For a strong and democratic United Nations

WORLD AFFAIRS  JUL – SEP  1998  VOL  2   NO 3 (pages 108 –129)

Book Review

FOR A STRONG AND DEMOCRATIC UNITED NATIONS:

A SOUTH PERSPECTIVE ON UN REFORM

(London & New York, South Centre, Zed Books Ltd, 1997; pp 229)

NAGINDER SEHMI

The South Centre is an inter-governmental Organisation of developing countries. The Centre has prepared this book with the help of many internationally known experts.

The book presents the views shared by the developing countries regarding the current world agenda of reform of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It succinctly describes the workings of these organisations, their achievements, defects, weakness, political and economic pressures from the “rich” North and fears of the “poor” South. All international civil servants, diplomatic corps, as well as media and representatives of civil society must read this book because they are often not well informed about UN politics and can misrepresent the reality. Unfortunately the two-tier title of this very readable book is too political to attract common readers. Nevertheless, it should serve well to remove the misgivings of the confused public of the North.

Part One (chapters I to 3) outlines the issues at stake for developing countries and the uphill struggle for the world community to fulfil the UN mission. During the past decade, a few powerful countries of the North have eroded the UN’s political, economic and social role, which was meant to advance the interests of humankind as a collectivity. Part Two (chapters 4 to 9) analyses the dimension of the UN reforms, the campaign by the North to distort the image of the UN, and the unilateral US financial stranglehold to deprive the UN of all power. Part Three (chapters 10 and 11) outlines the proposals for reform.

For the South, the UN Charter represents the global consciousness of the worldwide community. The South is grateful to the UN for its help in decolonisation, for setting benchmarks for international cooperation and for being a fertile source of new ideas. Until recently, third world countries had developed steadily. However, the rich North considers this to be a danger to its political and commercial security. Therefore it is reluctant to associate trade with aid when negotiating commodity prices, and technology transfer. It is unwilling to restrain the unchallenged conduct of the transnational companies. It kills collective action or economic initiatives by the South. The reader is left with the impression that the South now counts on the UN to surmount its increasing dependency and socio-economic insecurity.

The South is alarmed by the fact that the current IMF budget is entirely financed from the South’s payments on loans. The North uses the IMF loans as an instrument of controlling domestic policies of the South. The IMF cannot influence the malpractices of rich countries because they do not borrow. By distancing itself from the UN, and looking for quick profits, the IMF has undermined the role of the UN in the, social and economic fields. The book underlines a strong case for arresting the decline of effective, democratic and pluralist international institutions.

The South recognises that its ethical and democratic vision has to contend with the reality of political power and economic dominance, but it fails to take this factor into account when making proposals for democratisation of the UN. The question that the book does not answer is how to implement the South’s proposals to prevent further erosion of the UN’s strength. It also overlooks the fact that the rich have never voluntarily shared their power with the poor unless they were obliged to. Does the South have the means to turn the tide?

Chapter Five describes very well the financial power game of the North in the UN. An Organisation is what members make it. At present, the South is confronted with a marginalised UN General Assembly. The IMF and the World Bank, absolute leaders of international finance, are not accountable to the UN. All political power is vested in the victors of the last war; the five powerful permanent members of the Security Council. They want to hold on to that power at any cost. For them, the South did not exist when the UN was founded. The UN Charter was meant for only the previously warring countries – democracies and dictatorships. The South has revealed that the number of countries under IMF “tutelage” is increasing and so is “economic menace and coercion.” It would be presumptuous on the part of the South to expect its proposals to make the UN strong by bringing the IMF and the Security Council within the fold of the UN General Assembly. The UN and many other international organisations are products of war. They cannot avoid being highly political and smothering justice and fairness. National interest takes the front seat. Power counts. Money talks. This is the world we live in. Therefore, the wholesome UN concept has first to be liberated from the “war and dominance syndrome.”

Nevertheless, the South is trying to assuage the fear of single power domination by invoking the democratic principles of the UN Charter, when it knows that the North’s actions are designed to strengthen economic supremacy over developing countries who are not allowed to participate in the management of the IMF, not in the core of the Security Council. The North is not disturbed by the fact that the IMF has failed to carry out its mandate to put the world monetary, financial and trade system on an orderly basis and to develop third world countries. It appears that the book intentionally avoids the issue of unilateral punitive sanctions, which have become a monopoly of the US government, against other countries and individuals.

The book ends with a “disheartening” note seeking solace in the “transcendental” value of the UN Charter, hoping that it will loosen “the financial tourniquet to the UN” and to the developing countries. It contains a good dose of eye-opening factual information which enhances readers’ interest. One can only hope that the people of the North would use their democratic rights to change the undemocratic attitude of their governments regarding reform of the UN. The South’s genuine concern for welfare of the global community requires that all must read this book.