Striving to Remain a Relevant and Crucial Force in an Increasingly Unipolar World
Malaysia at the Security Council

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

I have only spoken once in the Security Council of the United Nations (UN) concerning the situation in Angola - and all I can recall is the fact that it was hardly an awesome chamber. It is an ordinary meeting chamber except for its famous horse-shoe seating arrangements.

In my three years here, I have spoken about half a dozen times at either the general assembly or in committees on issues ranging from statehood for the Palestinians to America's non-payment of its huge debt to the UN.

At the height of the Cold War, the Security Council was a first-rate debating place, but alas, it is now a very tame body, and dominated largely by the sole, comprehensive and all too intrusive super power, the US. It remains a respected debating society, although its decisions are largely ignored in the present unipolar world.

It is a simple yet dignified chamber where no one smokes and no one is allowed to turn his/her back to the president, and I hear that there is no sexual harassment either. However, cellular phones are still allowed. After you finish your address, you withdraw gracefully if you are a non member who had asked to speak on a particular issue.

As a result of the demise of the Cold War and the rise of the Anglo-American power and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the once powerful Security Council has found its authority eroded and sometimes sidelined: Kosovo and Yugoslavia.

Last month, it was our turn to be president of the 15-member nation Security Council; made up of five permanent members - the US, China, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), France and Britain - and ten members elected by the general assembly for a term of two years and not eligible for immediate reelection.

The Security Council is not a strictly democratic body because the five powers (three are actually former great powers) have permanent seats and veto power. The original thinking was that the UN would depend for its success upon the unanimity of the five great powers - five world constables, who would keep order in the world. The Cold War quickly pitted the Soviet Union against the other four. Every one of the five has used its veto power at one time or other. It was a big mistake to assume that the five World War Two allies would always remain united even had there been no rivalry between the Americans and the communists.

An even greater mistake was to assume that other members of the UN would be content with the domination of the five permanent members, hence the demand for reforms of the Security Council (an open-ended working group is working on reforms with no sign of an end in sight). Worst to think that the five would be great powers indefinitely!

My colleague, Datuk Hasmy Agam, the president for July, held 33 informal meetings and eight formal meetings. Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, chaired the only open debate session, which was held. to discuss the maintenance of peace, security and post conflict peace building: disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of ex-combatants in a peace keeping environment.

I was not present but what I heard was that Syed Hamid performed well. He made a statement half -way through the debate, a departure from the normal practice, because he had a plane to catch to London. Usually the president reserves his comments until after all the members of the Security Council have spoken. As a courtesy, no member - not even the US - objected to Syed Hamid's request.

Hasmy presided over the admission of Tonga as a new member to the UN. Nauru and Kiribati were recommended for admission last month. The three new members will be formally approved by the general assembly in September.

There were four informal meetings on East Timor and five on Iraq during the Malaysian presidency and I shall discuss these.

The Indonesians have accused the UN of being biased in favour of independence for East Timor. The UN, of course, denied this (supported by the US, Britain, Holland and a few others) and said that it could not give the go-ahead for a referendum on self determination earlier (now scheduled for the end of the month) because of the existence of sporadic violence. At the same time, the UN itself is not yet ready. It insisted that balloting must be free and fair.

I spoke to a "neutral diplomat" to find out what the real story was. One senior ambassador told me: "The Indonesians have good reason to complain a does the UN. A political football game is being played. The Unamet, a acronym for the Unite Nations Mission in East Timor, is a bit pro East Timor independence. Jakarta on the other hand is also not free of blame. I believe it wants East Timor to remain as part of Indonesia and does all it can to help the pro-integration forces," adding laughing: "The truth is a bit of both". What is our own role? Hasmy told me: "We try to moderate the situation by making the parties less adversarial. Right now, there is too much rhetoric against Indonesia. I think we have managed to lessen the tension a bit."

Hasmy was considered to have done a good job as president of the Council. He is a low-key operator and certainly non-confrontational by nature, always striving if possible for consensus.

An African ambassador said to me that Malaysia had set a high standard of impartiality while simultaneously never departing as far as it could from political morality and justice. Said another: "It is galling to hear. Holland talking about sporadic violence in East Timor in the Security Council. What about its own heinous record of violence and slavery in Indonesia for 300 years? Holland, like its ally in the Security Council, Britain, has a short and selective memory."

The Iraqi saga continues. The Anglo-American alliance wants sanctions against Iraq to stay until residual problems about weapons of mass destruction are solved. Simply, it wants status-quo. A revived Unscom under a new name and management; a cosmetic change.

Russia, China and France, supported by us, want sanctions removed on humanitarian grounds because everything possible had been done to find and destroy the dangerous weapons. There is only so much a sovereign nation can take. The British wanted to push for a vote on this issue, on the assumption that the West had enough votes to carry the resolution through, but decided otherwise fearing a veto either from Russia, China or even France.

Under Hasmy, the Security Council debated and passed resolutions (4), issued 4 presidential statements (which are less binding than resolutions) and 17 ordinary press statements following 33 informal meetings, 8 formal meetings and one open debate.

What separates a successful presidency from an also ran-type is small. On Thursday evening (29th July) Hasmy threw a party at the Malaysian Permanent Mission in Tudor City to celebrate the successful end of the Malaysian presidency.

Many diplomats, mainly from the Third World, congratulated Malaysia for a job well done. An African ambassador enthused to me: "Africa is happiest when Malaysia is in the Security Council. Your country understands and sympathises with our problems and concerns." I thanked him for his confidence and appreciation of what our nation has and is doing at the UN.

Nine of the 33 informal meetings and 3 of the eight formal meetings were devoted to Africa. In terms of time and effort, Africa does involve a lot of work at the UN. What the ambassador said was sincere, implying more than faith in us. His country is a member of the Security Council but he told me, without any embarrassment or apology, that they cannot take an independent stance as we often do because his country is too dependent on too many things. It does make me feel good (and I always check myself) listening to some diplomats from developing nations talking as if Malaysia is their virtual champion.

Now that we are no longer in the chair of the Security Council, there may be more time for Hasmy and his team to pause and even reflect upon matters. What should strike them clearly is the disconnection between justice, political morality and political realism and the limited options and improvisation.

The Malaysian presidency has ended and we are into the eighth month of our two-year term. There is still a long way to go and our role is still open to final definition.

Though the UN is in its 54th year, it is still relevant to the world in general and to small nations especially. Indeed a nation need not agree with all the UN's policies and decisions but they deserve thought and support because this world organisation does aspire to achieving and maintaining peace based on international law. The UN has many current problems and despite that, it has managed to keep uninterrupted world peace since 1945.

What I fear - as indeed has happened in Kosovo and Yugoslavia - where one superpower, abetted by its close allies, has bypassed the UN when it suited it, a step which undermines the UN. When one considers the spectacular failure of the organisation in Bosnia to stop the Yugoslav massacre of Bosnian, it is hard to fault the Nato intervention in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. All former superpowers have at one time or other bypassed the UN.