It has been described as “the most powerful room in the world” – the United Nation’s Security Council (UNSC) chamber. It is here that the 5 permanent members (France, Britain, China, Russia and the US) and 10 non-permanent, rotating members, decide on the key security issues facing the world. These are the hot seats at the highest level of diplomacy whose decisions affect the lives of billions of people on the planet.
But the Pacific has never had a voice here.
Despite being UN members, no Pacific island nation has ever served on the UNSC in its 70-year history. Why is this? Is it something Pacific nations should aim for?
So far only Fiji began the process for selection, but withdrew its bid in 2011. The Solomon islands is currently exploring a bid for 2032-2033. To be a member of the UNSC you have to put your name down on the Asia Pacific Group candidature chart and so far APG countries have put their names down until 2042-2043 (Qatar). This suggests that it will be up to the next generation to decide. However if the Solomon is elected unopposed by the General Assembly then it will be a role model for other Pacific island countries to follow suit.
For decades now, there have been growing calls for reform of the UN system and in particular the UNSC. The question often asked is whether the 5 permanent members of the UNSC adequately reflect our changing times. At a time when nations like India, Brazil and Germany have become economic and political powerhouses, why are they not permanent members of the UNSC? Why is Africa, South America and the Islamic world not represented at all? Many would argue that the US, China and Russia remain the most powerful nations in the world, thus their presence is undisputed. But Britain and France?
The realpolitik view is that the current permanent members (known as the P5) would never willingly give up their seats, so the only way forward is to add to the P5, perhaps to have 9 permanent members which better reflect the many centres of power and population in today’s world. This may improve “inclusiveness” but may not make the UNSC more effective. Since each permanent member has the power of veto, which is often exercised, the idea of having a P9 with their own interests could mean even more use of the veto, thus paralyzing UN action on key issues. So far, reform in this area has been glacial and there is little room for the Pacific to wield much influence on the permanent members.
However, there is nothing stopping Pacific island countries from having a go for a non-permanent seat. But to do this requires concerted diplomat efforts and deep pockets since nations must campaign and convince others to vote for them when the seats become available. An additional problem is the way the Pacific is lumped in with Asia. Rules for membership of the UNSC state that one member from each regional block is appointed each year. According to the UN website, the Pacific is not even mentioned by name here – it is considered part of Asia:
Each year the General Assembly elects five non-permanent members (out of 10 in total) for a two-year term. In accordance with the General Assembly resolution 1991 (XVIII) of 17 December 1963, the 10 non-permanent seats are distributed on a regional basis as follows: five for African and Asian States; one for Eastern European States; two for the Latin American and Caribbean States; and two for Western European and other States.
For some time there have been calls to decouple “Pacific” from “Asia-Pacific” as they are in fact different regions and Asian countries usually dominate the process. If there was enough will, Pacific diplomats could take up this issue with the P5 members and the UN Secretary General and seek to create a distinct “Pacific” category, like Africa, which would certainly enable Pacific nations to have permanent representation. Then the only lobbying they need to do is among themselves.
Realistically, no country in the Pacific could wage a campaign on its own under the current rules. But there is nothing to stop Pacific nations from coming together to all get behind one candidate, pool resources and aim for the top. Some have suggested that the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) grouping would be the best group to help get behind such a bid.
Right now, the world is focused on climate change ahead of the Paris COP21 summit. There has never been a more urgent time for Pacific nations to have a voice at the global table to highlight their concerns and demand action to keep global temperature rise from under 2 degrees Celsius. We have eloquent leaders such as Kiribati’s President Anote Tong who have a high international profile and whose concerns for his country also reflect the concerns of all Pacific nations. Why not get all the Pacific nations behind Kiribati – or another climate-vulnerable nation – to ensure our concerns are not just heard but acted on. Climate change has become a global security issue and to have a Pacific voice at the UNSC for a one year term would give some leverage to improve the awareness of our issues and be part of a process that demands compliance to agreed resolutions.
There is frustration that financial pledges from developed countries to those most vulnerable often don’t materialize. A voice on the UNSC can add pressure to make sure climate change financing – including pledges of $100 billion by 2020 – actually happen. The key for PICs to be in the UNSC is to ensure that climate change and the special vulnerabilities of Small Island Developing States (SIDs) become an integral part of the security agenda. This is opposed to the current view of security meaning ‘boots on the ground’.
And it is not just climate change – increasingly global security issues involving war, peacekeeping operations, refugees and tax avoidance by multinationals also affect the Pacific and we have every right to have input into the way the UN decides on its course of action.
What would be involved if a Pacific nation tried to bid for a seat? What are the challenges?
To begin with, it would require most of the nations’ diplomatic resources to be devoted to UNSC work, which means less on other UN work, such as sustainable development goal (SDG) efforts. It would be a strain on capacity since the government would have to deploy their best diplomats, which may mean important bi-lateral relationships could suffer along the way.
Like many small states, our current disadvantage is that most Pacific UN missions are very small and lack depth of experience in UN matters. Furthermore most of our diplomats are politically employed and when their contracts end they are not retained by the civil service – so experience is lost.
Another factor that counts against island nations is political instability – we need our vision and policies to be stable. Regular changes of government does not allow us to strategically reposition ourselves and maintain long term stability of purpose in the UN arena.
It is fair to question whether there is any real value in bidding for a UNSC seat given the time and expense involved, and to what meaningfully could be achieved by having such a term. Yet many will recognize the need for reform within the UN system and the need for the Pacific to have a greater – and more united – voice in this global institution, and have a stake in the process of reform underway there. In terms of long term vision, PSIDs governments need to reposition themselves strategically in global affairs. This can be done.
A point to remember is that it is not only the concern of the Pacific, but more broadly the SIDS too – including Caribbean and Africa and Indian small oceans states because their development issues are very similar. This could be addressed by the current debate on UNSC reforms – advocating for SIDs non-permanent seats. After all, SIDs issues are global issues (i.e. climate change) but they need to be seen from a SIDs lens, so a seat for SIDs could help.
Australia and New Zealand have both served terms on the UNSC and invariably get the support of Pacific nations to do so. Perhaps it is time to enlist their help in backing a Pacific nation for a change. At the very least, it may be worth exploring the idea of challenging the UN to create a distinct “Pacific” region for UNSC membership so that Pacific nations would have a permanent voice there and the only lobbying they need do is among themselves.
The Pacific is being courted by all the P5 members in various ways and is mostly unaligned – that is, it is friend to all. Enlisting support from the P5 to reform the UNSC and allow for a permanent, rotating Pacific member is one strategy to get our voices heard in the most powerful room in the world.
Photo credit: UN