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North-South fault line in global politics

by Ramesh Thakur

On April 28 developing countries voted as a group at the United Nations to shelve management reforms proposed by Secretary General Kofi Annan in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal. Annan had requested more discretion and latitude in hiring, shifting and firing his staff, and controlling the organization’s resources. The developing countries first want many more clarifications and reassurances.

The explanation for the developing countries’ reservations is not that they are necessarily opposed to making the U.N. more effective. Rather, they are concerned about a power grab by the rich and powerful at their expense. They fear that if the General Assembly ceded control of the U.N. budget and staffing, the powers would quickly be appropriated by an ever more power-hungry Security Council.

In other words, the majority of the poor countries do not trust the secretary general to be able to resist the Security Council’s relentless encroachments. India’s ambassador Nirupam Sen complained recently that the secretary general has functioned as a secretary to the Security Council and a general to the General Assembly. Developing countries, which make up the numerical, and therefore voting, majority in the General Assembly but are largely ignored in the Security Council, want this reversed.

As the East-West divide ended with the passing of the Cold War, underlying differences between North and South became sharper. They are also more acute to the extent that the North coincides largely with the West while the global South corresponds largely with non-Western countries. This has become manifest not just in relation to U.N. management reforms, but also with regard to the relative priority given to development and security, the Doha round of trade negotiations, and relative responsibilities for protecting the environment.

The richer countries — the European Union, the United States, Japan and other Western countries, in order of contributions, pay 82 percent of the U.N. budget — supported the reform proposals. A financial crisis — yet another one — looms in June, especially as Washington has insisted on linking payment of the next stage of the U.N. budget to progress on management reform.

The impasse over management reform underlines two U.N. verities. First, reforming the composition and procedures of the Security Council is central, not peripheral, to broader U.N. reform agenda. Precisely because the Council is at the heart of the U.N. system, and has become dramatically more active and assertive in recent years — the Iranian nuclear crisis is the latest case in point — enhancing its representational, democratic and accountability credentials is critical to regaining the faith of the international community (which is wider than the West) in the United Nations.

Westerners want to use the U.N. to prescribe justice within borders, to reach deep into the domestic jurisdictions of other states, while preserving the status quo order among states. But many developing countries reverse the priority and wish to use the U.N. as the forum in which to bring greater justice in relations among nations, while privileging the status quo-oriented order within states.

The reason for much developing-country disquiet with the precedent of NATO action in Kosovo in 1999 was not because their abhorrence of ethnic cleansing was any less. Rather, it was because of their dissent from a world order that permitted or tolerated unilateral behavior by the strong and their preference for an order in which principles and values were embedded in universally applicable norms and the rough edges of power were softened by institutionalized multilateralism.

The lesson has been strongly reinforced by the Iraq war, and is complicating efforts by the world community to fashion a robust collective response to the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Darfur.

The hardening rift between the Western and developing countries extends well beyond the question of military intervention. Many developing countries assert a claim to the privilege of managing world order on a shared basis but exhibit a strong reluctance to accept the responsibility flowing from such privilege, for example with respect to protecting the victims of humanitarian atrocities.

Some powerful countries insist on claiming the benefits flowing from collective decision-making, in the form of greater legitimacy and authority, but resist constraints on policy options that would result from a genuinely shared process of international policymaking.

Curiously, the two feed on each other. The South points to the North’s monopoly of power to excuse its own lack of a sense of international responsibility; the North points to the many instances of the South’s failure to honor the international responsibility to protect to justify its refusal to restrict international policymaking to the collective U.N. forum.

The industrialized North demands tighter fiscal discipline, better governance, more respect for human rights, greater adherence to international regimes and more positions at senior policy levels in international organizations to ensure greater donor accountability.

The developing countries demand more aid, better access to rich markets, greater international labor mobility, a more equitable sharing of wealth and resources across the globe and — with markedly less success than the rich countries — more positions at senior policy levels in international organizations to redress a serious representational deficit.