RICHARD BUTLER. The Seeds of War, and the New UN Secretary General

Oct 18, 2016


The sources of potential serious international conflict are expanding, as States increasingly ignore the UN Charter. Australia should support efforts by the new UN Secretary General to strengthen the Charter and join the majority of States seeking to reform the Security Council. 

In July, Pearls and Irritations posted an article by me entitled “Interesting Times.” It incorporated a list of 14 current international political events/situations, which were at the very least serious and in some cases, calamitous. I argued that the conjunction of facts and conditions such as those on my list contained the seeds of war. They are germinating in a number of areas.

As with any such list, I acknowledged that some could, justifiably, find it incomplete. Further, in the two months that have passed since that list was compiled, there would now need to be added, at the least; the coming famine in Nigeria, the descent into ever more destruction and killing in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, the further decline in US/Russia relations. And just today, the beginning of the war to drive DAESH out of Mosul, with its unpredictable, but feared to be great, humanitarian consequences.

These current circumstances in international relations reveal the presence of two disturbing political dynamics.

First, the agenda is so large and complex that it is almost out of control. The call on the funds and personnel needed to address problems of refugees and famine, for example, seems to be beyond the willingness or ability of States to respond effectively. This inability or refusal to meet those challenges will have not only the obvious intrinsic outcomes but also political and security effects; across State borders, within domestic polities, and in the continuation of terrorist attacks by non-State groups.

Secondly, major States are continuing to pursue to a heightened extent their national interests outside the system of cooperation and the rule of international law designed to maintain peace and security, as set forth in the Charter of the UN.

It is unhelpful, misleading and more than a touch intellectually lazy, to describe the current state of relations between the US and Russia as simply constituting a new Cold War. The circumstances today are different from those that prevailed from 1945 to 1990. They have their own particularities, a more useful analogy for which would be the period of great power competition that characterized the run-up to World War I.

Far more important is the question of whether or not the currently displayed preference for State power and interest over the notion of the peaceful settlement of disputes, a key principle of the UN Charter, is a phenomenon that is here to stay.

That preference has seen the repeated neutering of the Security Council on so many issues, (many of them on the list of 14 offered in “interesting times”), but particularly with respect to the Middle East.

No individual permanent member of the Council, with its veto power, is to blame. They have each rejected collective action when it would have harmed what they saw as their national interest. Some perhaps more than others: the US in the invasion of Iraq and, over the years, in protection of Israel; the Russians in Ukraine, in protection of Assad; the Chinese in rejection of almost any international intervention because of its concerns over Tibet, to mention only a few illustrations of a large problem.

The Security Council was able to agree in what appeared to be a fairly civilized way on its recommendation to the General Assembly of a new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres of Portugal. It resisted the strong informal pressures to appoint a woman and preferably one from Eastern Europe. Why this occurred is another matter, but in announcing the Council’s decision, its President claimed that the Council had chosen the most capable candidate. The General Assembly subsequently endorsed Guterres’ appointment, last week.

Guterres, a former Prime Minister of Portugal, recently came to the end of a 10 year term as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He is widely regarded as having performed that immensely taxing role with strength and integrity. His vision statement of April 4th, 2016, offered in the context of the examination of candidates for Secretary General, demonstrates deep awareness of and reflection about the UN in the contemporary setting. He places great importance upon prevention of problems, as against reaction.

A major pressure upon his role and influence in support of a central purpose of the UN – the maintenance of peace – will be the interests of the permanent members of the Security Council. They will leave him in no doubt about those. They can also be expected to remind him, that the Charter describes the Secretary General as simply “the chief administrative officer” of the Organization, and that it was they who awarded him the job.

In reality however, this is not the whole story. The overall membership of the UN and certainly the world public see the Secretary General in much more serious and independent terms. Simply, it is expected that he will lead a highly principled body, faithful to the Charter and related international undertakings, such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and one which will fight for justice, fairness, in international relations.

Antonio Guterres will be aware of these facts and whether comfortable with them or not, so will be, the Permanent Five.

On Australia’s attitude towards the new Secretary General and the circumstances in which he will find the UN, it should support whatever efforts he makes towards restoring the authority of the Charter, and also join the considerable majority of UN member States who are pursuing reform of the Security Council. This latter objective is not one on which Australia should take instructions from the US.

Richard Butler AC was Australian Ambassador to the United Nations.

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