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UN reform needs an African perspective

Western pundits have dominated the debate on United Nations reform, while African leaders have not focused attention on these crucial efforts.

A group of civil society leaders from the continent tried to remedy this when we met in New York last week and thrashed out an African civil society response to the December 2004 report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, submitted to Kofi Annan by the UN’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. It is the key document to guide the institution’s reform.

It is seen by some as an attempt to appease Western interests in the decisions not to extend the veto to new Security Council members, in the push to legitimise ”humanitarian” interventions, and in the criticisms of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights.

The UN high-level panel has focused too much attention on Security Council reform and not enough on strengthening the -General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Africa’s influence within the General -Assembly had seriously declined, and despite the UN being headed by an African, no African heads a substantive department in the UN Secretariat in New York.

We also argued that the UN report’s calls for debt cancellation must go further, since Africa has paid back the principal of the debt while continuing to service the never-ending interest. African -governments should renege on these debts foisted on autocratic governments by profligate Western banks awash with petro-dollars.

The report failed to live up to the expectations of many Africans who had hoped that peacekeeping would enjoy more prominence.

Nearly half of the 50 UN peacekeeping missions in the post-Cold War era have been in Africa; the continent currently hosts the most numerous and -largest UN peacekeeping missions in the world; and most of the UN’s socio-economic and humanitarian efforts are located in Africa.

The UN secretary general’s report to the General Assembly of March 2005, In Larger Freedom, calls on donors to devise a 10-year capacity-building plan with the African Union and envisages UN financial support for Africa’s regional organisations. This is particularly welcome in light of the AU’s current peacekeeping travails in Darfur. The willingness of Western peacekeepers, who have both the equipment and resources, to continue to contribute to UN missions in Africa remains critical. Forty percent of peace-keepers deployed in Africa and one in three troops deployed outside the continent are contributed by African armies.

The AU has called for two permanent seats with veto power and two additional rotating seats (the continent currently has three -rotating seats) on a reformed Security Council.

The UN high-level panel has suggested an increase in council membership from 15 to 24 members, the creation of six new permanent members without veto power, and 13 rotating two-year non–permanent seats in addition to the five veto-wielding permanent members: the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain. Under this proposal, Africa would obtain two permanent seats and an additional rotating seat, although the widespread view in New York is that Security Council reform is highly unlikely to happen owing largely to opposition from the US and China.

The UN high-level panel report endorsed a ”responsibility to protect”, which argued that, if governments are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens from serious harm, then the international community has a duty to protect them, ignoring the principle of non–intervention for a higher goal.

This idea has met with strong opposition from many leaders in developing countries who fear that such interventions might be used by powerful states to threaten their own power. But Africa leads the pack here, because the AU’s Constitutive Act has created one of the most interventionist regimes in the world in cases of egregious human rights abuses, coups and regional instability.

We also expressed profound concerns about the US’s ”war on terrorism”, saying the root causes of terrorism must be prioritised. They fear new justifications could be found, as occurred during the Cold War, to back autocratic allies who support Washington in its declared hunt for terrorists, rather than supporting democratic allies and principles. The establishment of a US military base in Djibouti and the hasty passing by African governments of anti–terrorism legislation that civil libertarians have criticised for giving governments too much power, are also areas of serious concern.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town. He served on UN missions in South Africa, Western Sahara and Iraq, and was a member of the resource group advising the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change

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