Expensive campaigns and diplomatic tradeoffs factor into the elections for the United Nation’s most powerful and exclusive body, the Security Council
UNITED NATIONS – Malaysia is set to win one of the most coveted seats in global diplomacy after highlighting its role in facilitating the Bangsamoro peace process.
The Southeast Asian nation is running unopposed for Asia’s seat at the United Nations Security Council, the world body’s most powerful and exclusive organ.
Malaysia is among 6 countries vying for 5 seats in elections to be held at the UN Headquarters in New York on Thursday, October 16. The other contenders are Angola, Venezuela, New Zealand, Spain and Turkey.
In campaigning for a seat since 2001, Muslim-majority Malaysia highlighted the concept of “moderation” in religion and politics as a tool for addressing conflict.
“It is a philosophy we have used when acting as an honest broker in peace processes in the Southern Philippines and elsewhere; and a principle we will pursue as we chair ASEAN next year, when it forms a 600-million strong ASEAN Community,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak before the UN General Assembly in September.
Malaysia is the third party facilitator of the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Kuala Lumpur has hosted the peace talks, while Najib committed to help the Philippines pursue development in the proposed Bangsamoro region in Mindanao.
Malaysia portrayed its image as a multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious nation as key to its campaign to join the body in charge of global peace and security.
“As a country where moderate Islam is the largest practiced religion, Malaysia believes it has a role to play in contributing to the Council’s thinking on how to tackle radicalization in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond,” said a primer of the Security Council Report.
Malaysia’s likely election comes as Kuala Lumpur police arrested this week suspects linked to the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Terrorism is one of the topics high on the Council’s agenda, and Malaysia is among the countries with citizens who joined ISIS as foreign terrorist fighters.
Despite Malaysia’s focus on moderation and counter-terrorism, Najib’s critics warned that his government might use the Security Council seat as a bargaining tool to reduce international criticism of its human rights record.
“Moderation stands in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s heavy-handed use of the Sedition Act to suppress speech by journalists, academics, students, lawyers, and politicians,” said Institut Rakyat, a think-tank linked to opposition party PKR.
Human rights groups including experts working with the UN have criticized Malaysia’s use of the colonial-era sedition law to crack down on dissidents.
Malaysia is running to replace South Korea in the Security Council for a two-year term that starts on January 1.
It needs votes from two-thirds of the UN member states, or 129 votes if all 193 members vote. If elected, this will be Malaysia’s fourth time to sit on the Council.
$20M campaigns and ‘swag bags’
The 15-member Security Council has the power to impose sanctions, authorize the use of force, and decide on peacekeeping operations. Its decisions are binding on all UN member states.
Winning a seat at the Council’s iconic horseshoe table will boost a country’s profile and international influence, making it a key global player.
This year, Angola is vying for Africa’s seat, Venezuela for Latin America’s while New Zealand, Spain and Turkey are tightly competing for only two seats for the so-called Western Europe and Others Group. The outgoing members are Rwanda, South Korea, Argentina, Australia, and Luxembourg.
Two contenders became controversial on the eve of the elections: Venezuela and Turkey.
Human rights groups and US senators including John McCain have called on US President Barack Obama to block Venezuela’s bid, citing the socialist government’s poor voting record at the UN Human Rights Council and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The US though opted not to publicly oppose Venezuela’s candidacy this time around, unlike in 2006.
As for Turkey, Ankara drew criticism in recent weeks for inaction as ISIS battles to control the strategic town of Kobane near its border with Syria. The US and Turkey’s Kurdish population have called on Turkey to intervene but the country’s long-running tensions with the Kurds are complicating the anti-ISIS campaign.
Despite the issues, the voting to be done in secret ballot at the UN General Assembly is expected to factor in other considerations.
Quid pro quo arrangements are typical between countries in an election foreign policy experts describe as a “kind of beauty contest for the popularity of particular countries.” The agreement can involve aid, a promise to focus on or avoid issues of concern, or swap a vote for another international body.
Citing diplomats’ estimates, the New York Times reported that campaigns for a Council seat could cost as much as $20 million or more.
“Swag bags filled with items imprinted with the logo of the campaign to be handed out within UN circles [are] believed to increase the outreach of the campaign. Customarily, on the day of the elections, permanent representatives are offered gifts by most candidates,” said the Security Council Report primer.
Why do countries spend so much for a seat in a body where 5 veto-wielding permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – have the most say anyway?
A Harvard Business School paper titled “How Much is a Seat on the Security Council Worth? Foreign Aid and Bribery at the United Nations” offers an explanation.
Citing the study, the UN Tribune reports that “developing countries serving on the Council see their aid from the US increase by 59% and aid from the UN increase by 8%, mostly coming from UNICEF, an agency long controlled by the US.”
Whichever way the elections go, the Council will be hard-pressed dealing with multiple crises ranging from terrorism to Ebola.
The Security Council Report does not expect much difference. “It seems that the current divisions in the Council over such issues as Ukraine, Syria or Israel/Palestine will not significantly change with the arrival of 5 new elected members.” – Rappler.com
Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is a 2014 fellow of the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She is in New York to cover the UN General Assembly, foreign policy, diplomacy, and world events.