Turtle Bay

The Brobdingnagians win again

The U.N. secretary general’s top lawyer today effectively killed off an initiative by five small U.N. member states to press the U.N. Security Council to allow greater outside scrutiny of its actions, and to agree not to cast a veto to halt efforts to stop mass killing. The so-called S-5 (or Small-Five) — Costa Rice, ...

The U.N. secretary general’s top lawyer today effectively killed off an initiative by five small U.N. member states to press the U.N. Security Council to allow greater outside scrutiny of its actions, and to agree not to cast a veto to halt efforts to stop mass killing.

The so-called S-5 (or Small-Five) — Costa Rice, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore, and Switzerland — had called for a vote today on a resolution aimed at urging the council to reform its working methods. But the initiative failed after the U.N.’s lawyer, Patricia O’Brien, recommended that the resolution require the support of two-thirds of the U.N. membership, rather than the simple majority required for most U.N. General Assembly votes.

The legal recommendation marked a dramatic setback for efforts to press the Security Council’s five most powerful members to grant the rest of the U.N. membership a greater say in its deliberations. It also appeared likely to diminish the U.N. General Assembly’s authority, already limited, to make even non-binding recommendations to the Security Council.

In recent weeks, the council’s five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — launched an active campaign to press the resolution’s sponsors to drop the initiative, arguing that the U.N. Charter empowered the Security Council to determine its own working methods. They were backed by another coalition of countries — including Argentina, Italy, and Pakistan — that feared the initiative might accelerate a Security Council reform process that could potential end with their regional rivals, Brazil, India, and Germany — securing permanent seats in the Security Council.

Under the U.N. Charter, a General Assembly resolution requires the support of a simple majority, unless it involves particularly "important questions," like an amendment of the U.N. Charter, in which case it would require a vote by two-thirds of the General Assembly. But in 1998, the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring that the assembly would not adopt any resolution "on the question of equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council and related matters" without a two-thirds majority.

O’Brien ruled that the S-5 resolution fell into that category of "related matters" and recommended it would be "appropriate" for the U.N. General Assembly to adopt the resolution only with a two-thirds vote. Switzerland’s U.N. ambassador, Paul Seger, acknowledging the sponsors lacked the two-thirds majority, withdrew the draft at the last moment in the face of "procedural and legalistic maneuvers" that threatened to "engulf" the entire U.N. membership.

Speaking on behalf of the S-5, Seger told the General Assembly membership today that the U.N. legal reasoning was "with all due respect, utterly wrong and biased."

"The decisions of the Security Council affect us all. We are obliged by the Charter to implement them. Is it too much to ask to be better informed about and more involved in the council’s decision shaping and decision-making?" Seger said.  "From what we have heard during the last days and hours it seems that the membership as a whole is not ready to follow us on this course of action, not yet at least."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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