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February 2008

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On December 19, 2007, Shoji Ogawa, the Consul General of Japan in Atlanta, spoke at a monthly meeting of the West Triangle (North Carolina) United Nations Association of the USA in Chapel Hill. Mr. Ogawa's comments, based on his three separate assignments as a Japanese diplomat at the UN, provided an interesting insider's view of the organization: what it is and is not, and what we can reasonably expect it to do and not to do. He addressed as well critical issues facing the UN, such as global climate change and the need for Security Council reform, and discussed what Japan and the United States can do together to make the organization more effective. Mr. Ogawa's remarks are not available on the web, and American Diplomacy thought them worthy of dissemination to a broader audience. We were fortunate in obtaining Mr. Ogawa's permission to republish them as they were delivered. He asked that we note that these are his personal views, not an official statement. - Assoc. Pub.

Ogawa | The UN: What It Can and Can't Do, And How the United States and Japan Can Make It More Effective

I am truly honored and delighted to speak before the members of the West Triangle Chapter of the UN Association of the United States. It is a pleasure to be back in Chapel Hill, a city with which I am quite familiar, as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is my daughter's alma mater, and I have had the opportunity to visit this area many times in the past.

When I received your invitation, I accepted without hesitation, as I spent many years of my career working on UN affairs, and through those experiences, I have come to believe that the UN deserves our strong support in order to secure a better and safer world.I served three assignment tours at the Japanese mission to the United Nations in New York, representing the Japanese government. During these three periods, I covered various fields, such as international economic problems including development, political affairs, and administrative and budgetary affairs. My work as a diplomat at the UN was an exciting experience. At the United Nations, you work with representatives from nearly all the countries of the world. The issues dealt with are incredibly diverse, ranging from the very technical to broad political matters.

A well known former American Ambassador to the UN once made a famous remark: “If the UN Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.” Of course, he said he was just joking, but it reveals a negative image or deep-rooted apathy that certain American officials and politicians hold for the UN.

It is sometimes fashionable to bash the UN for its failure to act effectively or label it as biased in matters such as the Palestine-Israeli conflict or human rights violations by certain member states.

I regret that the United Nations and its activities are often misunderstood or not accurately known, which may lead to unrealistically high expectations or unwarranted accusations of incompetence. I believe that it is very important for Americans to form balanced opinions on the United Nations and its activities, because U.S. policy toward the UN is of critical importance to the success or failure of its activities.

I would like to commend the objectives and activities of the UN Association of the USA. Your efforts to promote understanding of the United Nations and its activities are extremely important, and I hope that my presentation today will help you in your efforts to communicate the UN mission to Americans in this region.

Today, I will address three main questions: First, what is the UN? Second, what can the UN do, and what can't the UN do? And third, how can the United States and Japan make the UN effective and useful for us and for the world? I will do my best to make these points not by describing generalities but by illustrating specific activities and through my own experiences at the world body.

What is the UN?
Every year, during two weeks in the middle of September the traffic in New York City becomes impossible. World leaders, heads of state, presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers come to attend the United Nations General Assembly to deliver their policy speeches. They gather not only to deliver speeches, but also to take advantage of this occasion to meet other leaders bilaterally and in groups. These meetings take place at the delegate lounges in the UN building, in the offices of various countries' missions, and at in the hotels where these leaders stay. They move around Manhattan from one place to another with Secret Service bodyguards in motorcades, making the already bad Manhattan traffic hopeless.

One particular memory I have from working as a junior Japanese delegate at the UN during the General Assembly is sitting and waiting with a few of my colleagues on delegate lounge sofas, in order to secure a place for our prime minister or foreign minister to meet with the ministers from other countries. It was not a very pleasant job. When I walked through the lounge, I saw many people that one usually only sees in newspapers and on television, like Cuban President Fidel Castro, then-PLO chairman Arafat, and other well known figures passing by or having talks here and there. It was a fascinating scene.

What I would like to convey through these memories is that the UN is a huge debating club, a melting pot of various perspectives, where world opinions are forged through meetings, debates, and negotiations. At present, the UN is the most universal international organization, represented by 192 of the world's countries. It provides an indispensable forum to discuss all kinds of international issues.

The UN is often attacked with claims, particularly by the United States, that it is unduly biased in certain matters such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and human rights issues. This is due to the fact that many members of the UN are countries with sympathetic positions toward Arab states or countries without democratic systems of governance. It is not the fault of the UN, but the reality of the present world.

The UN is not a super-national body, as may be misunderstood by many people and even by some politicians. The policies and actions of the UN are decided through agreements by member states, not by the international bureaucrats working for the UN Secretariat. The Secretariat is merely an executive body to implement the policies and activities dictated by the member states.

Therefore, the UN cannot act effectively if member states, particularly major powers like the United States, Russia, China and other regional powers, do not support UN actions. That's why the Security Council, the most important and powerful organ of the UN, has five permanent members with veto power.

What the UN Can and Cannot Do
This leads to my second point: What the UN can and cannot do. When I was serving as the Japanese delegate in charge of political affairs at the Japanese Mission to the UN, most recently from 1994 to 1997, the most pressing issue was the conflict in the former Yugoslavian Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina. The UN peacekeeping forces that were deployed to protect Muslim inhabitants did not have sufficient military capability nor authority to respond to attacks from Serbian forces, because Russia, favoring the Serbian faction, did not support giving a strong mandate to UN forces. Also, the Western powers including the United States were reluctant to directly intervene in the conflict.

Consequently, UN forces suffered humiliating capitulation to Serbian attacks and remained powerless before the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Serbs. The situation improved and peace was finally achieved when the United States intervened and negotiations between warring factions produced an agreement in Dayton, Ohio. The peacekeeping responsibility was assigned to NATO, replacing UN peacekeeping forces.

On the other hand, the Lebanon crisis that arose as a result of Israel's attack and invasion in the summer of 2006 was effectively dealt with in the context of the UN, as major powers supported sending UN peacekeeping forces into southern Lebanon to monitor compliance with the Security Council resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal and the cessation of hostilities by Hezbollah forces.

In this case, even Israel, which regards the UN as biased against it, admitted the usefulness of the UN's role in maintaining the stability of the border with Lebanon, and agreed to the deployment of UN forces in southern Lebanon.

From these examples, we can say that the UN is a reflection of the realities of international politics. Nothing more, nothing less. Therefore, it is unfair to accuse the UN when it cannot act effectively as in the cases of Bosnia Herzegovina, the Rwandan massacre, or Darfur, because in each of these situations, there was no strong support by major powers to act quickly and effectively.

However, when agreement does exist among major powers, as in the case of Lebanon or North Korea's missile and nuclear testing last year, the UN is a useful instrument to advance the cause of international peace and security by providing an effective means of implementing agreements or exerting political pressure on the international community.

UN and Global Issues
We are faced with many issues that require global cooperation and actions. The most prominent issues among them are; climate change, the fight against international terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The UN and its affiliated international agencies and organizations are an indispensable forum to discuss, negotiate, and implement joint policies to address those issues.

The United States and Japan can and should take initiative with all those issues through the context of the UN. With regard to the issue of climate change, the process for negotiating a post-Kyoto Protocol framework started with the COP 13 conference in Bali, Indonesia. The conference concluded just a few days ago with the adoption of the Bali Road Map, which laid out a basic direction for negotiations to reach a final agreement by 2009.

The success of this process largely depends on the participation of the two largest countries, the United States and China.

If the United States remains committed to participating in the post-Kyoto framework, there are many things that the United States and Japan can do to form consensus and to implement effective international action on this difficult but critical world issue.

With regard to the fight against terrorism, the United States and Japan have already been cooperating closely. Japan strongly supported U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and participated in both operations.

Also, the United States and Japan have already been working closely to prevent proliferation of WMD. Last year when North Korea conducted missile and nuclear tests, the United States and Japan, through action within the UN Security Council, collaborated closely in forming international joint action against North Korea and passed a resolution to impose sanctions and condemn North Korea's actions.

Security Council Reform
Such cooperation was possible because Japan happened to occupy a non-permanent seat on the Security Council at the time. In this connection, I would like to draw your attention to Japan's efforts to become a permanent member of the Security Council through reforming the Council's structure and function.

The Security Council consists of 15 members, five permanent and ten non-permanent members. The big five, the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia, have veto powers. This structure has remained unchanged since the inception of the UN, although membership has expanded from about 50 in the beginning to 192 at present, and the political power structure of the UN has drastically changed. The argument put forth by countries aspiring to become permanent members of the Security Council - namely Japan, Germany, India, and Brazil - is that there is a strong need to reform the Security Council in order to make it more reflective of today's international political realities. The specific proposal put forward by these four countries was to increase the number of seats from the present 15 to 25, including both permanent and non-permanent seats.

The United States supports Japan's bid to become a permanent member, but it does not support the others' bids and objects to expansion beyond 20 seats. The issue of Security Council reform is extremely complex as the positions of member states are so divergent. For example, Pakistan opposes India's bid to become a permanent member, China opposes Japan's bid, Argentina opposes Brazil's bid, and so on. I was deeply involved in committee discussions on this issue from 1994-97, but still today no agreement is in sight.

I believe that the key to reaching an agreement is the position of the United States, which is not thus far very enthusiastic about advancing negotiations. Japan hopes the United States will modify its position so that Japan can become a permanent member, strengthening the position of like-minded countries in the Security Council.

How Can the United States and Japan Make the UN Effective and Efficient?
At present, the United States is the largest contributor to the UN, and Japan is the second largest. How can we make the UN more effective and efficient?

First of all, I believe that the United States should recognize the utility of the UN as an invaluable instrument in advancing the interests of Western democracies as well as in tackling global issues. Most basically, the UN charter embodies the ideals espoused by the United States and other democracies. Achieving international peace and security, the respect of human rights, and the promotion of democracy are our common goals, and strong U.S. support of these principles through UN activities will immensely improve its image in the world.

From a more pragmatic viewpoint, by securing UN authorization, the United States can gain international legitimacy in its actions. A specific case in point is the decision to wage war in Iraq in 2003. When the United States sought support from allies and other countries, many countries, including Japan and the UK, urged the United States to obtain a UN Security Council resolution to specifically authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.

Japan and United Kingdom's argument in favor of obtaining a Security Council resolution was not strictly legal but rather political. If the UN specifically approved U.S. action, it would have been much easier politically to gain domestic support to cooperate with the United States in the war against Saddam's regime. In the end, both the UK and Japan supported U.S. action and sent forces to Iraq, but these decisions were extremely unpopular in both countries.

It is my strong belief that the United States should recognize the value of the UN, as its authorization gives legitimacy to U.S. actions, and consequently that gives allies and friendly governments more political leverage to generate domestic opinion in support of their cooperation with the United States.

In today's world, even a superpower like the United States alone cannot deal with the formidable challenges of world problems. It needs cooperation from allies and other friendly countries. Therefore, the United States must consider the political sensitiveness of other countries. Going through the UN takes time and is often a frustrating process, but it is worth trying as it would result in more effective and stronger international actions, and would ultimately better serve the interests of the United States.

Although the UN is often criticized as a huge, inefficient bureaucracy, it has accumulated and possesses tremendous expertise and knowledge in many fields, and its Secretariat has many dedicated international civil servants. We should take advantage of these assets while keeping in check the duplication and waste of international bureaucracy. The United States and Japan, as the largest and second largest donors, should work together to make the UN more efficient.

In conclusion, I would like to make three points to summarize my presentation:

  • First, the United Nations is neither an omnipotent nor an impotent organization. We should recognize the limits of its capabilities, but at the same time acknowledge its potential utility. It is, after all, a reflection of the realities of the international power structure. Making the UN effective and efficient requires a proper and balanced perspective on the organization. It also requires pragmatism and realism.
  • Second, we do not have any other structure as universal as the UN, with its expertise and human resources to deal with varied global issues. We should take advantage of this asset rather than denigrating or sidelining it.
  • Third and lastly, there are many things that the United States and Japan can do to make the UN a more effective and efficient organization serving the best interests of our two countries and the world. In order for us to do that, proper understanding of the UN by both our peoples is indispensable. Your organization, the United Nations Association of the United States of America, plays an important role in informing and mobilizing your fellow Americans in support of the United Nations, and I hope that you will continue to promote such understanding through various activities, programs, and policy platforms.

A career Foreign Service Officer since 1971, Shoji Ogawa has served at the Japanese mission to the UN and at embassies in Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Ireland, and Denmark, as well as in key posts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was head of the liaison office of the Foreign Ministry in Samawah, Iraq, where the Japanese Self Defense Forces have been deployed for humanitarian and reconstruction activities, before coming to Atlanta as consul general in 2005.

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