Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Peacekeeping's Unsavory Side (June 10, 2003)
"Among the uglier stories surrounding international peacekeeping in recent years is that U.N. operations too often fuel booms in local prostitution."

U.N. Notebook | June 16, 2003
from U. N. Wire Fixing The Security Council

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS— When the United States runs into trouble in the Security Council, which happened several times this year, the tendency in Washington lately has been to declare the whole United Nations dysfunctional.

On the other side of the argument, blame is cast more narrowly.  The United Nations works well and could work better, many nations say, if only the United States would let it.  In the Security Council in particular, Washington has bullied weaker members and hijacked the agenda (not for the first time), in the view of some of the most engaged diplomats.

If the United States and the rest of the world seem to be looking at the same Security Council and seeing two very different images, most governments can agree on one point:  the council needs fixing.

After decades of Cold War paralysis, the Security Council went into high gear in the early 1990s, ordering one new peacekeeping operation after another, though usually without authorizing the resources to make them successful.  Over the decade, it branched into many new areas beyond traditional definitions of peace and security.  Among other topics, it took on AIDS, the protection of women in times of conflict and the curbing of the illicit diamond trade that fueled civil wars.  Confrontations like the one over the war in Iraq indicate that the council is still evolving, even as global problems such as illegal migration, epidemic disease and the persistent poverty in developing nations define new security threats.

A crucial factor in that evolution seems likely to be the determination of some midlevel powers such as Canada, Brazil and Japan, along with the European Union, to give the council more backbone in the face of American pressures and also to prod it into more effective work and real debate on a broader range of issues.  Some nations are forming what amount to ad hoc "shadow" councils of nonmembers to demand that more voices be heard inside the chamber about the direction of world affairs.

Last week, for example, Canada, Jordan, New Zealand and Switzerland all strong supporters of the new International Criminal Court demanded and got an open debate on the Bush administration's attempt to win a quick vote for another year of blanket exemptions for Americans from the court's jurisdiction.  Canada, represented by a persuasive and influential ambassador, Paul Heinbecker, has often been in the vanguard with "wait-a-minute" requests for more discussion or compromise and fewer deals cut in back rooms.

Virtually no one can deny that the council's membership no longer reflects the contemporary world. Five of its 15 members are European, six if Russia is included.  Among the five permanent members with vetoes, the presence of the United Kingdom and France made sense in 1945 (the others are China, Russia and the United States) but has become an anomaly at a time when the European Union claims to be working toward a single voice in foreign affairs.  No African, Latin American or less developed Asian nation has a permanent voice.  In this crucial year, the Arab world has had only one representative, Syria, which veers from obstructionism to total absence at critical moments.

For a decade, diplomats and other experts have been talking in seminars, committees and working groups about how to reform the Security Council.  Most of the discussion has revolved around technicalities:  how big the council should be to reflect a membership of 191 nations, how many permanent members should be added, whether they should have vetoes or whether vetoes should be abolished altogether.

What isn't discussed, largely because the topic would be too inflammatory, are the criteria for council membership, and the responsibilities of nations who sit on what should be the world's most powerful deliberative body.  The silence over qualifications pervades the entire U.N. system except when a nation or region demands a high-ranking Secretariat job or seat on an important panel citing underrepresentation in the halls of power. But that in itself can be a problem.  Is it enough that a nation or region bags a prime position only for geographic reasons?

For Security Council rotating seats, moreover, nations do not have to convince others of their qualifications or commitment to the demanding work required.  No well-honed, informed world views are expected.  Council election campaigns instead involve free trips, lavish entertainment and generous "gifts."  Perhaps most pernicious is the argument that "it's my turn" to have a seat.  That thinking nearly put Sudan on the council a few years ago, until the United States intervened forcefully with nations in the African regional group.  At the last minute, Mauritius got the seat.  Mauritius?

That is not to say there is anything wrong with small nations as council members if they have broad international interests.  Both Singapore and Slovenia have had stellar council terms under two exceptional ambassadors Kishore Mahbubani for Singapore and Slovenia's Danilo Turk, who was later lured away from diplomacy to become an assistant secretary general in the U.N.'s political department.  In the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which by chance held a council seat that year, Manzi Bakuramutsa emerged as a hardworking envoy for his country, establishing a presence that could not be ignored as the council wrangled over what to do with the lethal mess it had earlier created.

The 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission may be a useful template for studying what can happen when not even minimal criteria are demanded for important bodies.  If other nations have ground to criticize the United States for its behavior in the United Nations, Washington certainly has reason to question the collective mentality that leads member nations to routinely elect significant human right abusers to the commission, sometimes just out of pique.  (It needs repeating:  these choices are made by member nations, not U.N. officials, who often wrongly get pilloried.)

Felice Gaer, director of the New York-based Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body, has been watching the U.N. human rights commission for two decades and the Security Council since the mid-1990s.  Gaer, the only woman and first American on the U.N. Committee Against Torture, has also been part of a working group discussing Security Council reform.  Her analysis of why nations want to be on the human rights commission also has relevance for the council.

"Some countries go on the Commission on Human Rights because they really believe that human rights are important, and they want to advance human dignity and the well-being of the individual," she said. "Others go on the commission to make sure that they don't get criticized, and they can use their vote and their position there as leverage to build up a coalition that will protect them.  There's yet another group that wants to keep human rights from becoming a significant force in general.  They want to clutter the agenda.  They want to argue that other issues are more important, as a way of keeping human rights from having any bite.  There are some that go on to the commission because they simply want to denounce their favorite enemy.  And there are countries that have seen this simply as a symbol of their power and their importance."

Among the last group are the five permanent Security Council members.

Substitute issues of peace and security for human rights and Security Council membership would fall into similar categories.  If the United States cannot be absolved of guilt for increasingly using the council for its own narrow ends, or ignoring it when no rubber stamp is available, Americans are not alone.  One other example, China, has been notorious for focusing almost exclusively on keeping Taiwan and the Tibetans off the U.N. agenda.  The Chinese contribute little else.  Among rotating members, many fight to win a seat mostly for prestige or the chance to outmaneuver a rival.

Gaer remarked that many people have called the Human Rights Commission the second-most political body in the U.N. system. "It's not about principles and values and being above it all -- it's about politics," she said.

At its much higher level, the Security Council cannot be allowed to go the same way.  With an off-handed, sometimes contemptuous American attitude—which began not with President Bush but in the Clinton administration—and with no way to insure that other members will rise above their own parochialisms, the council could be weakened irreparably just at a time when global problems require stronger and truly international management.

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.