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from issue no. 12 - 2004

Notes from the UN

«We must deny ourselves the licence to always do whatever we want»

By Gianni Cardinale

The General Assembly  of the United Nations

The General Assembly of the United Nations

Of the ninety nine pages that compose the English text of the UN report on challenges, threats and reforms compiled by the committee of experts chosen by Kofi Annan and published on 1 December, the sections dealing with the proposed reorganization of the Security Council have caused widespread stir. The report is most precise in the definition and analysis of world “security”, the prime good that – it is said – the community of states must achieve. According to the document this must be understood in a broad sense, as one gathers from the listing of the six groups of global threats that threaten it today. In fact, Annan significantly puts in first place the economic and social threats that include «poverty, infectious illnesses and the degradation of the environment» (conflicts between states follow; then internal ones – including civil war, genocide and atrocities on a vast scale -; nuclear, chemical and biological threats; terrorism and transnational organized crime). In this framework, the key concept is that of prevention based on the development «indispensable for a system of collective security».
And yet, despite such a wide-reaching intellectual effort to provide a basic document capable of making 2005 the year of the rebirth of the UN, only a bare little page was dedicated to the analysis and the proposals for a concrete reform of the General Assembly. The picture of the Assembly outlined in the text is not flattering, it describes a body that «has lost vitality and often fails to focus efficiently on the most pressing issues of the moment». As an operative remedy the text advises «better conceptualization» of the subjects from time to time on the order of the day and the shortening and updating of the agenda of the Assembly (a most opportune suggestion this, given that for sixty years topics under discussion, even secondary ones or by now dated, have not been cancelled). Furthermore, the Assembly should have a closer link with what is known as international civil society and the NGOs. But here the UN emphasis on recognizing the growing role of the NGOs evades the difficulty in relations between the state and civil society, given the existence of very powerful NGOs – with budgets that would make some poor countries envious – in which no control of internal management is possible.
Of course emphasis is given to the exhortation to member states to renew their efforts to restore the Assembly’s status of chief forum of deliberation. But it remains difficult, with this evidence to hand, not to object that within the UN the desire is to speak especially or almost exclusively of the Security Council and not equally, at least, of the General Assembly. If this is so, making even just proposals for the reform of the Council means perpetuating the Orwellian logic whereby all are equal (the 191 member countries), but some (the permanent members of the renewed Security Council) are more equal than others, and only these finally have the jurisdiction for the world. Instead the criteria of representation and of democracy should be underlined by a decisive reform of the General Assembly by conferring upon it a greater political authority. This could and should be the practical guideline for a United Nations that aspires to enter the 21st century forcefully. Here two sentences at the beginning of the fourth section of the report (devoted to the greater efficiency of the UN in the future) are striking and should make us think. The first states that, «in confronting the subject of the reform of the United Nations, it is important today as it was in 1945 to join power and principles… Recommendations that simply reflect a mere distribution of power and make no effort to reinforce international principles, will hardly gain the widespread backing necessary for changing international behavior». The second regards the United States, and what their president, Harry Truman, said, in his speech at the final plenary session of the constitutive conference of the United Nations: «All of us must recognize – it doesn’t matter how great our strength is – that we must deny ourselves the license to always do whatever we want …».

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