Campaign for UN Security Council must not lurk in shadows

World View: UN ethical values must not be neglected in Ireland’s quest for a seat

While Irish politicians fret anxiously over the timing of the next general election, there’s a small corner of Government that is already cranking into campaign mode. The election that officials are preparing for encompasses a vast constituency (the world) and polling day is far in the distance (2020), but the groundwork – honing the sales pitch, calling in favours and drumming up funds – would be familiar to any local councillor.

Ireland is running for a two-year term, 2021-2022, in one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council. The 10 non-permanent seats alternate between different regional blocs, and for 2021-2022 the two places assigned to the "Western Europe and others" group will be fought over by Ireland, Canada and Norway.

It's a gamble. The Government won't win much praise at home for prevailing – most people won't even notice – but a loss will be an embarrassing blow. However, Ireland has a good chance of winning the two-thirds support it needs from voting member states at the General Assembly – at least 129 votes, if all 193 states cast a ballot. Its history in these contests is solid. On the last occasion Ireland ran, in 2000, it finished well ahead of Norway and Italy to claim a seat in the first round. It is the only EU state in the running, and although it faces stiff competition from two respected rivals with impeccable do-gooder credentials in Canada and Norway, Ireland's stock is high at the UN after it successfully co-chaired the fraught 2015 negotiations between world governments on a new set of development goals.

In fact, Ireland will be taking part in two parallel campaigns for the security council seat. The first will take place in public. It will be a high-minded, principled debate between friends on issues they all hold dear: disarmament, peace-keeping, global security, humanitarian aid and so on. You’ll hear a lot about this campaign.


Dark corridors

The second will take place in private; in the dark, winding corridors of the UN headquarters in New York, in expensive restaurants in the Caribbean, in theatres and bars from Maputo to Manila. This campaign is where the deals will be struck, where trade-offs will be made and where, ultimately, the election will be won and lost. You will hear nothing about this campaign. You may even be told it doesn't exist.

It’s not that a state’s foreign policy positions don’t matter. They do. Ireland’s strong peace-keeping record, its aid spending, the premium it puts on not annoying too many countries and its assiduous work in multilateral institutions will work in its favour. But if that was the campaign pitch, Ireland’s candidacy would sink without trace. Indeed, history shows that broad national reputation is a poor guide to the likely success of a security council campaign.

In an insider's account of the process, published in 2000, David Malone, a Canadian diplomat who oversaw one of his country's campaigns for a security council seat, noted that these votes are virtually the only leverage some member states possess at the UN, "and they naturally milk them for all they are worth". He described how aggressive vote-trading, hospitality and entertainment were vital parts of any campaign. In 1998, Greece upped the ante by inviting every country's permanent representative to the UN and their spouses on not one but two Greek island cruises, ostensibly to advertise preparations for the Olympics in Greece in 2004 (about 110 diplomats reportedly accepted).

There is some evidence that the system of rewards and inducements doesn't end on election day. According to a 2006 paper by Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker of the department of economics at Harvard University, a country's US aid increases by 59 per cent when it rotates on to the security council, then returns to its original level almost immediately upon completion of the term.

‘Rotten lying bastards’

Still, even after years of campaigning, no candidate ever quite knows how many votes it has in the bag. "Never take Yes for an answer," is a popular motto at UN headquarters. Some states will change their minds or actively lie about their intentions. According to the so-called Fulcio formula – named after the Italian diplomat and UN veteran Paolo Fulcio – 10 per cent of commitments in writing, and 20 per cent of those conveyed orally, can be discounted. After Australia failed in its bid for a seat in 1996, its UN ambassador, Richard Butler, referred to "rotten lying bastards" as the explanation for the defeat.

Naturally, some will see Ireland’s campaign as a vanity project, an expensive wheeze whose chief national benefit will be to make our diplomats’ lives more interesting. But, given Ireland’s long commitment to the UN, and its position as the largest per capita contributor of troops to UN peacekeeping operations, it makes a lot of sense to seek, from time to time, to influence how some of the most important decisions about peace and security are made.

The problem with the process is its almost total opacity. The Government will never reveal what countries’ votes it has sought, or what it has offered in return. Canada has already spent $500,000 on its campaign, not including the salaries of 10 officials who are working on it full-time. The Department of Foreign Affairs was unable this week to say how much it had spent on the campaign or how much it estimates it will cost. That doesn’t augur well.

Nobody expects the campaign to take place in public. But the Government could declare some basic ground rules, outline its projected spending and make the process as transparent as possible. Otherwise, the irony underlying a campaign explicitly build around the idea of advancing higher ethical values in foreign affairs will be lost on no one.