Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 5 Sept 2005

US move stirs up a storm at UN

The world was shocked last week at how Hurricane Katrina turned an American city into a chaotic mess.  In New York, another hurricane was sweeping the United Nations as a United States proposal put at risk a UN Summit that will start on 14 September.


The world watched last week with disbelief as the American city of New Orleans was lashed by a hurricane, floods, destruction of homes and finally anarchy as looting and violence took over the city.

The headlines in last Saturday’s edition of The Star was apt:  “War Zone, USA.”

The surprise was not with the hurricane as there was ample warning.  It was that the world’s richest and most technologically advanced country did not anticipate the scale of the disaster, and that its response was so slow or non-existent even as the crisis developed.

Over 20,000 victims made it to the Convention Centre, so it should have been easy to get to them.  But for days they had no food or drink, the toilets overflowed, and dead bodies were floating or laid out on the roads.

No wonder the city’s mayor had sharp words on the federal government’s lack of response (“I’m pissed off!” he said).

And many American critics pointed to how President Bush’s administration had its priorities wrong, sending so many troops and spending so many billions in Iraq, but not being able to send food and rescue teams for hurricane victims or police to keep the peace in its own homeland.

But if Hurricane Katrina was causing havoc in the US states in the South, another hurricane was sweeping through New York in the North. 

This hurricane was man-made, and it took effect at the United Nations.  It was generated by the US, which proposed 750 amendments to a draft UN document that 180 heads of governments are to sign up to in a Summit meeting on 14-16 September.

The UN Summit, long in preparation, is supposed to adopt a historic reform of the UN.  Its declaration was to advance the UN’s development and environment role, commit rich countries to do more for developing countries, clarify the UN’s role in peace and security and reform the Security Council.

The UN secretariat and the UN member states as well as NGOs have spent more than a year of painful efforts to prepare for the Summit  --  including convening of commissions,  issuing of a secretary general’s report, and diplomatic wrangling over two drafts of the Summit declaration.

The draft Declaration has already been criticized as not being strong enough on development issues.  Developing countries are also concerned that it may give way too much for powerful countries to selectively interfere militarily in countries under the umbrella of “responsibility to protect.”

There is controversy whether the Human Rights Commissions should be turned into a “Human Rights Council”. 

And no agreement on how the Security Council should be reformed.  Should India, Brazil, Japan, Germany be made permanent members?  What about Africa?  Should the new permanent members get veto rights (as Africa demands), or should the veto power of the Big Five be restricted?

These raging controversies were like pinpricks when the US came up with its bombshell.  It proposed 750 changes to the 36-page draft, just three weeks before the Summit.  There is little time left to consider such a radical overhaul of an already heavily disputed draft.

The US move has sent the UN talks into “turmoil”, according to the Washington Post.

The US move came just after its new US Ambassador, John Bolton, assumed his post.  He is well-known for his anti-UN views. 

Among the shocking changes demanded by the US is the removal of any mention of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which has been the UN’s flagship concept and project in the past five years.

The MDGs is a pledge by countries to halve poverty and hunger, cut child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters, reverse the spread of AIDs and other diseases by 2015.

The MDGs also seek to protect the environment and have a global partnership to increase aid, reduce debt and enhance fair trade relations. 

The US move to eradicate all references to the MDGs is taken as a major sin for believers in the UN’s development role.   

The US also seeks to remove references to rich countries providing 0.7% of the national income as aid,  the need for additional initiatives to ensure debt-sustainability, and to help developing countries overcome volatile commodity prices.

The US also proposed to exclude references on actions on climate change under the Kyoto Protocol, to the International Criminal Court (which it has refused to join).   It opposed language that urges the five permanent members of the Security Council not to cast vetoes to halt genocide, war crimes or ethnic cleansing.

According to Phyllis Bennis of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, the proposal puts at great risk the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The draft referred to the NPT's "three pillars: disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy."

That means that states without nuclear weapons would agree never to obtain them, but in return they would be guaranteed the right to produce nuclear energy for peaceful use. In return, recognized nuclear weapons states would commit, in Article VI of the NPT, to move toward "nuclear disarmament with the objective of eliminating all such weapons."

The proposed US changes deleted all references to the three pillars and to Article VI. The US deleted the statement that: "The use of force should be considered as
an instrument of last resort."

According to Bennis, much of the US effort aims to undermine the power of the UN in favour of absolute national sovereignty. On migration, for instance, the original language focused on enhancing international cooperation.  The US replaces it with the sovereign right of states to formulate national migration policies.

In the document's section on strengthening the UN, the US deleted all mention of enhancing the UN's authority, focusing instead only on UN efficiency.

Regarding the General Assembly, the most democratic organ of the UN system, the US deleted references to the Assembly's centrality, its role in codifying international law, and, ultimately its authority.

”This is a declaration of US unilateralism, uncompromising and ascendant. The US has issued an open threat to the 190 other UN member states, the world’s people and the UN itself,” said Bennis.

Meanwhile, in a last ditch effort to save the Summit, the UN general Assembly president has convened a small “core group” of 30 countries to go through the draft and see if a new document can be accepted by all before the Summit.

The group will tackle seven priority issues: UN Secretariat reform, establishment of a Human Rights Council, creation of a Peace Building Commission, disarmament and non-proliferation, terrorism and the responsibility to protect civilians under threat of genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.