The UN Must Be People-Centred And Not Country-Focused – Interview


Salma Yusuf in candid conversation with Ambassador Razali Ismail, Former Chairman of UN Security Council and President of UN General Assembly in New York


Q: There is consensus among developing countries that the structure of the UN Security Council is anachronistic and unreflective of realities of the post-cold war world. Developing countries now make up more than two-thirds of the total UN membership, but are grossly under-represented on the Security Council. This can be explained by the fact that many did not exist as sovereign independent states at the time the organisation was founded.

United Nations Headquarters
United Nations Headquarters

Against such a backdrop, what would you regard as the core challenge that the UN faces as an organization today?

The phenomenon of globalization has irreversibly altered the way of our world. In this new era, people’s actions constantly affect the lives of others living far away. Globalization offers great opportunities but at present its benefits are unevenly distributed while its costs are borne by all. This, I would say, is the core challenge that the UN faces today.

The UN as a whole and the two significant organs of the system – the General Assembly and Security Council -must play a role in redressing this imbalance. On the contrary, what the system currently does is perpetuate a system of inequalities by not adapting to global realities of the twenty-first century, and still reflects the post-World War II settlement from which the United Nations Organization was first created.


Q: In order to redress the imbalance that you mention, how can the UN system re-align itself to achieve inclusive globalization?

The central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for the entire world’s people, instead of leaving billions of them behind in squalor. Inclusive globalization must be built on the great enabling force of the market, but market forces alone will not quite achieve it. It requires a broader effort to create a shared future, based upon our common humanity in all its diversity.

That in turn requires that we think afresh about how we manage our joint activities and our shared interests, for many challenges that we confront today are beyond the reach of any state to meet on its own. It is imperative that the UN as an organization become people-centred in its activities and not country-focused in its orientation. The approach of the UN must become people-centred and this is the only way that globalization can become inclusive, allowing everyone to share its opportunities and benefits.


Q: As you have held posts of Chairman of UN Security Council and President of UN General Assembly, based on insider views and first-hand experience of the functioning of both mechanisms, do you see areas which are in need of urgent reform?

Definitely. Whether they will be reformed is of course another matter. It is increasingly becoming clearer that international governance is in need of reformation.

What is becoming equally evident is that the context of creation of the organization and its institutions is different to the current context that we live in.

Given the challenges and opposition to reform of both major organs of the UN, the only way that change can be brought about is if the General Assembly takes initiative from within itself to bring about change. Pressure from outside has limited reach in catalysing reform efforts.

Leaders sitting at the General Assembly and Security Council must take resolve and come together; have the courage to entertain brickbats is the first lesson that has to be learnt in such an endeavour. During my time, a frustrating factor of many initiatives to bring about reform was the lack of consensus that existed among developing countries. The lack of consensus exists even today. Hence, the second requirement is to build an internal consensus and dynamic in the developing world, which in turn will make its own voice stronger in world affairs.


Q: During your term as Chairman of the Open-Ended Working Group on Security Council Reform, you contributed significantly to reform efforts. You have strengthened the case for reform of a system that has come under increasing scepticism in recent times. The Razali Reform Paper that you presented while in office is still under consideration by an Open-Ended Working Group on reform at the UN. Could you tell me through the highlights of your work in this regard?

The Razali Reform Paper was presented in my capacity as Chairman of the Open-Ended Working Group on the Question of Equitable Representation on and Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Other Matters Related to the Security Council.

It was a grand plan that first consulted with 165 of the UN’s 185 members and made a proposal for Security Council expansion. The plan would increase the number of Security Council members, permanent and non-permanent, from 15 to 24.

It was a very interesting time for me as engaging various leaders is always intriguing. Often times, it was the idiosyncrasies and illogical eccentric acts of certain individuals that made the reform process see the progress that it did. However, the lack of consensus amongst developing nations, as I mentioned earlier, and the lack of initiative from the developed world is what eventually came to stifle the process.

Something else that I realized during my terms in office was that issues are not country focused anymore, rather they are global focused. I too found myself begin to speak as a global citizen, which did pay dividends in the larger scheme of things.

Three key aspects that the Paper highlighted were, first, the need to strengthen the representative character of the Security Council so that it may discharge its duties on behalf of all members; second, enhance transparency through a range of activities such as regular monthly consultations between the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council, together with the Chairs of the Main Committees of the General Assembly and members of the Security Council; and third, discourage the use of veto, by urging the original permanent members of the Security Council to limit the exercise of their veto power to actions taken under Chapter VII of the Charter; and that the new permanent members of the Security Council shall have no provision of the veto power.


Q: It is oft contended that international cooperation is the best way to solve the challenges of the post-war world. The UN’s history so far has been marked by the ability of a few powerful countries of the North to exercise an overriding influence on the institutional framework and policy direction of the UN in particular by using the ‘financial whip’.

That said, some of the South’s demands for policies and actions to achieve economic justice appear to challenge the current world economic and political relations and hence the immediate interests of the more economically powerful nations.

In light of such competing interests of the global north and south and the resulting deadlock, would it be more prudent and feasible to chart a course of reform that is a combination of both innovation and status quo?

In your opinion, are the current structures and functioning of the two mechanisms in favour of the global north and detrimental to the global south?

Absolutely. However, we see momentum for change gradually coming to the fore. The current systems allow the global south to only make a point and case for its interests through dealing with larger issues and concerns. Hence, as they currently stand, the mechanisms do not show much chance of benefitting the global south.

What further compounds the issue is the fragmentation that exists in the global south, not necessarily between individual states but between groups. During my terms as Chairman and President of the two mechanisms, I endeavoured valiantly to facilitate change but witnessed for myself how we, the developing world, assassinated any hope or possibility for reform by refusing to reach consensus or agreement on common concerns.

Incidentally, there has been a High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence which released its report in November 2006. It calls on such a hybrid reform agenda with few proposals likely to elicit North-South support. Moreover, it is argued that the UN member states – rich and poor alike – have played a “pivotal” role in the organization’s “shortcomings” in development. We must remember that the UN cannot make progress as long as donor nations try to push their own agendas while others remain strongly resistant to any form of change.


Q: Are you of the view that the veto power of the members of the UN Security Council is in need of outright abolishment?

The veto power has to be re-examined but that does not mean outright abolishment.

The veto itself does serve a valuable purpose but needs to be defined in a different way. The veto power must operate in a manner broader than the current “one man – one country – one vote” system: a broader system would be one that would require that any country seeking to exercise its veto power will need to win the support of others to sustain its own position. An individual veto power should otherwise not be allowed to determine the outcome of a process as it can be arbitrary, based on politics and not on policy consideration. This would be a democratization of the current functioning of the veto power.

Ultimately, what is important is that decisions of the Security Council not be taken on national imperative alone, however compelling it might be.

Additionally, the General Assembly which has the larger membership must preside in world affairs and decisions, because the current power concentration at the Security Council is unfavourable to global justice, international peace and sustainable security.


Q: Having served as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar where you were instrumental in securing the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, I would like to draw on your experience and understandings of international intervention in countries of intra-state conflict.

You are aware of the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka passed in March 2012 in Geneva. There are currently three dominating streams of thought on the resolution: first, that it is an encroachment on national sovereignty; secondly, the UN Human Rights Council has exceeded its mandate in passing a country- specific resolution; and third, membership of the UN is voluntary and from which flows commitments and consensual limitations to a nation’s sovereignty that must be accepted. What would be your reading?

Allowing an international mechanism into your country is not a negative thing in itself. For instance, look at the experiences of Aceh and Myanmar. During my term as Envoy to Myanmar I saw how much can be achieved by international assistance in the form of envoys, expertise and others.

However, the receiving state must be comfortable with the terms of international intervention; it cannot be a blanket intervention with absolutist agendas. In the case of Sri Lanka, national comfort factors could be for instance, wanting the international team to comprise a number of Asian personnel. The mandate and time frame must also be agreeable to both sides and as they see fit to achieve the intended purpose. As long as the details of international intervention are worked out and agreed upon by both parties, much can be achieved. A joint effort between international and local actors is the surest way for a country to close the chapter on issues that have arisen from a devastating conflict. Think about it.

This article was published by The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission.

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London. She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building. She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Email: [email protected]

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