Swiss prompted to play greater UN reform role

The UN Security Council - an institution in need of reform Keystone

Switzerland could benefit from a seat on the United Nations Security Council, according to Colin Keating, a former council chairman from New Zealand.

This content was published on May 3, 2009 - 10:20

In an interview with swissinfo, Keating says reform of the body is still on the cards although the process has made very little progress since 1992.

Keating, a former New Zealand diplomat and UN expert, is executive director of the independent non-profit organisation, Security Council Report, and was speaking on a recent visit to Switzerland.

He praised Switzerland for its expertise in mediating and trust building, both in bilateral problem areas and on a multilateral level.

The tradition of neutrality gives the country particular credibility, he says, and its commitment to moral values and human rights earns it wide respect.

The clear and straightforward ways of its diplomats – "you get what you see with Switzerland" – is a special quality, according to Keating.

swissinfo: What do you tell critics of the Security Council, including here in Switzerland, who accuse the body of inefficiency and a lack of transparency?

Colin Keating: There is truth in a lot of these criticisms. The council was designed in 1945 for a world which is very different from today.

In some ways the council has adapted, in others it has not. It has stretched its mandate and is now not only dealing with conflicts between states but also the roots of conflict, which are often internal and in which the parties are often non-state actors.

In other ways it is still very old fashioned and acting in almost a pre-First World War manner.

There is no doubt changes have to occur but it is change that is easier to bring about from the inside than the outside. A very small country like Costa Rica has been able to make a very important practical contribution, and is helping to change the way the council's culture operates: its level of openness and willingness to listen to other parties.

If Costa Rica can manage that equation, then I'm sure Switzerland can.

swissinfo: What makes you believe that there is a window of opportunity for change after 17 years of near-deadlock in the reform process?

C.K.: In the past 12 months there has been a growing acceptance on the part of most of the countries, which had previously campaigned for a new permanent seat on the Council, to accept some compromise.

At the moment many members of the UN, particularly large countries, which were going to miss out on enlargement, are sensing the possibility of a solution in which there might be something in it for everybody.

In practical terms: Having not just six but maybe 15 new countries as members which would all be able to participate in the council on a more privileged basis.

They would perhaps be able to serve for more than two years and might serve more often. And because there is a relatively small pool of them they would be guaranteed a relatively regular rotation.

swissinfo: Switzerland and other members of the Small Five (S5) Group also called for a change to the veto right.

C.K.: For there to be a real win-win situation in Security Council reform there needs to be a number of other dimensions, other than just enlargement.

One of the things that needs to be addressed is the question of the working methods of the council.

Part of that is the way in which the five veto powers use the veto. It can be misused by applying it to situations other than major national security concerns.

Self-restraint on the part of the current veto holders is important. That refers to the principle of international responsibility to act – to prevent or stop a genocide or mass atrocities against civilians.

I think it's very good that Switzerland and its partners put this on the table. Provided the language is drafted appropriately it is reasonable to expect the five permanent members will respond well.

swissinfo: What role do you see for Switzerland in the future – possibly as an elected member of the Security Council?

C.K.: We certainly have found when I represented New Zealand on the council in 1993 and 1994 that it offered a huge opportunity to actually contribute very effectively despite being a small country.

Should the Swiss choose to be a member of the council then it could achieve a lot in terms of positive outcomes without compromising its values or its position of neutrality or its view of itself as a country that likes to work quietly behind the scenes.

swissinfo: How will the financial crisis affect UN reform efforts?

It is going to make it much harder for countries to find the funding and human resources to counter the food and energy crises as well to reach the Millennium Development Goals for the most impoverished.

But there is also a huge momentum as a result of the financial crisis to reform the international financial institutions.

If that reform process is successful then it seems to me very likely that it will encourage policy makers, leaders, to believe that the same spirit of reform can be translated to the UN. So there would be some positive spin-off effect.

swissinfo-interview: Urs Geiser

In brief

Following a nationwide vote, Switzerland joined the UN in 2002 and became the 190th member of the world body.

Switzerland is part of the S5 group of small countries, which also includes Costa Rica, Jordan Liechtenstein and Singapore.

They put forward a series of reform proposals in 2005 for more transparency and reorganisation of the working methods of the UN Security Council.

The council is made up of five permanent members (US, Russia, China, France and Britain) as well as ten other countries elected for two-year terms.

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Security Council Report

The non-profit organisation is an independent body founded in 2005.

It is affiliated with Columbia University and is funded by Canada, Norway and Switzerland and has the support of three foundations.

Colin Keating of New Zealand is the executive director of the New York-based agency.

The organisations aims to provide high-quality information on the activities of the UN Security Council for a wider public audience and for UN members.

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Colin Keating

Served as legal advisor and senior official in the New Zealand foreign and justice ministries.

Between 1993 and 1996 he was New Zealand ambassador to the UN.

He served on the UN Security Council, which he chaired in 1994.

Keating was actively involved in a UN General Assembly group dealing with reform.

He worked in a legal practice before he was appointed executive director of the Security Council Report organisation in 2005.

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