Africa is making a push to gain permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council
The United Nations celebrates its 70th anniversary this month, making it one of the longest surviving international organizations in the world today. But despite the celebrations, it is a body harboring the fiercest exchanges in international politics.
As the world's nations head to the UN headquarters in New York for the anniversary, African diplomats have been holding meetings and lobbying for key changes to the organization formed after the end of World War II.
African Union (AU) members meeting in Johannesburg in June were categorical about the need for change.
"We must agree on a way forward, on how we will, without reservation or hesitation, support the African common position on reforms," said Amina Mohamed, Kenya's Foreign Minister, while chairing an AU Council of Ministers session on the 70th anniversary of the UN and the state of multilateralism. "Our demand for Security Council reforms is premised on correcting a historical injustice that has been visited on Africa. The question we must ask is whether it is not the right time for Africa to be appropriately represented in the UN."
Change old guard
Africa's beef with the UN is basically directed at the UN Security Council, which, it argues, treats Africans as "second-class" citizens, according to Mohamed.
The council was set up in 1946 by the victorious allies of World War II. It currently comprises 15 members, five of whom are permanent members with veto power - the United Kingdom, the United States, France, China and Russia (P5).
The rest are non-permanent and serve for two years on a rotational basis. The council is the most powerful organ within the UN and can shape international law, admit new members to the UN, and authorize changes to the UN Charter. It can also make binding decisions about war and peace, such as imposing financial restrictions on perpetrators of war, requiring UN member states to cooperate in implementing them.
Critics argue that despite this immense power, the council represents an archaic order.
"The reasons behind the creation of the P5 have completely changed today, meaning we have to do something about it if it has to reflect the global situation," said Dr. Ochieng Kamudhayi, an international politics and conflict management expert, in an interview with ChinAfrica.
"But changing the Security Council is no walk in the park. Remember, this is not the first time anyone is trying it; voices were raised more than 20 years ago, yet the optimism has always been chilled because no one has been able to marshal the support of the P5," added the expert who teaches at the Center for Public Policy and Competitiveness at Nairobi's Strathmore Business School.
Security Council reform
The clamor for reforms within the UN system began in the early 1990s when a number of proposals were put forward following the formation of an open-ended working group to study the expansion of the council.
But there have been no formal discussions on how to expand the organ. Yet in recent decades, the council's inability to make decisions on crises in Rwanda, Somalia, Libya and Syria has attracted calls for reforms.
In 2005, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan launched formal negotiations for reforms in the UN. At the same time, the AU adopted a common African position on Security Council reform, demanding at least two permanent seats and five non-permanent seats. It also proposed that these seats, once authorized, should be allocated by the AU itself to its members. The AU further demanded "complete equality" of its proposed permanent seats with the existing P5 - that is, for all permanent members to have veto power.
"Even though Africa is opposed in principle to the veto, it is of the view that as long as it exists, and as a matter of common justice, it should be made available to all permanent members of the Security Council," says an AU communique. "Africa's goal is to be fully represented in all the decision-making organs of the UN, particularly in the Security Council, which is the principal decision-making organ of the UN in matters relating to international peace and security."
AU's C10 lobbyists
When the debate started in 2005, Nigeria and South Africa, two of the largest economies in Africa, declared their candidature. But it turned out other countries such as Germany, Brazil, Japan and India were also interested in the same reforms.
In 2009, the General Assembly launched intergovernmental negotiations, which initially suggested that non-permanent members could renew their membership immediately after their two-year term expired. That position, however, fell short of the demand since then the power to make decisions on substantive issues would remain unchanged.
This turn of events seemed to have influenced a new strategy from the AU.
In May, Kenya and Equatorial Guinea kicked off Africa's push for reforms, lobbying for China and Russia's support ahead of the 70th anniversary of the UN. The decision to lobby was reached in Zambia where foreign ministers from the Committee of Ten (C10) had gathered to prepare their strategy.
The AU created the C10 in 2005, aimed at lobbying for Africa's agenda on UN reforms, most notably in the Security Council. Its members are Algeria, Libya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo.
Kenya and Equatorial Guinea were assigned the role of selling the reform idea to the P5.
At a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kenya's Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed and Equatorial Guinea's Foreign Minister Agapito Mba Mokuy argued that the current formation of the UN Security Council "does not reflect the dynamics of the 21st century."
Although the Russian foreign minister said reforming the council would be a "crucial milestone" to increase its legitimacy, bringing about the change itself may require more political lobbying.
Endalcachew Bayeh, an international peace and security researcher at Ethiopia's Ambo University, said any successful change will have to come from united lobbying.
"It should be noted that the political environment of the entire continent [of Africa] is not yet enabling, and most of these countries may have different interests. To pool any pressure for change, we need to address our internal tensions, then link up with other regions advancing the same aims," he told ChinAfrica.
Clearly, Africa must take a cohesive and united stand to advance a common position on permanent UN Security Council representation. Timing this push on the UN's 70th anniversary may be a shrewd move.
(Reporting from Kenya)