals are likely to be realized.

Peace researcher Hanna Newcombe followed with an even more radical vision of reform. She presented the Security Council as downright counterproductive, since it is composed of the main arms exporters. She also argued that the U.N. must abandon collective security, which punishes a whole nation for the misdeeds of its leader. She suggested instead the formation of a World Criminal Court, to prosecute leaders guilty of breaches of international law. And she agreed that a second assembly must be created to directly represent the global population.

Dieter Heinrich, who spoke last, was in the enviable position of having had his proposal endorsed by both previous speakers. He presented the World Federalists' proposal for a parliamentary assembly, which would replicate democratic state systems at the world level. Following the developmental sequence of the European Parliament, the assembly would at first be composed of sitting members of national assemblies, then gradually evolve into a directly elected body. Likewise its powers would first be purely consultative and gradually acquire binding force. Its members could participate in the real "horsetrading" of parliamentary politics and overcome bureaucracy with creative solutions.

Heinrich's proposal has the enthusiastic backing of parliamentarians from around the world through Parliamentarians Global Action, and the endorsement of Canada's Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade. It could easily be established by the General Assembly, which according to the Charter is allowed to create subsidiary bodies. But participants in the workshop, disillusioned by parliaments on the national level, asked whether an international parliament would really be an effective voice of the people. Might it not just be a new layer of bureaucracy, powerless against strong business interests?

Padbury answered that question in the affirmative, without rejecting outright the scheme of a world parliament. In a poignant exchange, Dieter Heinrich asked him how they can agree so completely on everything except the need for U.N. reform. Padbury answered that the only power civil society has is to build a global consensus, and in the long term that will change the U.N. system. But without a "system level response" the U.N., however it is structured, will still face the same obstacles.

There is another critique of the World Federalist ideals besides Padbury's. Dr. Venkata Raman represented this centralizing approach. Raman, a dapper law professor at Queen's University, described the United Nations as needing "to ensure effectiveness without jeopardizing political legitimacy." This requires a stand-by military force and an integrated control and command centre to implement the decisions of the Security Council. The council, made up of the leaders of the most materially powerful nations on earth, should be given limits and guidelines. But its decision should remain binding on all members of the United Nations.

Dieter Heinrich took issue with Raman's image of a Security Council with unchecked power. He pointed out that the increasingly powerful Security Council system fails to keep the usual distinctions between the legislative, executive, and judiciary. It gives itself all three powers.

Raman replied that yes, there was an issue of the legitimacy of power, but there was also the power of legitimacy. He cited the example of the Gulf War, which he saw as a great step forward, establishing that no country can now make use of force and expect acceptance from the world community.

The panel on international security and peacekeeping made clear how much U.N. operations have ballooned since the massive U.N.-sanctioned attack on Iraq. The U.N. has monitored elections in El Salvador, delivered aid to Somalia, begun the political reconstruction of Cambodia, attempted to make peace in Yugoslavia, and continued resettling refugees worldwide.

The Security Council has grown more powerful, with consensus no longer being blocked by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Professor David Cox, former research director of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security (CIIPS), reported that in May of this year the council changed its own guidelines. Peacekeeping forces formerly could only be sent with the consent of the host country, they can now be sent without it "in exceptional circumstances."

Cox argued that the expanding role of peacekeeping was a good thing, and that the set-backs in Somalia should not deflect the U.N.'s plans for further expansion of its peacekeeping operations. Geoffrey Pearson, former chair of CIIPs, whose father, Lester Pearson, won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing the idea of peacekeeping, agreed. Canadians are involved in establishing a command centre in New York, he said, and they should also establish a standby force ready to move on 24 hours' notice.

When Heinrich challenged these seasoned diplomatic experts who praised the growing power of the Security Council, they were doubtful about the applicability of his proposals. Pearson remarked that the binding power of the Security Council was considered to be the great improvement achieved by the U.N. over its predecessor, the League of Nations, and it was highly unlikely to be abandoned. "One has to be careful not to create situations where nothing gets done," he said. However, he encouraged the World Federalists to keep working on the idea: "the tide is moving towards more representative government, a democratic system ruled by law."

Dominick Jenkins, a philosophy graduate student, questioned this optimism: "We should be wary of the idea that progress is automatically occurring."

Janet Creery is a toronto-based freelance writer and editor.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1994

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1994, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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