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Threats, challenges & change

John Langmore

A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, the report of the Secretary General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, is an impressive piece of work because of the clarity of the recognition of current problems and their causes, and the realism in balancing principle and power in the recommendations. Explicit criticism and blame are avoided but there are many direct challenges to the US, other influential countries and to the small and weak to change their policies, increase financial, peacekeeping and other multilateral contributions, and support institutional reform. The 101 recommendations propose major incremental change to global policy, and to the financing and institutional structure of the UN. Agreement on the recommendations and implementation of them would substantially improve the effectiveness of the world's only comprehensively inclusive political forum.

Four imaginative and crucial sets of recommendations relate to: conflict prevention; nuclear weapons; the use of force; and reform of the Security Council. Those interested in other issues such as poverty, infectious disease, environmental degradation, terrorism, transnational organised crime, the role of sanctions, post-conflict peace-building and human rights could consult the report, which is available on the web at

The recommendations for conflict prevention include better information and analysis; more active preventive diplomacy through improving training and briefing of high level mediators; establishment of a dedicated mediation service; and encouraging the preventive deployment of peacekeepers.

The High Level-Panel (HLP) recognises the seriousness of the threat to the survival of humankind from nuclear weapons. They recommend that nuclear weapons states honour their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by restarting nuclear disarmament. 'They should reaffirm their previous commitments not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states,' which the Bush Administration has so far refused to do. They should de-alert their strategic nuclear weapons. States which have not signed or ratified the NPT should pledge commitment to non-proliferation and disarmament. The HLP calls for nuclear-weapon free zones in the Middle East and South Asia. States should voluntarily institute a time-limited moratorium on construction of further enrichment or reprocessing facilities.

Part 3 on collective security and the use of force is the core of the report since the High-level Panel (HLP) was appointed to address the way forward after the challenge to international order from the US-led pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. The Panel addresses 'circumstances in which effective collective security may require the backing of military force,' considers that Article 51 - which outlines the right to national self-defence - 'needs neither extension nor restriction' and Chapter VII - which allows the Security Council to approve military action when it deems this necessary for international security - empowers the Council to deal with every kind of threat. So amendment of the Charter is not necessary to deal with military threats: the challenge is to make it work better. Five criteria for legitimate military action by the Council are identified: the seriousness of the threat, proper purpose, last resort, proportional means, and the balance of consequences.

The interpretation of Article 51, in paragraph 188 of the Report, could be misused. "A threatened state, according to long established international law, can take military action as long as the threatened attack is imminent". There are very few cases to which this would apply because imminent threats are so uncommon. As there is no clear reference in the document to the pre-emptive strike on Iraq being illegal, the US, UK or Australia could attempt to use this language to justify the invasion. This would be a misuse of the statement. The Report continues in paragraph 191 '... the risk to the global order and the norm of non-intervention on which it continues to be based is simply too great for the legality of unilateral preventive action, as distinct from collectively endorsed action, to be accepted.'

Some people are concerned that identification of criteria, which could justify military action, makes it more likely. However, in an era in which the American Administration has adopted criteria which are much looser, and which threaten aggression against some countries, there would seem to be value in articulating rigorous criteria, the adoption of which would make pre-emptive attack more obviously illegitimate.

The HLP also urges much stronger support for UN peacekeeping though improved use of 'strategic deployment stockpiles, standby arrangements, trust funds and other mechanisms to meet the tighter deadlines necessary for effective deployment.' In a related section on post-conflict peace building, establishment of small corps of senior police officers and managers who could undertake mission assessments and organise the start-up of police components of peace operations is proposed. Establishment of a Peace building Commission and of a standing fund for peace building of $US250 m are also recommended.

The most publicised part of the report has been about enlargement of the Security Council. The Panel writes that 'Recommendations that ignore underlying power realities will be doomed to failure or irrelevance, but recommendations that simply reflect raw distributions of power and make no effort to bolster international principles are unlikely to gain the widespread adherence required to shift international behaviour.' The Panel proposes increasing 'the involvement in decision-making of those who contribute most to the United Nations financially, militarily and diplomatically Â…' Amongst developed countries progress towards 0.7 per cent of GNP for ODA should be an important criterion.

Both models suggested would increase the representation from each of four regions - Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and the Americas - to six seats, making a total of 24. Model A would do this by adding six new permanent seats, with no veto, and two additional two year seats. Model B would create a new category of four-year renewable seats and one new two-year non-permanent seat.

There will be fierce debate about both proposals. Although several countries have obvious claims for permanent membership - such as India because of its population and Japan because it is the second largest economy and both because of their contributions to the UN - there is opposition from other countries to every suggestion. Yet the imperatives of global realities must be recognized in the Council's composition.

The Panel acknowledges that 'global economic and social governance structures are woefully inadequate for the challenges ahead,' but makes only very modest proposals for evolution. The UN Economic and Social Council 'can provide normative and analytical leadership,' and could usefully become a 'development co-operation forum.' A Committee on the Social and Economic Aspects of Security Threats should be established. A small executive committee could provide more direction for its work. The Panel was not able to support any of the proposals for innovative sources of funding for development, limiting itself to supporting reconsideration of the manner and quantity of funding for UN agencies, funds and programs.

Despite the modesty of some of the recommendations, the Panel's proposals deserve whole-hearted support. They address fundamentally important issues in credible ways. They reaffirm the essential value of the multilateral system and seek ways of strengthening its institutional, financial and policy base. While fully recognising the challenge of terrorism, means are proposed of addressing those concerns that would also enhance international co-operative security rather than undermining collective disciplines.

The report will be vigorously discussed during coming months, culminating in the global summit at the start of the UN General Assembly in September 2005, where decisions will be made. Since Australia was one of the countries which joined in the invasion of Iraq which threatened the post-war structure of international relations, the government's response to the report will be unusually important. The Australian Labor Party must offer clear leadership about the national position.


John Langmore is the Director of the New York Liaison Office of the International Labour Organisation to the United Nations, a former member of the Parliament of Australia, and a former member of the executive committee of the Evatt Foundation. This paper comprises introductory comments on the issue of trade and labour linkages for the conference on "Linkages: How do we bridge the gap?" convened in Washington on 22 April 2003. John Langmore can be contacted at


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