Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 5 June 2006

South fights for a fairer UN system

Malaysia hosted foreign ministers of developing countries in the Non Aligned Movement as well as the Group of 77 last week.  The leaders vowed to raise the voice of the South in international relations, including the United Nations reform process.


Malaysia played host last week to two meetings of Foreign Ministers of the developing countries.  They had come for Ministerial meetings of the two most important of the groupings of the developing world – the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77 and China (G77).

The meetings were all the more important as they come at a critical juncture.  The United Nations is undertaking a major reform process. 

If it goes well, there will be a strengthened UN.  But if the developed nations have their way, it may well weaken the UN further in its development role and make it increasingly irrelevant to the developing countries.  

Malaysia has been the chair of the NAM the past three years.  It steered the preparations and organization of the NAM Ministerial in Putrajaya on 27-30 May.

The NAM meeting adopted a 58-page document with details and proposals on the UN reform, as well as proclaiming the positions of the group on a range of issues including terrorism, security, development, and regional political issues.

It is a comprehensive compendium of where the South stands today on the whole gamut of international issues.  The document will be the major input to the NAM Summit of political leaders in Havana in mid-September.

In a world dominated by one superpower and where unilateral military actions have become sidelined the UN, the NAM is just as relevant (if not more so) than when it was formed to champion the political aspirations of the newly independent countries.

While NAM’s main focus is on political issues, it also voices views on development issues.  The G77 on the other hand focuses almost solely on economic and social issues, and on UN activities linked to them.

At the half-day G77 Ministerial meeting in Putrajaya on  29 May,  Foreign Minister, Datuk Syed Hamid Albar, who hosted the meeting, and who is also current NAM said the UN reform could be cast as a clash of ideas of what the UN is all about and what it stands for.

Syed Hamid Albar said the G77 has the idea of the multilateral system at the heart of inter-state relations, a system based on sovereign equality of nations, codified in international law, embodied in the UN and its Charter.  It is the idea of countries working together in partnership to achieve the goals in the Charter and major international conferences.

“Ranged against our concept of the UN is their ideal of a multilateral system made up of a collection of plurilateral systems, in which the UN is one out of many such systems.  Hence their efforts to reduce the UN to certain niche areas, to manage the UN along the lines of a business and dilute the inter-governmental nature of the UN,” he said.

On the UN budget, he said “we are concerned at efforts to use the power of the purse to push for reforms in a certain partisan direction, which serves the interests of one or a small group of countries.  These efforts are counter-productive and they go against Charter obligations.  It would destroy the UN’s most precious asset, namely its legitimacy arising from its equitable nature.”

Syed Hamid Albar warned that the “system wide coherence” review of the UN seeks to radically change UN institutions. Developing countries should be aware of any effort to use this process as a pretext to reduce and diminish the UN.

Ministers of other countries spoke up, with many sharing Malaysia’s view that several countries stressed that the reforms must be driven by the desire to strengthen the UN system to play the central role in development at the centre of the multilateral system, and not weaken it or divert it to only “niche issues’.

Most Ministers who spoke strongly criticised some developed countries for placing a “spending cap” on the budget of the UN Secretary General in an attempt to link financing of the UN to whether the UN reform is going in the speed and direction they want. 

Aziz Pahad, Deputy Foreign Minister of South Africa (current chairperson of the G77)  said the group is concerned about the spending cap that has been imposed on the UN Secretary-General by giving him only 50% of the year’s budget so far.  He asked for the cap to be lifted at the end of June.

Jamaica (the former G77 chair) said UN reform should make the UN more effective in the field of development.   It was opposed to reforms that weaken the UN agencies.

It is unjust to have a spending cap linked to the UN reform.  The reform should be to strengthen multilateralism and not narrow political interests.

India said the IMF and World Bank have strayed far from their original roles.  These institutions have power but no mandate, while ECOSOC (the UN’s  economic and social council) has mandate but no power. 

Coherence between these organizations should be based on leadership by the UN on global economic issues.

China said there should be equal decision-making among countries in the reform process. It is important for developing countries to have a strategy to protect their common interest.

Aziz Pahad concluded by saying the G77 would continue to dialogue with the developed countries.  The UN reform process should not be a case of the strong dictating the weak. 

The meeting adopted a 32 paragraph statement on UN reform that will guide its position in the talks ahead.