UN reforms mired in sneaky art of global diplomacy
NEW YORK - Whenever the United Nations General Assembly elects members either to the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) or even to myriad other UN committees that keep multiplying every year, the voting is traditionally by secret ballot.

In an assembly of 191 members, the secrecy provides a protective cover to some member states who promise their vote to one country — and furtively cast the ballot to another. Sri Lanka is no exception — because it is all part of the sneaky art of global diplomacy.

India learnt it the hard way many moons ago when it had written pledges from more than 50 countries promising their votes for a Security Council seat, but lost disastrously to Japan when the final results were announced. The culprits who switched votes in secret balloting were difficult to track down.

But at least one Sri Lankan ambassador in Paris was not that fortunate when he promised his vote to the Bangladeshi candidate — during an election to a committee of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) — and then switched his vote in secret balloting.
Unlike the 191 members in the General Assembly, the UNESCO committee had only about 25 members. So, when the results of the secret ballot were announced, the Bangladeshi candidate had received only one vote in his favour, obviously his own.

The Sri Lanka envoy was hard put to explain where his vote went short of telling the Bangladeshi that the sole vote for him came from Sri Lanka — and that the Bangladeshi himself may have voted for his opponent, perhaps inadvertently. But that would have been a bitter explanation to swallow.

The glorious uncertainties of secret balloting at the UN have surfaced once again with an upcoming voting for a draft resolution calling for the expansion of the Security Council and also the creation of a new Human Rights Council — both as part of the restructuring of the ageing, 60-year-old United Nations.

The Group of Four — namely Japan, India, Germany and Brazil — which is running for four permanent seats in the Security Council is hoping the elections will be open. But since the General Assembly can adopt its own rules of procedure, those opposing the G-4 may call for secret balloting with the hope of defeating the four with heavy expectation of switched votes in secret.

As things stand, perhaps even that may not come to pass because the proposal for an increase in permanent members — from the present (P-5), namely the US, France, Britain, China and Russia, to six — has sharply divided the 191 member states.The latest wrecking ball has been unleashed by the 53-nation African Union, the largest single regional group at the United Nations.

The AU is exercising its political clout by refusing to back down on its demand for two permanent seats in the Security Council — but it wants the seats with hard-to-get veto powers. With its unyielding stand, reinforced at a second summit meeting of African nations in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa last week, the AU has undermined an intense bid by the G-4 for new permanent seats —minus the veto.

All four countries dropped their demand for vetoes hoping it would help them overcome strong opposition from some or most of the five veto-wielding permanent members (P-5). The P-5 states have been accused of wanting to hold onto their veto powers while denying the same powers to newcomers.

But with the AU sticking to its guns, the proposal to add new veto-less permanent members to the Security Council has come to a virtual dead end-- once again.

A draft resolution introduced by the AU says the new permanent members should be accorded "the same prerogatives and privileges as those of the current permanent members, including the right to veto."

Last month, the New York Times quoted unnamed US administration officials as saying that Washington is opposed to giving new members veto powers "out of concern that it might paralyse the Security Council" and also dilute American power at the United Nations.

At a press briefing last month, Secretary-General Kofi Annan described as "utopian" attempts to either abolish the existing vetos or create new permanent seats with veto powers.

"It is utopian to think we can do it. Many member states would want to do that, but it is not possible. And they are not willing to create additional vetoes (either)," he added. What is important, Annan argued, is to have effective representation on the Security Council, and to make it more democratic, to ensure that voices of other regions are heard.

"And I think that sort of change would not only make the decisions of the Council much more acceptable generally, but also the Council itself will gain in greater legitimacy. And I think that is enough of an achievement for us to be able to move forward and not insist that if we cannot withdraw the (existing) veto from the other five, we keep the status quo. That is the option," he said.

Currently, the 15-member Security Council has five permanent members and 10 elected member rotating on a geographical basis. The AU wants it expanded to 26 members as against 25 by the Group of 4. But the two groups remain sharply divided on the issue of veto power threatening to bring the reform process to a standstill.

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