Ambassador Paul Seger of Switzerland Explains Key Goals and Strategies of the ACT Group

“Rather than start a complete renovation, we want to fix the plumbing ...”
Ambassador Paul Seger of Switzerland Explains Key Goals and Strategies of the ACT Group

An Interview with Lydia Swart, 11 June 2015

The ACT Group was launched in May 2013 by 21 countries aiming to reform the working methods of the Security Council. Focusing on the current Council, ACT’s efforts take place outside the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on Security Council reform, where the complex expansion debate dominates the discourse. The Center talked to ACT - Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency - on two of its priorities for this year: improving the appointment process of the UN Secretary General and veto restraint. Similar efforts are promoted by the Elders and the “1 for 7 Billion” campaign, among others.

What can you tell us about your membership - I gather you have 27 members that joined ACT by invitation? Are there criteria for ACT membership, and did you have to reject any country that had hoped to join?

Our membership consists of small and medium-sized countries. There is much interest in joining ACT, especially from countries from the global North, but we want to maintain regional balance. We are proud that the group has been expanding and that we are now 27 members from all the regions.

Do you exclude those countries that have a clear stake in the expansion debate? I understand that the Netherlands and Spain participated on veto restraint, but they are not on your list?

In order to clearly distinguish between our efforts and the IGN process, we prefer countries that do not have a strong profile on expansion issues. However, some countries not members of ACT are associated on a case-by-case basis in our sub-groups which focus on specific topics and which are quite autonomous. Uruguay, Spain and the Netherlands follow the sub-group chaired by Liechtenstein on the restriction of the use of the veto.

Looking at your recent fact sheet, am I right in surmising that ACT aims to harmonize its stance on restraining the veto with that of France? France seeks veto restraint in case of mass atrocities. Your focus is on war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide?

We understand atrocity crimes to cover genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes - all of these are well defined in international law. There is much convergence between the two efforts, but differences remain. For instance, the French proposal includes a set of triggers, such as having 50 Member States recommending that action be taken by the Council. ACT believes that you do not need a set of triggers when clear facts on the ground warrant action. The Secretary General should have a role - the Charter already allows him/her to bring issues to the attention of the Council. ACT also diverges with France on the issue of “vital national interest,” which would provide permanent members with an opt-out that would take away much of the intent of this effort.

What about references to Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court - will they figure in your proposal?

Genocide, War Crimes, and Crimes Against Humanity are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In my opinion, R2P and the ICC are “consumed” in our aims and need not be specified.

I take it your efforts will not take the form of a resolution? What standing will any outcome have?

In our proposal, all Council members - the permanent and non-permanent members alike, current and future members - would pledge to support timely and decisive action by the Security Council to prevent or end mass crimes or at least to refrain from voting against such efforts. Such a commitment could also be used as a criterion to vote for a Security Council candidate. It would allow the membership to elect future Council members depending on their willingness to have the Council live up to its promise. The Code of Conduct would not be a legally binding instrument, but a political document. At this point in time, rather than aiming at a General Assembly resolution, we are focusing on other options such as the elaboration of a “model pledge” that nations could subscribe to. Our goal is to present the Code of Conduct during this 70th anniversary year of the United Nations, with UN Day in October as a possible date for presenting the Code and inviting pledges.

Could the fact that the Secretary General (SG) election is one of many issues in the “revitalization of the General Assembly” debate end up complicating matters? The draft resolution from the Co-Chairs on revitalization comprises many issues, and in the UN, mixing multiple issues can often be used to stall matters? Can some of your efforts be put in motion before a resolution on GA revitalization is adopted in September? Isn’t the language on the SG election in the draft resolution a bit vague?

If you look at our letters to the President of the General Assembly (PGA) and the President of the Security Council, we hope to get the process of nominating the SG started soon. Both the current PGA, Sam Kutesa, and the PGA-elect from Denmark have shown a willingness to get involved. Malaysia - the current President of the Security Council - is also interested, as is the upcoming President, New Zealand. Since the SG nomination process is also part of the resolution on the GA revitalization, ACT has also requested the PGA to transmit the proposals to the Co-Chairs of this debate. We are currently proposing draft language to be included in the next version of the draft resolution.

There is much interest from NGOs in improving the election of the Secretary General. Does ACT collaborate with these initiatives and do NGOs have an influence?

NGOs such as are valuable partners since they do help push reform along, and so are the “the Elders” who have also called for reforming the nomination process of the SG. Their objectives and ideas are very welcome, but we have opted for starting with a set of simple proposals which can be implemented easily.

What are the stances of the P-5 towards your efforts?

First of all, our efforts are entirely compatible with the UN Charter and the Council’s prerogatives. Besides, they are quite moderate: we do not seek a complete renovation, just fix urgent plumbing issues. We have received much support from the permanent members France and the UK, and we hope to able to convince the other P-5 as well. In general, ACT aims at defining constructive positions and work with the members of the Security Council on various issues.

What are your other plans and objectives?

The reform of the SG’s nomination process and the Code of Conduct are just the two most visible projects, the “tip of the iceberg.” Much more goes on to improve the day-to-day business of the Security Council: To be more coherent in and accountable for its mandate, to involve the non-permanent members better, and to improve information for and interaction with the wider membership “who has its noses pressed against the windows of the Council,” as my former colleague from New Zealand once put it so well. The Council has improved its working methods a lot over the last years, but much more remains to be done. This is an ongoing process and ACT is committed to keeping engaged with the Security Council.