UN negotiations are often dull, drab and devoid of drama. However, occasionally, like on September 15, 2008, they become the stage for high drama that can give any Hollywood potboiler a run for its money.
The following incident, which may aptly be characterized as an all out diplomatic war, happened between two opposing groups of nations — the G-4 comprising of Germany, India, Brazil and Japan and the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) made of the formers’ neighbours and rivals — Pakistan, Italy, Spain, Argentina, South Korea, Mexico etc..
The war was over whether or not the proposal to inject new members into the UN Security Council should be decided by consensus (all agreeing) or by majority vote.
The subsequent victory, which saw the UfC alliance resoundingly thrashed by the G-4, is credited with breathing a new life into the negotiations over Security Council reform that had been stalled for more than a decade.
The victory was also remarkable as it went against the then stated positions of the big powers of the UN — China, the US and Russia. It was also the first time the G-4 alliance won a decisive victory against the UFC alliance (Pakistan, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Mexico etc..)
It is only now, with the release of relevant diplomatic cables by Wikileaks over the last few days that the drama of high-stakes diplomacy can be really brought out.
The time is early to mid 2008. Countries such as India, Brazil, Germany and Japan, along with several African nations, were growing increasingly tired of negotiations under the open-ended working group (OEWG) of the United Nations General Assembly.
OEWG, set up in the early 1990s, had become a talking shop that came to no specific conclusion despite meeting continuously for 15 years over the question of UNSC reform. So tiresome had the process become that a British official referred to the group as the “never ending working group,” according to one of the cables from the period.
The OEWG suffered from a major flaw. It’s terms of setting up had mandated it to come to decision through “mutual consensus” and “general agreement.” Unfortunately for the 192 negotiating countries, even a single member’s vociferous protest was enough for a proposal to be rejected as not having consensus.
By 2008, countries such as Germany and Japan (which were on the losing side at the end of World War II when the UN was formed) and India and Brazil (which were yet to be ‘big powers’ in 1945), were becoming weary of the endless negotiations. They too wanted a place at the high table of international decision-making.
While they pushed for an expansion of the Security Council’s permanent membership from 5 to 10 or 11, they were steadfastly opposed by another group that was comprised of their immediate neighbours, called the Uniting for Consensus (UfC) group.
The first group (G-4) had India, Germany, Brazil and Japan and the other (UfC) had their neighbours and rivals who were not very happy to see them be elevated. The UfC comprised of Pakistan (India), Italy and Spain (Germany), South Korea (Japan), Argentina (Brazil), Mexico and others.
Some of the UfC members opposed the G-4 proposal simply because they felt that while 5 permanent members were bad, 10 or 11 would be a catastrophe. They felt, with some justification, that hardly any matter will get past the UNSC if 10 or 11 members held veto powers over all the decisions, instead of the current five.
These two blocks were supplemented by the Africa block, which had its own grouse. It wanted at least two permanent seats for African states, up from the current zero. In other words, there was a congruence between the African block’s position and that of the G-4, as having six extra permanent seats in the UNSC would accommodate both the G-4 aspirants and the African Union demands.
According to a cable dating back to the end of 2007, the official estimate by the US delegation was that a combined Africa-G4 proposal would have the support of 110 to 145 nations in the 192 member General Assembly. In other words, such a proposal is likely to be passed by the two-thirds majority required for a Charter-amendment proposal.
Put another way, the Pakistani-Italian alliance (UfC) stood very little chance if things came to a vote and their only hope was to delay things by insisting on total ‘consensus.’
Not surprisingly, countries like China, Russia and the US — wary of ‘too much reform’ — publicly endorsed the ‘consensus’ mode over the voting mode, leading India to finally threaten to take drastic action in mid 2008.
“India was particularly adamant about pursuing intergovernmental negotiations (IGN, based on voting) and implied that it might put forward a draft resolution on UNSC reform if the negotiations do not begin soon,” the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, wrote to his headquarters on June 20, 2008, describing a meeting earlier in the week.
“Uniting for Consensus (UfC) countries, led by Italy and Pakistan, along with Russia, China, and members of the Arab League, all expressed opposition to beginning IGN at this time because of the lack of an agreed text on which to conduct the negotiations.
“We believe Kerim [chair of the forum] is projecting confidence because he knows India will table its draft resolution mandating the start of negotiations if [he] does not find a way to do so himself… [the Indian resolution,] even if it fails to be adopted, would move the discussion out of the [consensus-based] OEWG and force a vote on UNSC reform for the first time in more than three decades,” the cable said, explaining why it was not enough to ignore India’s threat.
Two months later, Kerim, who was presiding over the working group negotiations on behalf of the president of the General Assembly, warned the US again that he had no option but to switch from the consensus-based ‘working group’ model to the voting based IGN.
Kerim pointed out that Brazil too was siding with India, despite the fact that a similar attempt to table a resolution (L.69) had created a furore in the not too distant past.
“Kerim, who had just returned from a working visit to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, told the ambassador August 7 that the Brazilian Foreign Minister “showed his cards” and told him that Brazil would “behave like India” and join India in tabling a resolution if inter-governmental negotiations are not launched through the current process.
“Kerim said that he told them that the previous L.69 resolution “spoiled a lot.” He said the Brazilian response was that the L.69 resolution had actually forced the opposition to include inter-governmental negotiations in the decision of the 61st session and that would not have happened without the pressure of the L.69 resolution.
“According to Kerim, the Brazilians are ready to join the Indians in playing the same card again.
In a separate conversation earlier in the day, August 7, the Indian Permanent Representative told the Ambassador that they planned to move forward with a resolution if inter-governmental negotiations are not launched,” Khalilzad said.
Kerim warned the US that the Pakistan-Italy led UfC was overestimating its standing in the United Nations and would come to bad end if they failed to compromise and India took the matter to a vote in the General Assembly.
“Kerim said he did not think the UFC was fully aware of the situation and how close the G4 were to a potential breakthrough. He asked for USG help in telling the UFC to not be a “bad loser” but
instead to play a constructive role in the process by allowing it to continue to inch forward through the launching of inter-governmental negotiations,” the acting president told the US ambassador.
Another cable, dated 18 September 2008, gave a first-hand account of the biggest showdown so far in the negotiations between the opposing groups.
“When the 12th meeting of the working group opened at 11 am on September 15, Italy spoke first, on behalf of the UFC and called for an amendment of the text to change the venue for intergovernmental negotiation from an “informal plenary of the GA” to the “Open Ended Working Group.”
“As the Italian Permanent Representative made the proposals, the German delegation led a chorus of snickers [mocking laugh] that proceeded to set the tone for the rest of the day.
The President of General Assembly (represented by Kerim) then called for two speakers in favor of closing debate and two against, as if the working group were going to vote.
“After hearing two speakers in favor of closing debate and none against, he gaveled the debate closed and then quickly gaveled the text through, though placards were raised in opposition, leaving most in the room stunned.
“As the plenary session opened, the Italian Perm Rep approached Ambassador Khalilzad and other members of US delegation to say that he had reconsidered. He said that a vote would set a bad precedent for working groups that operate by consensus, and would eliminate the OEWG (working group) altogether.
“Was there still time to make a deal, he asked. He needed two changes to the text: (1) pushing back the start date of intergovernmental negotiations and (2) substituting “taking into consideration” for “taking note of.” The G-4 subsequently accepted both changes. At this point, the UFC began to splinter as a bloc and individual members began seeking different changes. The G-4 balked and insisted again on a vote.
“Ambassador Khalilzad appealed to the G-4 to be gracious and reminded them that, if they were going to work together in the future (on the Council), impressions were already forming about their heavy-handedness. He noted that, while the UFC may have made a mistake in not accepting a compromise earlier, humiliating a group of important countries would make any
future proposal on the Security Council’s future unsustainable.”
So ended the first show-down between the two rival camps.
Khalidzad made his own interesting observations about who won and why, in his report on the entire fiasco.
“Throughout this latest round of negotiations, Japan consistently called for a constructive solution, and worked with the PGA to find a compromise solution. This put it at odds with India and Germany.
“Germany took a hard-headed approach and tried to browbeat Italy and a few other members of the UFC. The Indian delegation was the most rigid. Their acerbic interventions in the OEWG insulted the UFC (alliance), the PGA (chair), and irritated China. The Indian Perm Rep, who spoke after the Chinese deputy permanent representative.., sharply criticized the Chinese position in support of the OEWG and consensus deliberations, characterizing it as the “swan song of a declining organization.
“The Italian-led UFC faltered badly, first by their decision to stick to their original position instead of presenting a more compelling alternative earlier in the process to draw the PGA away from his two-track approach, and second by making an 11th-hour compromise that could have been made hours before,” he noted.
Khalidzad also noted, perhaps with some glee, that the episode also showed the Chinese their place when it came to trying to throw their weight around, especially among African nations.
“Finally, China came out publicly in support of the UFC position September 15 and saw that they had little sway over the African states, many of whom decided to side with the G-4,” the US Ambassador pointed out.