US & Canada

Small countries call for more transparency at the United Nations

UN building in New York
Image caption Small countries are calling for more transparency at the United Nations

Switzerland's UN ambassador Paul Seger has lost 7kg (15lb) in the past two weeks, not from hiking in the Alps, but from battling what is known as the five "Big Powers" of the Security Council.

His country belongs to the "Small Five", a group of middling nations that has been pushing to improve the way the Council does business with the UN's wider membership.

And the "Big Five" - France, Britain, America, Russia and China - did not like it.

"They convened us as the Small Five to their office and explained to us in no uncertain terms that this is not the way we should proceed and this is infringing upon their sovereign rights and will be divisive and detrimental," Mr Seger said in an interview.

"We got several clear notices both in our capitals and here in New York, to say 'don't do it'."

The dispute is over the relationship between the General Assembly, which represents all 193 UN member states, and the Security Council, the 15-member body that bears legal responsibility for managing threats to international peace and security.

At its core are the Big Five, also known as the Permanent Five or P5, who have permanent seats and veto powers, a political hierarchy established after World War II that has dominated the UN system ever since.

Image copyright UN
Image caption Paul Seger is hoping this will be the start of something bigger

Greater transparency

So what were the Small Five - including also Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein and Singapore - proposing that so apparently threatened to upset this order?

Most of the recommendations in their draft resolution suggested ways that the Security Council could better share information and improve access to its decision making, with the aim of making it more accountable and transparent to member states, and inclusive of them.

None of this carried any legal weight but had the potential to convey political and moral clout.

For Switzerland there was also a life-and-death interest in gaining greater access to Council decision making: it currently has several observers deployed with the UN mission in Syria.

"We'd simply like to have regular sustained information on the security assessment the Security Council does," said Mr Seger, "because we are sending men and women in harm's way and it's just fair and reasonable to be informed: not to beg for information but to have a right to be informed about what's going on."

It sounds like a reasonable request, but the strength of the opposition to the resolution gave Mr Seger sleepless nights.

Sensitivities over Syria

That is partly because aside from proposals to improve communication, the Small Five (S5) touched a raw nerve by suggesting restrictions on how the veto is used.

The group called on the P5 to consider explaining their reasons for exercising the veto, and to refrain from using it to block Council action "aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity".

The move came at a time when the Security Council is being criticized for failing to stem the violence in Syria.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The UN has 257 unarmed observers in Syria to monitor a shaky truce

It also came after Russia and China twice vetoed resolutions backing an Arab peace plan that called on President Bashar al Assad to cede power, and amidst discussion in Western capitals about referring Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Mr Seger accepts this may have been a sensitive issue for the veto-wielding states, but insists the root of the P5's opposition was their common desire to keep the existing division of power at the UN.

"The Council has the view that its working methods and the way it functions is only the Council's own prerogative," he says.

"The General Assembly, the wider membership, apparently has nothing to say about this."

The P5 had plenty to say about the initiative, pointing out that they were not the only ones who opposed it.

Indeed a number of other countries feared that the S5 resolution would interfere with the ongoing (some would say endless) discussions on how to reform the Security Council by enlarging it.

P5 diplomats also argued that they were not against improving the way they work - in fact they had taken significant steps to do so - but a "divisive" vote in the General Assembly was not the way to do it.

And at the end of the day they bore the responsibility of keeping world peace, and had to be given the elbow room to do it.

"The Security Council must be always able to adapt and operate with flexibility in order to fulfil its responsibilities under the Charter to meet the evolving challenges to international peace and security," said the British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.

"But for that effectiveness and adaptability, it needs to be confident in its own decisions and procedures.

"It ultimately must remain the master of its own rules of procedure, as stated in the UN Charter."

Start of an avalanche?

The S5 claim they had support in the General Assembly from more than 100 member states, but their campaign was stymied on procedural grounds. Ultimately they were forced to withdraw the resolution.

Mr Seger is exhausted but remains upbeat. The P5 have promised to "seriously look into" the recommendations, he said.

In the meantime the S5 will try to broaden its support base to prepare for the next struggle.

"We may have started a snowball which may well turn into an avalanche later on," he suggested hopefully.

But lessons have been learnt. Asked if this was a clear demonstration of how power works at the UN, the Swiss ambassador paused for a nano-second before casting diplomatic courtesies to the wind: "Yes!" he said emphatically.

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