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Still a dialogue of the deaf

Fifteen years ago, Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui described the relationship between the United States and the Third World as a ”dialogue of the deaf”. Mazrui noted that Americans are brilliant communicators but bad listeners. This view aptly highlights the difficulties the US faced in seeking to win support at the United Nations for its controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003. The world’s most powerful state discovered it had power without legitimacy, while the UN rediscovered it had legitimacy without power.

If the powerful need the UN to advance global peace, the case is even more critical for the weak, a category in which the overwhelming majority of African states belong. UN reform is therefore crucial for the continent’s development and security, and Africa stands to gain the most from the outcome of the reform of the UN in New York in the next few days.

This special feature, coming days before 170 world leaders gather in New York, is the natural progression of two meetings hosted by the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution to garner African perspectives on UN reform.

The main recommendations have since been presented in Cape Town, Maputo, Mauritius, New York and Berlin. A diverse group of African scholars and diplomats from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and South Africa focus here on some of the most significant issues in the UN reform process.

The debate on the December 2004 report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, submitted to the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, by the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, has tended to be dominated by Western pundits and policymakers, and African voices have been conspicuous by their absence.

The High-Level Panel report deals with both ”hard” (terrorism and weapons of mass destruction) and ”soft” (poverty and HIV/Aids) security threats. It is important to note that the five-year review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) provides the context for UN reform and is the basis of Annan’s March report to the UN General Assembly, In Larger Freedom. It sought not only to assess progress towards the MDGs, but also to respond to the panel and to recommend actions to the UN General Assembly session on development, collective security, human rights and strengthening the UN Secretariat.

Two weeks before world leaders arrived in New York, the pugnacious newly installed US ambassador at the UN, John Bolton, appeared to throw a spanner in the works by demanding hundreds of changes to the draft text on UN reform. Bolton called for eliminating references to the MDGs and deleting clauses committing the US to action on aid and the environment.

This may well render the resulting text a ”dead letter”. However, to improve its security and end the tragic 60-year north-south ”dialogue of the deaf” at the UN, the tone-deaf US — which is currently suffering from the consequences of a devastating flood — must switch on its hearing aid and listen to the anguished screams of the ”wretched of the Earth” from New Orleans to the global south.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town

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