UN Membership: Recognition of Things as They Are, by Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow | Special to Abkhaz World

The 7 August 2008 entry of Georgian armed forces into the separatist Republic of South Ossetia, followed by an overwhelming response of South Ossetia's Russian allies evoked to many the “Guns of August”. The image of the “Guns of August” is a reminder of August 1914 when a rather minor incident, the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Serb nationalists led, by action and reaction, to World War I, changing the face of Europe and in many ways of world politics. One always knows how a conflict starts; one never knows how it ends.

Fortunately, the fighting did not spread and “a new Cold War” which some had predicted did not start.  Talks began in Geneva among representatives of Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Russian Federation, the United Nations, the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and the USA.  The talks did not modify the status quo — a situation which in OSCE terminology is ‘frozen‘ — that is, no settlement, the issues unresolved but no fighting.

The start of the Geneva talks, however, was a symbol of the willingness of all parties that armed violence should not continue or spread.  What is now certain after the recognition of their independence by Russia and a small number of other states is that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not be reintegrated into the Georgian state any more than Kosovo will again become an autonomous region of Serbia.

A Step Forward

In an article “Coming in from the Cold: UN Membership Needed for the Phantom Republics” (1), I suggested that Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and Kosovo be given UN membership as a necessary first step for security and a lessening of tensions.  I stressed that it was important “to find mutually acceptable forms of government in these conflicts which will require political creativity (breaking out of thinking in fixed patterns) and then new forms of federal-confederal types of government, greater popular participation in decision-making and new forms of protection of minorities.  Flexibility, compromise and cooperation are the hallmarks of success when it comes to resolving such conflicts concerning independence and autonomy. There is a need for a healing of past animosities and a growth of wider loyalties and cooperation.”

My proposal is for their simultaneous entry into membership into the UN as a necessary recognition of  “things as they are” — not necessarily the ideal or even “what might have been” but a recognition of reality.  Without such recognition, it is impossible to build a reasonable system to provide security and economic welfare.

There is one precedent for such a simultaneous entry of states into the UN — 1955 when the ‘logjam’ on membership was broken. During the first ‘hot round’ of the Cold War — the June 1950 to July 1953 Korean War — the Soviet Union and the USA blocked each others potential allies from UN membership.  At the end of the Korean War, there was a host of pending membership applications on which no progress had been made.  There seemed to be little possibility of moving things forward.

The 1955 membership issue was my start at looking closely at diplomatic negotiations around procedural issues at the UN. In a period when I should have spent my time chasing girls, I was a university student representative on the Executive Committee of what was then the United World Federalists in the USA. In 1955, the issue of a review conference on the UN Charter was to be placed automatically on the agenda of the General Assembly.  During the 1945 negotiations that led to the UN Charter, a review conference was to be placed on the agenda after 10 years.  This was a demand of some of the smaller States at San Francisco, in particular Australia.  It was expected in 1945 that such a review conference would be held and that was still the expectation in the period 1953-1954.  There was a good deal of reflection on how to improve and strengthen the Charter during such a Review Conference.  Universal membership was one of the demands of UN reformers, both some diplomats and activists such as those in the United World Federalists who had taken a lead on the Charter Review issue.

However, both the USA and the USSR opposed holding a Charter Review conference and brought most of their allies along with them.  The result was that when the Charter Review conference came upon the agenda, it was swept under the rug, and there has never been a review.  Nevertheless, the diplomats of the USA and the USSR felt that some of the ‘steam’ for a Review conference had to be lowered and this could be done by getting rid of “universal membership” as an issue.  Negotiations to break the logjam on pending applications started with the aim of making as close-to-possible balance between pro-USA, pro-USSR and neutral States entering the UN.  The negotiations were carried out in 1954 and in 1955, before the debate on Charter Review, the membership logjam broke and Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Laos, Libya, Nepal, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sri Lanka entered the UN. Japan should have been part of the group, but there was still the “enemy states” clause in the Charter which took more negotiations concerning Japan.  Japan only came in the next year, 1956.

The point I have repeatedly made is that membership does not solve difficulties; it just provides a framework where serious negotiations might be carried out.  The 1955 access to membership of Cambodia and Laos did not ‘solve’ the Indochina conflict. The French-led war in Vietnam had just finished and was to be followed a decade later by the US-led war.

2011— A Year of Opportunity?

2011 may be an occasion for breaking a new logjam with the simultaneous membership of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and Kosovo.  However, time is short for difficult negotiations before the September start of the General Assembly — membership issues coming up usually in the first weeks.  Membership issues have again become a “hot issue” with the possible request of the Palestinian Authority to upgrade its status from observer to full membership in the organization.  There is a good deal of discussion in the halls of the UN both in New York and Geneva as well as in Foreign Ministries in the hope that there can be an agreed-upon program of action (or non-action) by September when the new General Assembly meets.

One approach favored by the USA, some of the Western European members of the European Union, Israel, and perhaps some others more privately is that the membership issue should go away.  It is felt that there are enough problems in the world, especially in the Middle East not to have a complicated procedural battle in September.  To reinforce their argument the US and the Western European governments have a strong card — they can cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority.  The Palestinian Authority depends largely on external financing; thus cutting off financing is an argument that carries weight — even if it is called ‘blackmail’ in other settings.

Whatever the outcome of the Palestinian request, new UN membership has been pushed high on government agendas of concern.  Thus, these next few weeks is the time for cooperation among the authorities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and Kosovo to raise their membership demands as a joint  approach even if the original situation was different in each case. A joint approach will make the membership possibilities harder to ignore.

Existence is not Enough: The Liechtenstein Option

One should not expect a warm welcome to such new membership requests.  Palestine has had “observer status” at the UN for many years and has built up support among Arab and Islamic States but its membership is still in doubt.  Kosovo has been recognized by a good number of States but is still strongly opposed by some governments which fear the violent division of countries.  However, the relatively peaceful creation of South Sudan may be a model of new state-creation accepted and facilitated by the UN.

Arguments for UN membership for Abkhazia and the others must go beyond simply saying “we exist and therefore others should recognize us” to a more positive “we can play a useful role in the world community”. The positive role is what I call the Liechtenstein Option. Liechtenstein served as the not very disguised model for the 1955 novel by Leonard Wibberly The Mouse that Roared where it was presented as the Duchy of Grand Fenwich situated between Switzerland and France rather than its real location between Switzerland and Austria.

For a long time all of Liechtenstein’s foreign affairs was administered by Switzerland. However, when the Swiss in a referendum refused to join the UN, Liechtenstein joined the UN on its own in 1990.  The decision-making elite decided that it would shed “the mouse that roared” image and started taking an active and creative role in UN affairs. Liechtenstein also played a leading role in the review conference on the statute of the International Criminal Court. Liechtenstein diplomats are respected well beyond the size of the country. It has a small but well-trained diplomatic corps, and no one smiles when the Liechtenstein position is set out.

Thus the Liechtenstein Option is one that requires Abkhazia to play an independent and creative role for the benefit of the world society.

(1) Rene Wadlow. “The Phantom Republics” http://www.towardfreedom.com

Rene Wadlow, Senior Vice-President and Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens. Formerly, he was Professor and Director of Research, Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.




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