Antiquated structures of Security Council undermine UN mission

The Security Council had been in closed session all morning but was about to embark on a public relations exercise whereby members…

The Security Council had been in closed session all morning but was about to embark on a public relations exercise whereby members of the General Assembly and the press would be admitted to witness a unanimous vote on Angola.

Below the press gallery is the seating from where General Assembly members can observe proceedings and on the floor itself is the semi-circular table round which the 15 members of the Security Council sit.

The chair calls the meeting to order and the General Assembly members dutifully retreat to their seats and wait to be told what has been decided on their behalf.

One of the main causes of dissatisfaction with the UN is that member-countries have little representation when crucial decisions are being taken and are, therefore, disempowered in the very place where their voices should be heard. Further, Britain, the US, Russia, China and France are doubly empowered by the fact that they hold permanent seats on the Security Council and they, and only they, have the power of veto.


It is no accident that UN power is still firmly concentrated in the hands of the victors of the second World War. Two countries especially aggrieved about this are Japan and Germany, rated second and third respectively in the amount they are expected to pay into the UN regular budget: 12.34 per cent in Japan's case and 8.93 per cent in Germany's case. (Ireland's rating is 0.18 per cent, the UK's 5.02 per cent with the US, at 25 per cent, the highest.)

A second and related cause for concern is the amount of arrears owed to the UN. To date, 85 member-states owe arrears totalling $2.5 billion, of which $1.8 billion is owed to the peacekeeping budget. And out of the total figure, $1.6 billion is owed solely by the US where Congress, while calling for reform, has been using non-payment of its debt as a means of manipulating UN social policies.

When President Clinton pointed out that reforms were on the way and the debt should be cleared, Congress wrong-footed him by agreeing to pay up as long as he gave a guarantee that none of the money would be used on birth-control programmes. This the President could not do and so the stalemate continues, complicated by a UN ruling which states that if any country falls more than two years behind with its arrears, it loses its right to vote. The US has got around this problem by paying off just enough of its arrears each year to maintain its right to vote.

The peacekeeping shortfall is now critical. The UN, prevented from performing effectively in the field, is also unable to reimburse those countries which participate in its peacekeeping missions. Ireland, a conscientious contributor which pays on the button and will this year contribute $2.33 million (£1.6 million) to the UN's regular budget, is still owed £11.6 million for its past and current peacekeeping activities.

In Bosnia and Rwanda, the power wielded by the Security Council, together with the problem of unpaid debts, dovetailed to produce a situation which left many supporters of the UN disillusioned. Frustrated by criticisms levelled at peacekeepers when the real culprit was the Security Council, the UN department of public information has pointed out that in 1994 the then secretary-general informed the Security Council that 35,000 troops were needed to maintain safe areas in Bosnia. He was given 7,600 troops - and had to wait a year even for that number to be mobilised.

In the same year, the statement continues, the Security Council decided to send to Rwanda 5,500 peacekeepers. They took six months to appear.

The financial crisis, together with the weakening of UN peacekeeping missions - brought about by the Security Council's unwillingness to follow through its own resolutions - has resulted in a growing tendency towards peacekeeping operations being NATO-led rather than carried out by the Blue Berets. However, one of the reforms proposed by Mr Kofi Annan involves the setting up of a Standby Forces High Readiness Brigade, members of which will be provided by individual countries. Ireland has already given a commitment to the brigade.

Another idea being discussed is the expansion of the Security Council to include, among others, Japan and Germany, but to restrict right of veto to the present permanent members. Both proposals have their pitfalls and are doomed to fail if the Security Council does not think through its own reforms.

"The secretary-general," says Mr Kevin Kennedy, chief of the peace and security section of the UN's information department, "can advise, warn and express concern but it is the Security Council which has to take decisions."

There are signs that perhaps the Security Council is learning from some of its bitter mistakes and is now growing cautious about its peacekeeping activities, focusing on smaller, achievable aims. One frequently cited example of this is Macedonia, where a small-scale force has been deployed, so far successfully, in stemming any possible overspill from the Kosovo conflict.