How to invigorate multilateralism

How to invigorate multilateralism

A general view of the opening day of the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday.(Photo: AFP)
A general view of the opening day of the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on Monday.(Photo: AFP)

Multilateralism, embodied in the United Nations (UN) as the world’s primary body for fostering international relations and international law among all countries, has been the mainstay of global history since the World War II.

It has enjoyed ups and downs throughout the decades since the middle of the 1940s. Although the 1990s witnessed a warming of relations between several countries after years of Cold War (due to the discomfort zone between capitalism and socialism), the 2020s are now witnessing a downturn which is disquieting. How then to re-energise that setting?

In a manner, one’s hopes and expectations from the notion itself should always be modest. The UN was born after World War II and its constitution — the UN Charter (UNC) — set up various organs to ensure the functioning of multilateralism, based partly upon victor’s justice.

This is why the pinnacle of the system is the UN Security Council (UNSC) which is a body with 15 members, five of which are permanent members (“the permanent 5”) with the power of veto on key issues.

It was the permanent five that won World War II: namely, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia (previously the Soviet Union) and China. It is the UNSC which has the power to make law in the sense of adopting binding measures, including sanctions on erring members of the international community, groups and individuals.

Precisely because power is in the hands of the few, it is difficult to raise issues of responsibility and accountability when one of those powers is seen to be jeopardising international relations and or to be contravening international law. Obviously, this is due to the fact that the concerned power is able to veto measures on substantive actions where they are an anathema to itself or its international standing.

Side by side with the UNSC, there is the UN General Assembly (UNGA) which is the most representative body in terms of numbers and participation of states.

At present, just over 190 countries are members of the UNGA. However, while it can take binding decisions concerning its internal working (such as budgets), it lacks the power to take such decisions in relation to its external relations, especially where one or more states are violating international law.

Its resolutions are generally non-binding. Yet, in the early 1950s, it adopted a famous resolution known as the Uniting for Peace Resolution (UFPR) advocating that it would take action, such as calling for an emergency session to tackle an international crisis, where the UNSC fails to function in relation to international peace and security.

There is a range of other organs of the UN, generally with limited powers, and they need to be seen in their totality — to be used well together to ensure as much leverage as possible where states misbehave.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is directly under the UNGA and can exert some power for accountability, but its work is also non-binding. The International Court of Justice depends upon the consent of states as protagonists to be involved in the cases calling for its deliberation. The UN’s Economic and Social Council does the softer work of development, while the UN Peace-building Commission is now more geared towards promoting sustainable peace.

In such context, the quest for peace, democracy, human rights and sustainable development invites creative ways of strengthening the system. One avenue is to understand the veto power in the UNSC pertains only to substantive matters, such as sanctions, and not to procedural matters, such as raising matters for discussion in the UNSC itself.

This is based on Article 27(2) UNC which stipulates that decisions of the Security Council on procedural matters shall be made by an affirmative vote of nine members. The veto of the permanent five cannot block procedural issues if there is an affirmative vote of nine out of 15 UNSC members.

A useful example of this avenue was seen most recently in regard to the Ukraine-Russia conflict. By Resolution 2623 (2022) adopted by the Security Council at its 8,980th meeting, on Feb 27, 2022, the UNSC was able to call for an emergency session of the UNGA to address that conflict.

The veto from one of the permanent five was not able to block this resolution as the requisite nine votes had been attained. More recently, the discussions in the UNSC on this basis have been important as briefings on the dangers posed by the conflict around the massive Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant which poses immense dangers to the region next door.

Another avenue is to call for the UNSC to use the “Arria Formula” whereby an informal discussion of key issues can take place next door to the formal chamber where the UNSC meets. This is a space where there is possibly more time for discussion and opens the door to more stakeholders to provide inputs indirectly to the UNSC. Again on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, this has been used on various occasions by both parties, such as on the issue of protection of cultural heritage.

More importantly, there is the linkage between the UNSC, UNGA and the UNHRC, resulting in the emergency session called for by the UNSC, then leading to a UNGA resolution suspending Russia’s membership of the UNHRC for its role in Ukraine.

Resolution A/RES/ES-11/1, dated March 18, citing both the UNC and the UFPR, and adopted by a majority of member states, is key to reiterating the sovereignty of Ukraine and countering aggression by the other party. There is a demand for the immediate cessation of use of force by Russia, as well for the latter to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”.

Of course, the sad and simple reality is that talk does not necessarily mean action. Yet the avenues above are still essential to advocate the preferred position internationally, thus helping to invigorate multilateralism, with a resonant message. Respect the UNC and opt for peaceful solutions on the basis of international law.

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University.

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

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