GA chief: Negotiations to reform UN Security Council must start now

Enough talking: for the sake of credibility, countries have to start real negotiations to reform the United Nations Security Council, said Joseph Deiss, president of the UN General Assembly, in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.


Joseph Deiss is current president of the United Nations General Assembly. He is an economist and Swiss politician.

Deiss was speaking to EurActiv's managing editor, Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The world is changing. We are facing more and more problems that cannot be solved by individual states. Yet it seems that both in Europe and elsewhere, there is a tendency to look at national interests rather than the common good. Would you agree?

Yes, I think we can say so. On the one hand, humanity faces global challenges - like poverty reduction, economic development, financial and economic crises, global warming, international terrorism and many more - that require common strategies and where the international community should be able to give priority to the common interest if we do not want the planet to collapse.

On the other hand, in some rich countries, there are worrisome developments with populist movements gaining ground. Our economies are still recovering from the economic and financial crises of 2008/2009 and many people are still jobless or fear losing their jobs.

This climate of uncertainty is compounded by recent events like the Arab spring and its inflows of refugees to Europe, as well as the risk of a nuclear catastrophe after the tsunami and earthquake in Japan, for instance.

With all this, I believe that the situation is indeed stressful for many people. Now, the issue is rather about the kind of response that is given by politicians and the focus on the short term and electoral cycles is dangerous.

We know from the past that protectionism and isolationism are costly policies. I had the opportunity to speak to the Swiss Federal Assembly at the end of last year, and I called on parliamentarians to remain true to our tradition of openness, democracy and multilateralism and to resist calls for populist solutions.

Policymakers have to face the facts: what can serve their short-term interests does not necessarily serve the long-term interests of their country.

Take migration for example: we know that migrants are essential to our ageing economies. The point is to design migration policies that take into account the absorption capacities of countries, but this should not equate with a backlash against the free movement of people.
The financial crisis has triggered a new kind of multilateralism expanding the G8 club to the G20. But is this the way to go or do we need a new form of cooperative approach? And which one?

From the outset, one has to acknowledge that the G20 was instrumental in rapidly addressing the crisis in a concerted and coordinated manner. But efficiency does not mean legitimacy, and with the G20, the 20 biggest world economies impose decisions on the rest of the planet, that is also on all those countries that are not present at their meetings.

This cannot be standard practice. I believe that the rise of the G20 on the international stage gave a healthy wake-up call: we definitely need global governance to address global challenges, but this system has to be efficient and representative: it must combine leadership, legitimacy and expertise.

In this respect, if the G20 can claim a comparative advantage as regards leadership, legitimacy lies with the United Nations and its General Assembly. With 192 member states, the General Assembly almost reaches universality and it represents the full diversity of interests at stake.

With its system of 'one country, one vote', it ensures that even the voice of the weakest can be heard. Since the start of my presidency, I have devoted much attention to reaffirming the central role of the United Nations in global governance.

In particular, as a first practical step, I organised informal debates of the General Assembly with the host country of the G20, Korea in 2010, before and after the G20 Seoul Summit. All the member states of the UN thus had the opportunity to discuss the topics on the agenda of the Summit and its results.

I am satisfied that this effort of bringing the G20 closer to the United Nations continues this year with the French Presidency. The French Ministers of Agriculture and of Labour responded to my invitation to brief the Assembly in New York and before the Cannes Summit, which will take place in November this year, there will be other opportunities for such debates.
In this context, much ink has been spilt over the issue of reforming the United Nations and more precisely the United Nations Security Council. What's your view?

My view is that, for the sake of credibility, we now have to start real negotiations! The reform of the UN Security Council has been a topic for about two decades already, without any significant progress.

I participated in a conference on Global Governance and Security Council Reform in Rome on 16 May. I thus had the opportunity to expose a couple of principles that I believe should inspire any reform. My point is not to impose any solution. This is not my role, the process is driven by the UN member states.

I rather hope to help create momentum to advance the reform. I insisted on five main principles: any solution should rally the broadest possible support, it should respect the core values that the UN stands for, including democracy, accountability, subsidiarity, transparency and inclusiveness, it should be simple, efficient and flexible: we do not want to lock ourselves in to a model that risks becoming obsolete in a few years.

I do not have much time till the end of my mandate in September, but I hope that member states will hear my call to progress and my offer that I am available and willing to move forward with them on this issue.
What kind of role would you see for emerging powers like China and India as they kick on in the global economy?

The emergence of China and India as important actors in the global economy and the reduction of poverty in these countries are among the major developments of the last decades and are central contributions to the solution of the major problems of humanity in present times.

The recognition of their increased role on the international stage comes with new duties and responsibilities.

Both China and India must be reliable partners. They have a critical and constructive role to play in addressing global issues, like development of the poorer countries or climate change. Furthermore, they can be instrumental in supporting ongoing reforms at the United Nations.

I think for instance about the reform of the UN Security Council. Finally, both countries have lessons to share with less developed countries and can support their development through South-South cooperation, trade and investment.
Some advocate more continental governance—taking the EU as a model—creating a more integrated African Union or Mercosur, for example. Would you think this the right approach? Can the European Union model be exported?

I am a fervent advocate of the European Union and I regret that my country is not a member. The European Union is a very special animal in today's world. To some extent, it goes beyond the Westphalian view of sovereign states and establishes a supranational authority.

This represents an enlightening example of what modern multilateral governance can achieve at the regional level. But this was not made overnight.

It took several decades. Therefore, you cannot expect it to be exported as a ready-made model to other world regions. Regional integration has to take into account the local specificities and its speed and its depth will vary from region to region. 

But it goes without saying that these other models of integration should, like the EU, be based on universal values such as democracy and human rights.

Today, existing regional organisations, like the EU, the African Union for instance, undoubtedly have a key role to play in global governance, as platforms to forge consensus on global issues at continental or regional level. The United Nations acknowledges this role and has close relations with these organisations.
Looking at the global economic situation: how can we deal with global imbalances? What implications does this have on international trade and the economic development of poorer countries?

As a liberal economist by training, I believe in the value of the market and in basic economic principles.

This does not mean that policies should not be put in place to address market failures or to mitigate adverse distributional impacts, but we should be mindful of adopting too interventionist policies.

Frankly speaking, I am often concerned by the kind of simplistic views that policymakers express on economic matters. In this respect, I am sceptical about the answer that the G20 intended to give to current account imbalances, to exchange rate movements or to higher food prices.

The latter is a case in point I believe. Huge volatility can indeed be harmful, but as regards the increase in prices itself, there is no better way to increase production than to have higher prices.

Therefore, rather than adopt protectionist policies, we should look at how to allow farmers, in the developed and the developing countries, to benefit from higher prices and get better revenues. We should also ensure that the poorest can indeed have access to food.

But help to those countries or people that cannot afford food should be better targeted. We should increase the means at their disposal, and avoid subsidising those who are not in the need.
Would you say we need a Global Economic Council?

We definitely need efficient and strong global economic governance. I do not think that we need to create a new Global Economic Council.

The instruments already exist. As I said before, the G20 is efficient, but the legitimacy is questionable. From my point of view, this part of the global governance, even in economic matters, rests with the United Nations.

So the point is to find the best articulation between efficiency and legitimacy and to strengthen the economic bodies of the United Nations, in order for them to take over a greater role in global economic governance.

This implies reforming the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations, which is currently not perceived as a major actor in this field. Its mandate has to be refocused on economic and financial issues. It is now far too broad and spans from economic issues to social and cultural ones, such as education, peacebuilding and human rights.

Would you say there needs to be a greater involvement of the private sector? Some think, for example, that the corporate world should be included in the UN climate talks.

The private sector is a major actor; it is instrumental in creating jobs and reducing poverty, in moving towards a greener economy, in promoting human rights, for instance.

Therefore, a global governance system that wants to be efficient, inclusive and representative has to encompass the private sector. We might think of better ways to engage with the private sector, but the UN Global Compact offers a useful platform to consult and involve the private sector in addressing global challenges.
Switzerland has always been the seat of many international organisations and at the core of devising global governance. Is the country shaping its role in the new millennium? Which one?

Yes, Switzerland is the seat of many important international organisations and Geneva, as one of the main UN offices abroad, is recognised as a center of excellence for human rights, migration, sustainable development and trade.

But, what I would like to highlight is that Switzerland is not only the seat of international organisations but is also strongly committed to multilateralism and is a member of many multilateral institutions, the United Nations, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, the Council of Europe to name just a few of them, and it is in this capacity that Switzerland can mainly shape its role in global governance.

By being a member of these organisations, we take an active part, we can express our views and participate in forging solutions. This is fundamental: let's just think that before 2002 when we became a member of the United Nations, we were just an observer, without any voice.

Or think of our situation as a non-member of the European Union: we take over most of the EU legislation without participating in its making, which is certainly not an ideal situation.