Global governance from a cold climate

It’s GA week, the one time a year that New York truly becomes the centre of the world: all the world’s leaders flock to the city to take the floor at the United Nations General Assembly. After Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Robert Mugabe, the lame-duck premier of the Netherlands also put in his two cents. Rather than rallying for the Israel-Palestine conflict, lambasting international capitalism or blaming Western sanctions for the dire state of its people, Mr. Balkenende spoke on the safe issue of UN reform.

Or rather, he called for an entire global governance overhaul, stretching from the international financial institutions to the criminal courts and from human rights bodies to Security Council reform.  While this issue might be less abhorrent and delusional than 9/11 denial, it is at least as predictable. Balkenende repeated the usual mantra: the UN is dead, long live the organization we can’t do without.  His criticisms were not unjustified, yet were also easily made. And although he made a few concrete suggestions for reform, his overall statement remained general and vague.

This seems to be one of the main problems in the discussions on UN reform: while many agree something needs to be done, the agenda is so long that it is difficult to decide where to begin. Also, issues get blurred easily. For example, Balkenende made a case for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, yet the Court is not part of the UN system (granted, the Security Council does appear in arts. 13(b) and 16 of the Court’s Statute). Moreover, it is easy to conflate the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the UN Secretariat with the political predicaments of a 192-head decision-making body. Even more problematic, though probably inevitable, is to base calls for reform on political arguments: Balkenende saw the need for Security Council reform in the Council’s failure to blame North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel.

His most interesting comment came with regard to this last point: Security Council reform should not only open the world’s most significant forum for the new big states, but also for the smaller nations “that, as troop-supplying countries or as interested parties in a particular region, should have the right to speak.” I’m curious how this would translate into actual SC membership: Pakistan and Bangladesh contribute most troops to UN peace-keeping missions, but I’m not sure whether Mr. Balkenende meant to refer to these states. Too bad that he followed this with a tacky Churchill quote: “the price for greatness is responsibility.”

Balkenende’s point was worth making, though I wonder how many diplomats were actually listening – illustrating the weakness of a UN GA statement. The UN abides, in one way or another. After all, the experience of sharing a room with people from every single state in the world remains unbeatable.

The statement can be found here


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