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Rise of the Lilliputians

They are called the S-5, or the Small Five, a group of small and middling U.N. member states that have been informally meeting since 2005 to try and chip away at the unchecked powers of the P-5, the U.N.'s dominant, permanent five members of the Security Council.

And they are heading for a confrontation next week with the five big powers -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- over an initiative in the General Assembly aimed at pressing the P-5 to voluntarily cede some of their powers.

On May 16, the S-5 will press for a vote on a resolution before the U.N. General Assembly that calls on the veto wielding powers to refrain "from using a veto to block council action aimed at preventing or ending genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity." It also requests that in cases where a permanent member ignored the General Assembly's advice and exercises its veto, it should at least explain why it did so.

The push for a vote comes at a time when the U.N. Security Council has faced criticism for acting too slowly to contain the escalating violence, and in the wake of two key powers, Russia and China, having cast vetoes twice to block an Arab League initiative aimed at ending the violence in Syria and that would force President Bashar al-Assad from power. Russia, which has argued that its diplomatic strategy stands a better chance of lessening the violence, has been among the sharpest critics of theS-5 initiative, characterizing it as an affront to Moscow, according to a senior diplomat involved in the negotiations.

The veto power has long been a source of resentment among the U.N.'s broader membership, who believe that it places the big powers above the law, shielding them and their friends from the edicts they routinely enforce on the rest of the world.

But for the United States, Russia, and other big powers, the veto represents the most important check on international intrusion into their spheres of influence by a sometimes unsympathetic majority. The United States, for instance, has routinely used its veto power to shield Israel from Security Council measures demanding it show greater restraint in its dealings with the Palestinians. China and Russia, meanwhile, have exercised the veto to block condemnation of friendly countries, including Myanmar and Zimbabwe, from condemnation for committing rights abuses.

A number of economic heavyweights and emerging powers, including Brazil, Germany, Japan, India, Nigeria, and South Africa, have been clamoring for a greater say in the council's deliberations, leading to several proposals that would expand the 15-nation Security Council and grant a number of rising powers a permanent seat.

The S-5 -- Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland -- realize that they have no hope of ever becoming big powers with permanent seats on the council. So they have devoted their efforts to pushing for reforms in the way the 15-nation council does business. Indeed, their recommendations on the use of the veto are a part of a broader menu of suggestions, including more P-5 consultations with states that aren't serving in the Security Council, that they intend to put before the General Assembly as a way to encourage reforms in the way the council works.

The sponsors say they are confident that they will have support from more than 100 of the assembly's 193 member states. But the P-5 have made it clear they want nothing to do with it, arguing that the U.N. Charter intended the victorious powers of World War II to manage threats to international security. While the vote would not be legally binding it could serve to ramp up political pressure on the big powers to change.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United States, and top diplomats from Britain, China, France, and Russia met with the S-5 on Wednesday in an effort to get them to back down.

Rice also pointed out that there were many other countries, not only the P-5, that have expressed opposition to a General Assembly vote. Another bloc of countries, known as the Uniting for Consensus group, which includes countries like Italy, Pakistan, and Argentina, also oppose a vote -- saying that it would distract from efforts to negotiate an enlargement of the Security Council.

Rice, who did most of the talking, told the group that while they recognize their pioneering effort to reform the council, their resolution would actually undercut the efforts to make the council more transparent. Rice asked them not go ahead with the resolution, according to Paul Seger, Switzerland's U.N. ambassador.

"They tell us don't put that resolution to a vote; it's infringing on the prerogatives of the Security Council, it's disruptive and could jeopardize the overall reform of the Security Council," Seger told Turtle Bay. "My sense is that they are afraid that certain prerogatives, certain acquired rights, are being questioned for the first time."

Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's U.N. ambassador, told Turtle Bay that the U.N. Security Council has undertaken many of the reforms being sought by the S-5, but their decision to bring the matter before the General Assembly would likely result in a "divisive vote that sets back the overall cause of reform."

"The Security Council must be always able to adapt and operate with flexibility in order fulfill its responsibilities under the Charter to meet the evolving challenges to international peace and security," he added in a statement. "But for that effectiveness and adaptability, it needs to be confident in its own decisions and procedures. It ultimately must remain the master of its own rules of procedure, as stated in the U.N. Charter."

Seger and other members of the S-5 say they are not looking for a fight -- but they also say it's unfair for the Security Council to ask other states to send their peacekeepers into harm's way, as Switzerland has in Syria, without including them in informal council deliberations on the situation there. The group, meanwhile, has marshaled a series of legal and political arguments to bolster its case that the majority of U.N. membership should have some role in advising the 15-nation council. They invoked Article 10 of the U.N. Charter, which permits the U.N. General Assembly to make recommendations to the Security Council, except in cases where the council is managing an international "dispute or situation."

Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, told Turtle Bay that there is also a legal case to be made that the U.N. Charter itself places limits on the rights of the council's permanent members to veto council action aimed at preventing mass killings. He argued that while the council bears "primary responsibility" for the maintenance of peace and security it also requires decisions be made in "conformity with the principle of justice and international law." Genocide and mass slaughter, he said, are certainly not in conformity with those principles, he said.

"We don't want to go up against the P-5," Seger added. "We don't question the right of the veto we only ask them kindly: Would you consider not using the veto in situations of atrocities, crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide?"

Seger, who also serves as chairman of the U.N. peace-building commission for Burundi, recalled an invitation to brief the Security Council on a visit he had made to that Central African country.. He briefed the council on his findings, and then was asked to leave as the council went behind closed doors for its own discussions on the matter.

"I asked Churkin, 'could I maybe just sit there, be a resource person?'" Seger said, referring to Russia's U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin. "He said, 'No. We cannot open the council consultations to outsiders: It's never been done and it will never be done in the future.'"

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

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