Oscar van Heerden | Does the Ukraine War lend itself to another San Francisco conference?

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A Ukrainian serviceman looks on after a strike on a warehouse on the outskirts of Lysychansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.
A Ukrainian serviceman looks on after a strike on a warehouse on the outskirts of Lysychansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.
Aris Messinis, AFP

With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, Oscar van Heerden asks if it constitutes a call for significant UN reform going forward?

In 1945, immediately after World War Two a conference was convened to agree on how global governance going forward would be managed. This conference came to finalise the United Nations Charter as we know it today. There's the permanent five of the Security Council and their respective veto rights, the general assembly along with all its concomitant UN sub-committees. This was deemed necessary given the absolute devastation caused by the war, mainly in Europe, from 1940-1945.  

There is no end in sight for this current war in Ukraine and effectively, several other countries are actively participating in this war as proxies. In other words, it is a crisis of epic proportions, impacting on energy shortages, particularly oil and gas, as well as food shortages in the form of grain and other products. Trade on goods and services are negatively impacted too and there's a proliferation of very sophisticated military weapons which can not be good for the region at all. Something must be done and done quickly to halt this war. The question we must ask in lieu of this is, "does the current Ukraine Russia war constitute a similar necessity". This necessity is to call for significant UN reform going forward.

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Richard Gowan, one of the UN Directors indicates in this regard that, "the Security Council has functioned without significant alteration for two decades since the Iraq crisis. So, in simplistic terms: 

  • Major wars involving the superpowers can lead to a fundamental change in the international system;
  • Lower-level crises can lead to technical and operational changes in how international institutions work; and
  • Some crises turn out to be wasted opportunities for reform. Where does the current Ukraine crisis fall on this spectrum and could it lead to a major renegotiation of the UN Charter, potentially including alterations to the Security Council's (UNSC) rules and composition?

Given the above, three matters to be considered would have to be:

  • Mechanisms for managing the global effects of unexpected shocks - whether pandemics, classical wars or natural disasters - on the international economy;
  • Mechanisms for countering misinformation and disinformation (especially in cyberspace) that exacerbate crises of all types and may drive new conflicts; and
  • Mechanisms for arms control and confidence building in an increasingly confrontational international environment.

Before we look into these three matters, it is important perhaps to also stress the South African government's approach to such proposed UN reform.

In my book, "Consistent or Confused? – the politics of Mbeki's foreign policy 1995-2007" I share a quote from former President Thabo Mbeki in this regard. He states that:  

At the centre of all multilateral engagements is the critical question of our time of how humanity should respond to the irreversible process of globalisation while addressing the fundamental changes that face the bulk of humanity. These include, poverty, underdevelopment, ill health, violent conflicts and the threat to the environment. These changes must necessarily address, amongst other things, the restructuring of the United Nations, including the Security Council. A review of the functions of such bodies as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the determination of the agenda and the manner of the operation of the World Trade Organisation and an assessment of the role of the group of eight major industrial nations. Central to these processes must be the objective of reversing the marginalisation of Africa and the rest of the South.

The commitment to democratise the institutions of global governance, primarily the UN, is a recurrent theme in South Africa's diplomacy.

The SA contribution is its crusading efforts to re-establish norms and principles of multilateralism in the operations of the UNSC, in particular, ensuring that the Council acts correctly and within the bounds of its Charter. We, however, increasingly see it is not behaving correctly, especially with regards to this current war in Ukraine. So, will this moment be supported by SA?

READ | Oscar van Heerden: Ukraine, Russia and SA - The non-sensical proxy war of the G7

Well, Gowan goes further and states that "my overall reading of the situation is therefore that -absent a huge and probably catastrophic escalation of the war - this is not a "new San Francisco moment" allowing for major reforms to the UN Charter or Security Council". He summarises his reasoning as follows: 

  • The UN security architecture, despite failing Ukraine, is still functioning in a way that the League of Nations Council did not in the later 1930s;
  • A lot of non-Western countries do not see the war as an existential crisis that demands reform of the UN system; and
  • China, a major stakeholder in the UN, is adopting a conservative tone.

The US and certain European countries might opportunistically call for such reform since they can now see that the system is designed in such a way that it actually protects an potential aggressor such a Russia but very little if anything will come of it since the very system time and time again also protects the US from all its aggressive ventures in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan to mention but a few in recent years.  

With regards to shocks to the international economy, measures will also have to be taken to avoid certain actions in the future. 

READ | Oscar van Heerden:  Ukraine-Russia conflict - Are we seeing the rise of a new world order?

Rushing towards sanctions against Russia has proven problematic, to say the least. The reversal effects of such ill-conceived sanctions meant that the better part of the region is also now suffering the consequences of such actions. 

Threats of halting oil and gas provisions to mainland Europe are on the cards, and with winter coming this could spell disaster for Germany and France in particular. Industries are negatively impacted and so much more. All of these also mean that the international financial system will have to be reformed and that issues such as sanctions, sovereignty and what China calls "bloc politics" (a stab at US alliances actions) must come under review.  

As for the misinformation and disinformation matter, the UN is currently a victim (or sometimes even an amplifier) of misinformation and disinformation, it is possible that the institution could also play a role in mitigating the malign effects of false information. The UN launched a series of online initiatives to combat misinformation during the Covid 19 pandemic, and "Our Common Agenda" repeatedly emphasises the need to promote "facts, science and knowledge" in an era of rumours, conspiracy theories and falsehoods.

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The UN is, Gowan says, an avowedly impartial international body that still enjoys high opinion ratings in many parts of the world is potentially well placed to play a role in promoting verified information about both conflict and non-conflict related issues. The closure of the airwaves to Russian TV and news outlets by the West speaks volumes about information warfare also plays an integral part in such conflicts. Another area that would require significant input and deliberations is if we are to protect the human right of freedom of speech and associations.

So, where does that leave the United Nations and us? To summarise, I concur with Richard Gowan when he states that: 

  • We are unlikely to see fundamental reforms to the UN Charter and Security Council in the near future;
  • We are more likely to see reforms to the mechanisms states can use to cooperate in response to future wars and associated shocks by economic, humanitarian and other means;
  • The UN may have a useful niche role in dealing with misinformation and disinformation; and
  • The UN's new security agenda remains opaque but must reflect a profoundly challenging international environment. 

The UN is at a perilous moment, but peril can help one think harder. Not sure where this leaves Ukraine and Russia though.

- Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He is currently the Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Fort Hare.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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