By Walden Bello*

(Comments delivered at a Seminar on ‘In Larger Freedom’ by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, New World Hotel, Makati, Philippines, 6 September 2005.)

In its section on “Freedom from Fear,” Secretary General Kofi Annan’s report In Larger Freedom presents a comprehensive approach to ensuring global security. Prevention of deadly conflict, it notes, “must be central to all of our efforts, from combating poverty and promoting sustainable development; through strengthening national capacities to manage conflict, promoting democracy and the rule of law, and curbing the flow of small arms and light weapons; to directing preventive operational activities, such as the use of good offices, Security Council missions and preventive deployments.”

One cannot but fully agree, and it is certainly a step forward that there is a growing consensus among us that development, peace-building, and conflict prevention must be undertaken simultaneously if initiatives at peace and security are to take hold and prosper.

This is, however, a consensus mainly among United Nations agencies, peace analysts and practitioners, and civil society actors. Moreover, the positive experiences in this area have been mainly at the local, micro level.

Unfortunately, at the global, macro level, trends are in the opposite direction, towards greater destabilization and thus greater human insecurity. What are these trends? The threat of international terrorism is one, as is the weakening of the multilateral regime on nuclear weapons, both of which are underlined by the document. But there are other very threatening developments, which unfortunately are either not mentioned or are, in my opinion, underemphasized by the document.

The first trend I would like to focus on is what the document euphemistically calls the move of some states “to find alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority” to use military force against other states. Never since the end of the Second World War have established norms of international law been more under threat than they are today. And what is disturbing is that the key destabilizer is the most powerful member of the global state system. It is ironic that there is lively debate on whether or not China is, to use the terms of international relations theory, a “status quo” or a “revisionist” power when the focus of the discussion should really be the United States.

There can be no doubt, in my view, that the US is a revisionist power, that is, one that seeks to radically alter the correlation of global power even more in its direction, if we take into account the following developments:

– Under the false pretext of eliminating weapons of mass destruction, the US has attacked the fundamental pillar of the UN system-the inviolability of the sovereignty of the nation-state-by invading and occupying Iraq.

– The Bush administration has set aside the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners by creating the new category of “enemy combatants” to allow certain prisoners to be subjected to unlawful punishment, including torture.

– White House executive orders have unlawfully extended the reach of the US state, allowing CIA agents, for example, to seize individuals in Italy, against Italian law, and bring those individuals to Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.

The second macro trend countering positive developments on the ground has been the undermining of development by the powerful multilateral economic agencies. Over the last two and a half decades, the stated goal of using trade policy to promote development, which was so well articulated by Raul Prebisch, the first secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), has been replaced by the subordination of development to free trade, corporate profitability, and the economic interests of the rich countries. This has been accompanied by the dominant position achieved by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization at the expense of the United Nations economic agencies in the system of global economic governance and the hegemony of the ideology of neo-liberalism.

More poverty, inequality, and economic stagnation have been the consequences of the neo-liberal paradigm, resulting in its loss of credibility and legitimacy. However, like the proverbial dead hand of the engineer on the throttle of the speeding train, neo-liberal policies continue to prevail nearly everywhere. But the problem is not only ideological, that is, a case of negative outcomes resulting from policies guided by wrong assumptions. The policies themselves are increasingly followed to consciously subvert the interests of developing countries.

At the International Monetary Fund (IMF), for instance, the rich countries have killed off all attempts to reform the decision-making system to give developing countries more weight in determining the policies of the agency. Likewise, an already very mild proposal that would have allowed developing countries to protect themselves from creditors while restructuring their external debt, the Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism (SDRM), was vetoed by the US.

At the World Bank, the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz, whose name is synonymous with unilateralism, heralds a new era in which the policies of the World Bank are likely to be oriented even more closely to what the American right defines as the national interests of the United States.

At the World Trade Organization (WTO), the so-called “July Framework Agreement” that serves as the negotiating document of the coming ministerial meeting in Hong Kong brazenly preserves the high levels of subsidization of agriculture in the European Union and the United States while demanding greater access to the markets of developing countries in order to dump subsidized commodities.

Because these negative trends in the global economic system create more poverty and inequality, they must be seen as a threat to global security, as reducing freedom from fear, and must be confronted directly by the UN and dealt with decisively.

Failure to do this has led to the third negative trend I would like to call your attention to, which is the usurpation of the role of the United Nations in leading the effort to meet global challenges by the Group of Eight. At the recent G8 Summit in Scotland in early July, the G8 staked out global leadership in the areas of debt, trade, aid, and climate change. This is hugely problematic for two reasons. First of all, the G8 is an informal, unelected, and unaccountable entity. Second, it represents the interests of the world’s most powerful countries, so that the proposals it has come up with for dealing with some of the world’s most pressing problems are tailored to fit primarily the interests of the dominant interests in those countries.

What is emerging in effect is a structure of global governance in which the G8 makes the key decisions of issues of global import, which are then implemented by the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, bypassing the UN system. What makes this power play so insidious is that it is being carried out with the rhetoric of achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and promoting global poverty reduction.

These then are some of the key trends at the macro, global level that can easily undermine the successes registered at the local, micro level by more coordination of development, peace-building, and conflict prevention efforts.

Fortunately, there are counter-forces to these negative global trends. What are these positive countertrends?

First, there is the global peace movement, the potential power of which was on display on 15 February 2003, when some 40 million people in hundreds of cities throughout the world marched against the projected invasion of Iraq. Probably one of the most stunning achievements of the movement was the convoking of the World Tribunals on Iraq (WTI) in New York, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Mumbai, South Korea, and a number of other cities. At its recent culminating session in Istanbul, the WTI’s Jury of Conscience headed by novelist Arundhati Roy adopted a resolution that is likely to have a moral influence on the course of events: it called on US and Coalition soldiers in Iraq to exercise their right of conscientious objection and called on communities throughout the world to provide haven to those who heed this call.

Second is the global justice movement, also known as movement against corporate-driven globalisation. This movement contributed mightily to the derailment of the WTO ministerial meetings in Seattle in 1999 and Cancun in 2003. While it is best known for its opposition to the IMF, WTO, and World Bank, this movement is also the site of an exciting process of generating alternatives to the dominant neo-liberal paradigm-alternative systems of development and global economic governance that would subordinate the market, trade, and profitability to the goals of development, economic justice, and social solidarity.

Third is the movement among Southern governments to band together to resist the continuing hegemony of the North. The months leading up to the WTO’s ministerial in Cancun in 2003 saw the emergence of the Group of 20, Group of 33, and Group of 90. The resistance of these groupings, along with that of civil society, prevented the Northern governments from railroading the ministerial. While these alliances have had their share of shortcomings, they nevertheless offer the possibility of serving as the springboard of efforts toward greater South-South economic cooperation outside the Bretton Woods-WTO framework.

Finally, many Southern governments as well as global civil society networks are slowly coming together around the UN reform process, out of a sense that while the UN system has many flaws, it still serves as one of the few existing global multilateral framework that can counter the trends towards a more unstable and inequitable world promoted by the dominant political and corporate interests.

This leads us to the question of UN reform, some positive proposals of which are laid out in the Secretary General’s document. However, most of the proposals lie at the level of improving efficiency. What are really needed are reforms that address the global imbalance of power among member states, which is the primordial cause of global insecurity. UN reform in the view of many governments and civil society networks is not what the United States government means by “UN reform,” which means further eroding the capacities of the UN. On the contrary, the progressive UN reform program contains, among others, the following:

– a greater effective decision-making role for the General Assembly;

– dilution of the power of the big powers in the Security Council, including the abolition of the anachronistic system of Five Permanent Members;

– increased ability of the UN and UN-linked judicial institutions, such as the International Criminal Court, to address and sanction departures from and violations of international law by powerful member countries, especially the United States;

– the end of double standards in the international security regime, foremost of which is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows a few states to maintain nuclear weapons while banning them from possession by others-meaning all states must get rid of their nuclear weaponry;

– strengthening of the UN system of economic agencies composed of, among others, UNCTAD, the Economic Commission for Latin American, and the Economic and Social Commission for the Asia Pacific, to serve as a counterweight to the Bretton Woods system and the WTO;

– the institutionalisation of a co-equal decision-making role for civil society-especially social movements–alongside governments, in the UN system.

In sum, we cannot divorce advances in promoting human security at the ground level from macro, global trends. Some of these trends are truly disturbing, especially the increasingly brazen unilateralism of the United States, which many analysts increasingly describe as evincing the characteristics of a rogue state. The United Nations system cannot remain relevant without directly confronting and moving to contain these trends, and it can perhaps do so most effectively by finding ways to harness those developments, such as the emergence of a more independently minded developing country bloc and the growing strength of global civil society, which are moving in the other, positive direction.

*Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines and Executive Director of Focus on the Global South.