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UN hypocrisy rightfully challenged

By | September 28th 2009

Africa’s place in the United Nations system fails to reflect either the continent’s position in the internati-onal community or the body’s intended role. The accusation that the UN was hostage to "political feudalism" hurled at the Security Council last week may have come from eccentric quarters, but it is not far from the truth.

The UN Charter claims its 192 member states are equal. Yet it is run by a Security Council with five nations (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) who can veto any UN decision. Last week, it was pointed out that in many of the 65 wars that have happened since the UN was formed, vetoes were used to prevent the rest of the world from stopping the wars. What equality is there between nations when a few have so much power?

Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s address to last week’s meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York included a call for "permanent veto-wielding seats for Africa" on the Council.

He argued it was wrong for Africa, home to a billion people, to have "so little voice" at the UN. We agree.

The criticism of the structure of the Security Council and suggestions for changes should not be dismissed out of hand. This seems likely given the strongest argument for reform came from a man widely regarded as a crackpot. It also doesn’t help matters that the language he used and the remedies he sought were ‘vindication’ for delegates who marched out of the hall when he rose to speak.

Veto reform

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddaffi went as far as suggesting the abolition of the Security Council (which he called a ‘terror council’ and relocation of the UN’s headquarters from New York. These are radical ideas, but reflect a basic appreciation of the imbalance at the top of the system. The UN is, in the final analysis, more a reflection of the world as it used to be not as it should be.

Veto reform is a hot issue. The UN has been mealy-mouthed on many an issue out of fear a Security Council Member will veto its resolutions. There is clearly room for change in how the veto works, but we would not expect the abolition of a permanent veto-wielding member system. (This battle has been going on for years and may explain lack of progress in the body’s reform.) However, we do support arguments for expansion of the council and inclusion of some African states as permanent members. The continent’s diplomats may have been embarrassed or exasperated by Gaddaffi’s address, but they did applaud his call for such a seat.

This, in our opinion, would be the bare minimum. In 2005, proposals for expansion of the Security Council to 24 members came to naught. Under one of two options proposed by a panel on UN reform and by Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General, six new perm-anent seats would be created — two of them going to Africa. The resistance to creation of permanent seats, however, has seen the preference of a slight increase to non-permanent members.

There are, naturally, competing claims on proposed permanent seats from a host of nations. Japan, Germany, India and Brazil, for instance, are frontrunners for those meant for Europe, Asia and Latin America. Africa’s seats will most likely go to South Africa or Nigeria, with Egypt and Senegal also mentioned as possibles. The lack of agreement on how to achieve equitable representation is disappointing. More effort has to go into considering solutions such as expanding the council to include more member nations or introducing some form of semi-permanent membership.


One thing is clear though: the case for Africa getting a permanent seat is stronger than that for all other contenders. While agreement on expansion would be the ideal outcome, we do not think it should be necessary to allow the continent entry to the council.

Africa has more UN members than any other continent, and is more populous than all the continents represented on the council (except Asia). Choosing a single nation to represent it is not an easy or perfect task, but it is better to have one respected nation, say South Africa, at the table than to rely on sniping from the floor by the likes of Gaddaffi.

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