Biography Newsroom Writing & Statements

In his statement to the United Nations General Assembly on 23 September last year Secretary General Kofi Annan described the situation of the UN following the controversy over the invasion of Iraq as "a fork in the road … no less decisive than 1945 itself when the United Nations was founded."

While some may disagree with this over dramatization of where the world body is today, the Secretary General used the opportunity to appoint a sixteen member High Level Panel of eminent personalities to examine current challenges to peace and security; identify the contribution collective action can make in addressing these challenges; and recommend changes in the principal organs of the UN and elsewhere to ensure effective collective action. The panel has already met twice and is expected to finalize its report in early December this year. Some members of the panel have also been invited to participate in regional symposia and the former Deputy Prime Minister of China, Qian Qichen, recently convened the "Asia High Level Symposium on Threats, Challenges and Change" in Hangzhou, China. Ten members of the panel and a host of former Prime Ministers, ex-Foreign Ministers, ex-senior UN officials and leading academics from Asia participated in a stimulating exchange of views with a number of useful ideas and proposals placed before the panel for their consideration.

The concept of collective security forms the bedrock of the United Nations Charter and has served the international community well for several decades. However all concepts and systems must be re-appraised from time to time and adapted to serve new realities. It is now our collective mandate in the international community, and especially in Asia, to support the work of Secretary General Kofi Annan's High Level Panel by providing fresh conceptual approaches and practical proposals from an Asian perspective.

That is entirely appropriate, for Asia is the largest continent with 60% of the global population, 30% of the global land mass and 25% of the global economic output. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also records that of the 21 major armed conflicts in the world in 2002, 9 took place in Asia many of them with deep historical roots. Of the estimated global military expenditure of US $ 794 billion in 2002, Asia with Oceania accounts for 19%. Future projections of global political and economic developments point to Asia becoming an important centre of gravity especially with increasing co-operation between the two power-houses of economic development -- China and India -- and the recovery of the Japanese economy.

These facts cry out for a Council of Asia on the same lines as the Council of Europe -- the oldest political institution in Europe -- but that is another matter. There is also the incontestable fact that established convention would require the next Secretary General of the UN to come from Asia.

Secretary General Kofi Annan's primary rationale for the appointment of the High Level Panel is that the consensus underpinning collective security, which had been recently restated in the Millennium Declaration, had broken down in the wake of sharp disagreement over military intervention in Iraq last year. Unilateral military intervention is not new in the post World War II history of global events.

What is new is that, after the events of September 11, 2001 and the alarming revelations of clandestine weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation to states that had legally renounced such weapons as well as to non-state actors, pre-emptive unilateral action even with WMD is being asserted as justifiable -- ostensibly in the exercise of the right of self defense. The legitimacy conferred on armed intervention by the Security Council and, consequently, the universal support that such action enjoys is thus sacrificed for the freedom of unilateral action in pursuit of individual national interest. In the pre-UN era nations waged wars self-righteously claiming their justness whatever the circumstances. To do so today without Security Council authority undermines international law and the unity of the UN system and opens the way to an anarchic global society with no internationally accepted norms.

The problem lies perhaps in the evolution of the global system from a bipolar one to a unipolar system and the exceptionalism demanded for some forms of unilateral action. It also arises from the inroads being made into the theory of state sovereignty as an absolute. The controversial “humanitarian intervention” speech of Secretary General Kofi Annan in 1999 led to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty whose report was published at the end of 2001. It asserted that state sovereignty implied a responsibility to protect its citizens and that where a state was unwilling or unable to provide that protection the principle of non-intervention yielded to the international responsibility to protect.

However, guiding principles and criteria were carefully described in terms of international law and the circumstances warranting action and the procedure for obtaining authority set out. The obvious limitation of this approach is that in the selective application of new principles the powerful states will ensure that their state sovereignty will not be compromised thus provoking the charge of double standards.

Any changes that we propose must discourage unilateral action and seek to facilitate multilateral consensus through UN mechanisms that are palpably effective. No one seriously questions the virtue of co-operative action in the defense of collective security. Empowering one state or a group of states to be the global gendarme without Security Council authority undermines this. How do we therefore strengthen UN institutions to serve collective security in the current context?

I believe it is essential that we agree on three basic principles before we proceed to consider specific institutional reforms.

  • Firstly it is my deep conviction that the founders of the UN intended that there should be equilibrium among the principal organs of the UN for the purposes and principles of the world body to be implemented. Admittedly the Security Council is vested with the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security but that is a task performed on behalf of the entire membership of the UN, all of whom have citizens with equal human rights even if the principle of the sovereign equality of all its member states (laid down in Article 2:1 of the UN Charter) has become one of the more glorious myths of the UN today. Today the system is in disequilibrium not only because of the Security Council is the overwhelmingly dominant organ but also because of disequilibrium within the Council. How do we restore equilibrium within the system while accepting the realities of power asymmetry in the world?
  • Secondly, in the functioning of the UN system for over six decades there has been an unhealthy compartmentalization of programmes and a lack of co-ordination even after two waves of well-intentioned reforms launched by the present Secretary General. This arises partly from major powers and major contributors to the UN budget demanding that their nationals be placed in positions of authority and that their agendas be implemented if not through the regular budget then through tied extra-budgetary resources (which are actually more than regular budget resources and finance the larger percentage of UN Secretariat posts). It also arises from the bureaucratic corrosion that accumulates in any large organization. Thus the principal organs of the UN are not adequately linked depriving the organization of valuable cross-fertilization of ideas and sharing of information that could lead to collective action. Cross-cutting issues appear to be dealt with on a system wide basis through inputs from the various departments, agencies and programmes which focus on demonstrating what has been achieved individually and not on synergetic action.
  • Finally, we are all aware that the concept of security has expanded vastly. It is no longer possible to regard national or international security in purely military terms. We have a wider view which embraces political elements, economic and environmental factors and social and cultural aspects. The Security Council has recognized this by considering women's rights, AIDS and other non-conventional issues as security issues. Clearly more needs to be done to link the Security Council more closely with the Economic and Social Council and other principal organs, with the work of the specialized agencies and regional economic commissions and by calling for action oriented reports on particular aspects of security related issues where the authority of the Security Council could ensure the attainment of goals such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

Flowing from the above and endorsing the many proposals that have already been made for Security Council reform in particular, here are a few specific proposals for the panel to consider.

  • International terrorism must be approached through its many facets in a functional commission of the ECOSOC set up under Article 68 of the Charter analogous to the Commission on Human Rights, the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice etc. This will enable the consideration of the issue from its many perspectives enriching the ability of member states to adopt effective strategies to combat this problem.
  • The Disarmament Commission, the universal body for a focused deliberation of disarmament issues, is under-utilized and paralyzed through conflicting approaches even on its agenda. It could be converted to a body to discuss Weapons of Mass Destruction issues including the possible use of WMD by terrorists.
  • In the consideration of the budgets of UN Departments the ACABQ and the Fifth Committee must insist on an increasing number of joint activities among departments through a system of rewards for such joint ventures. It is remarkable for example that the DPKO works entirely on its own with regard to DDR programmes with little input from DDA, UNDP and other relevant bodies with the necessary expertise. Institutional integration will follow if programmes are integrated in pursuit of a more holistic concept of security.

The dispute settlement mechanisms of the WTO have been implemented successfully. Mutatis mutandis, these mechanisms could be replicated in the Security Council so that conflicts can be settled at an early stage. This will not be easy but the entire range of actions provided for in Chapter VI of the Charter can be fulfilled through these mechanisms.

United Nations Press Release, “Secretary-General Presents His Annual Report to General Assembly,” SG/SM/7136, 20 September 1999.

The Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) is the “subsidiary organ” of the UN General Assembly responsible for reviewing the budget submitted by the Secretary-General and the specialized UN agencies, advising the General Assembly on budgetary and administrative matters, and reviewing reports of financial auditors.  For further details, see:

  Related Links  
  Key Statements  
  Selected Reading  
  Gallery   Visit Gallery
  Email   Email to a friend
  Print   Print this page