Kofi Annan's plan for revitalisation

24 Mar 2005

The Secretary General has resisted United States pressure, but will Australia, asks John Langmore

ON 21 MARCH Kofi Annan presented his proposals for immediate UN reform to the General Assembly in a report entitled In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All.

The title is significant. By focusing on freedom, the Secretary General adopts the rhetorical preoccupation of the Bush Administration. Yet he does so in a uniquely UN way by quoting the Preamble to the UN Charter, which includes as one of objects of organisation promotion of ‘social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.’ The question is whether the SG’s report makes more than rhetorical concessions to American pressure. Have the attacks on him from the right-wing lynch mob so weakened him that he has acquiesced to American pressure?

The report begins by identifying challenges. It points to the fact that the ‘sheer imbalance of power in the world is a source of instability’. Declining confidence in the United Nations, it says, ‘is matched by a growing belief in the importance of effective multilateralism.’ It clearly articulates the challenges of poverty, hunger, disease, injustice, and the crisis caused by abandonment of global norms by the US, UK and Australia in pre-emptively invading Iraq.

There is an imperative for collective action: ‘the cause of larger freedom can only be advanced by broad, deep and sustained global cooperation among States.’ Unilateralism will not work: multilateralism is essential. Focusing first on ‘Freedom from want,’ the report chooses to address the principal concerns of the great majority of member states, rather than American insecurities - though there is a rightly repeated emphasis on the interconnectedness of economic and social development, preventing violent conflict and effectively applying human rights.

Annan’s report endorses Investing in Development, the plan by Jeffrey Sachs and a large team, published in January. This blueprint for achieving the Millennium Development Goals concentrates first on what developing countries can do to help themselves, yet recognises that unless external aid is multiplied, most impoverished countries cannot escape the poverty trap. Annan, too, emphasises that those developed countries that have not already done so should establish timetables to grant 0.7 per cent of national income by 2015, starting with significant increases immediately and reaching 0.5 by 2009.

The Howard government’s modest response to the tsunami offers a flicker of hope that Australia could break out of our mean trajectory of declining aid. But since the tsunami relief is spread out over five years, and half of the amount is a loan, it will only marginally increase Australia’s official development assistance. After all, Australia is one of the wealthiest countries; we have little public debt and a budget surplus. We have the capacity to increase aid now. An increased allocation of one-thousandth of Australia’s national income to aid in each of the next five years would enable us to reach 0.7 per cent. It is irresponsible to free-ride on the more generous Europeans, especially when we live so much closer to developing countries.

The second section, on ‘Freedom from fear’, is the SG’s response to the report of the high-level panel he established to address the post-Iraq global confusions. It looks at the question of whether US hegemony has become the normative influence on global order, or whether the international rule of law continues to provide the framework. Annan embraces the concept of collective security, arguing that this can address the security concerns of all states. Contrary to the current pratce of the US administration, he writes that, ‘We need to ensure that States abide by the security treaties they have signed so that all can continue to reap the benefit.’ If consensus is not reached on these issues of ‘deadly urgency’ this year, ‘we may not have another chance’.

Concretely, this includes revitalising nuclear, biological and chemical weapons treaties. For example: swift negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty is essential; the moratorium on nuclear test explosions must be upheld until the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty comes into force; destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles is essential; and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention must be strengthened. He calls for the conclusion of a more comprehensive convention on terrorism before the end of the current session of the General Assembly (though whether this would make a difference depends on whether it is adopted by member states, which the US did not do with other anti-terrorism treaties).

Unfortunately Annan strikes a partisan note in suggesting that ‘It is time to set aside debates on so-called “State terrorism”.’ Of course he is correct in arguing that it cannot be right to deliberately kill and maim civilians. But it is utopian to claim that ‘The use of force is already thoroughly regulated under international law’ when Israel habitually disregards those laws. He makes a more useful suggestion in proposing appointment of a special rapporteur to report on the compatibility of counter-terrorism measures with international human rights law.

The Secretary General proposes that the risk and prevalence of war can be reduced by: strengthening resources allocated to mediation; implementing sanctions effectively; improving support for peacekeeping; and establishing an intergovernmental Peacebuilding Commission to engage effectively in sustained recovery after war. He urges the Security Council to adopt a resolution setting out criteria it will use for evaluating the seriousness of threats and proposals for use of military force: ‘the proper purpose of the proposed military action; whether the military option is proportional to the threat at hand; and whether there is a reasonable chance of success.’

Annan gives resounding support to the rule of law: ‘I believe that decisions should be made in 2005 to help strengthen the rule of law internationally and nationally... I strongly believe that every nation that proclaims the rule of law at home must respect it abroad and that every nation that insists on it abroad must enforce it at home.’ He urges adoption of the recommendations of the report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, by a committee of which Gareth Evans was one of the chairs. The Secretary General makes practical suggestions for encouraging the rule of law by announcing his intent to establish a Rule of Law Assistance Unit, and encouraging member states to cooperate with the International Criminal Court - despite obsessive US opposition.

Means of strengthening the effectiveness of the General Assembly though streamlining the agenda and committee structure are suggested, and that section concludes with a remark that could well be addressed directly at Australia. For our representatives are notable for their condescending, self-righteous speeches about reform and their absence from serious discussion. Annan writes that reform ‘will not happen unless member states take a serious interest in the Assembly at the highest level and insist that their representatives engage in debates with a view to achieving real and positive results.’

The major issue of institutional reform is enlargement of the Security Council. ‘The Security Council must be broadly representative of the realities of power in today’s world.’ The two alternatives suggested by the high-level panel are described but the SG gives no indication of which he prefers, saying only that a decision is so important that if consensus is impossible, a majority decision should be taken.

Annan makes modest, attractive suggestions for upgrading the work of the UN’s Economic and Social Council by holding annual ministerial assessments of progress towards such goals as the MDGs; convening timely meetings to address crises; and most important, by asserting leadership ‘in driving a global development agenda... to provide direction for the efforts of the various intergovernmental bodies in this area throughout the UN system.’

He proposes a smaller Human Rights Council, perhaps as one of the principal UN organs, to replace the widely criticised Commission on Human Rights. Additional ways of containing secretariat work loads and improving effectiveness are suggested. Coordination of UN system work at country level is to be strengthened by identification of a resident coordinator. Annan also plans to appoint two dozen leading scientists, policy-making officials and political leaders as a Council of Development Advisors.

These recommendations are summarised in a draft decision to be considered by heads of state and government who will meet at the summit at UN headquarters in September. They are faced with vital decisions. The best way we have of influencing what they decide is by attempting to influence our government while it prepares. One small sign of hope is that the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department contributed $100,000 to the costs of the high-level panel on which Kofi Annan relies for many of his proposals. The Secretary General’s report does much more than acquiesce to assertive American unilateralism: will the Howard government?

John Langmore was a director at the UN for seven years from 1997 to 2003.

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