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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-09-2019 11:01

United begins with ‘You’: the UN and Argentina

For Carlos Menem in the last decade of the century the UN was central to integrating Argentina into the world. The Kirchners regularly attended the General Assembly but coverage was dominated by their mixed messages on Iran.

September 24 should see President Mauricio Macri attending the United Nations General Assembly in Manhattan but it is unlikely to be a Ruby Tuesday – more grey-ish in colour, given the sad contrast between last year’s successful G20 head and today’s lame duck (in most eyes). But the UN has also seen better days. The Portuguese model and consensus are two of the most insistent proposals for the post-Macri future yet the current UN Secretary-General António Guterres (whose seven-year premiership of Portugal contributed to that model when he was a master of consensus as both a Catholic and a Socialist) has achieved the seemingly impossible of an even more invisible international leadership than the ultralow-profile Ban Ki-moon (2007-2016).

Minimal anticipation for this upcoming General Assembly but the vacuum in the global leadership for which the UN was created yawns wider than ever, with the monomaniac nationalism favoured by the Donald Trumps, Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings of this world while the “problems without passports” (in the celebrated phrase of 1997-2006 SecretaryGeneral Kofi Annan) are multiplying all the time – just take climate change, recently flagged by the Amazon blaze in Brazil (another giant ruled by a one-eyed Cyclops).

Yet this failure to show even symbolic or moral leadership (always attempted until the last decade or so) does not mean that the UN is a vapid bureaucracy or that its US$50-billion budget could not resist any cost-benefit analysis. An organisation whose pursuit of its eight Millennium Development Goals includes feeding 100 million destitute people daily and inoculating half the world is surely doing its bit towards world peace, even if it never makes the headlines. Even the most direct contribution to peacekeeping (the currently 82,000 Blue Helmets) has been surprisingly successful over the years since the Korean War (1950-1953) with even the most bellicose not feeling the same hostility towards neutral Scandinavians or timid Asians as towards “imperialistic” forces or traditional enemies – among other things, having Argentine and British troops marching side by side in Cyprus is a unique miracle.

But the end of the Cold War vastly multiplied the UN’s peacekeeping burden and, following frustrating experiences in places like Somalia and the Balkans, failure in Syria has hugely tarnished the organisation’s prestige, while the cause of that failure (Russian obstructionism in the Security Council) points to another frustration – the inability to give the UN a new architecture for the 21st century. Security Council reform was the subject of intense debate a decade ago but nothing has been done to unblock the negative power of the veto and who sees Brazil, Germany, India or Japan knocking at the door today? * * *

To begin at the beginning, the UN was the heir of the ineffective interwar 42-member League of Nations – conceived in mid1945, one month after Germany’s surrender with the UN Charter and formally born one month after Japan’s surrender, on October 24, 1945. In a still colonial world only a dozen of its 51 founding members were Afro-Asian, including China (then Kuomintang Nationalist with its UN representation only passing to the People’s Republic in 1971) and India (two years ahead of its independence) – today the Afro-Asian bloc is a comfortable majority with 107 of the current 193 members.

Structurally, the UN has five main organs, of which one is executive (the Secretariat), one legislative (the General Assembly) and one judicial (the World Court in The Hague). The 15-member Security Council (whose permanent members are Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States with veto power alongside 10 rotating members) has charge of international peace. The main organ with the lowest profile is the Economic and Social Council composed of 54 members representing all the world’s regions and elected for three-year terms. Under these organs is a host of specialised agencies too numerous for this space – apart from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (the subjects of previous columns), the best-known would be UNESCO (based in Paris), the World Health Organisation (Geneva), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (Rome) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (Vienna, and the subject of next Saturday’s column).

Since the first two Scandinavian heads – Norway’s Trygve Lie (1946-1952) and Sweden’s Dag HammarskjÖld (1953-1961), killed in an air crash while on a Congo peacekeeping mission – every UN chief until now has been re-elected except Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996). Before Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982- 1991), the secretaries-general were all European except Burmese U Thant (1961-1971) but Guterres is the first European since the controversial Kurt Waldheim (1972-1981).

As for funding, around 45 percent of the budget is financed by the five permanent Security Council members (almost half that by the US alone) while Japan (8.5 percent) and Germany (six percent) are other important contributors. Around 84 percent of the total comes from the 18 countries providing over one percent of the budget.

The latter do not include Argentina, on which we shall now focus. Argentina was one of the 51 founding members in 1945 – almost uniquely among post-war organisations due to its previous proAxis phases. Until the permanent return of democracy in 1983, the constant civilian-military alternation stood in the way of the evolution of a continuous relationship with the UN and little is recorded for the first four decades (apart from José Arce presiding over the 1948 General Assembly). Far more since then but this period has also coincided with the years since the 1982 South Atlantic War when the UN’s Decolonisation Committee has been virtually the only forum in the world where Argentina’s Malvinas sovereignty claims could be aired. Also a focal point for presidential General Assembly messages (occasionally forgotten) but this distraction has not entirely obstructed a broader agenda – not least the value of peacekeeping in giving the military a post-war role.

So important was the UN to Radical Foreign Minister Dante Caputo at least that he campaigned single-mindedly from 1983 to preside over the General Assembly, an ambition he attained in 1988 when he was a pro-active head (Argentina is one of just three countries to have given the General Assembly two presidents). For Carlos Menem in the last decade of the century the UN was central to integrating Argentina into the world. The Kirchners regularly attended the General Assembly but coverage was dominated by their mixed messages on Iran – a more positive note was Jorge Argüello’s presidency of the G77 (actually 133 countries) in 2011 when he achieved remarkable consensus among this latter-day Non-Aligned Movement.

Space running short but no matter – we will return to this subject once the new government’s degree of engagement with the UN becomes clear, hopefully before next September.

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Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys

Michael Soltys, who first entered the Buenos Aires Herald in 1983, held various editorial posts at the newspaper from 1990 and was the lead writer of the publication’s editorials from 1987 until 2017.

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