Plans for reforming the U.N. Security Council have touched off a furious debate in world capitals, and inflamed long-simmering regional rivalries. Battle lines are forming, as countries lobbying for permanent Council seats push for prompt action.
A grouping of nations calling itself "Uniting for Consensus" met in New York this week to promote what is known as "Plan B" for Security Council expansion. The plan calls for creation of a new category of semi-permanent Council members that would be chosen through regional elections to four-year renewable terms.
"Uniting for Consensus" is an unlikely coalition of countries brought together by their common opposition to a competing proposal known as Plan A. That proposal that would create six new permanent seats.
Germany, Japan, India and Brazil have put in a joint claim for four of the seats. The other two would go to African countries, probably South Africa and either Egypt or Nigeria.
The glue holding the so-called "Consensus group" together is opposition to one or another of the four main candidate countries. Italy, the main organizer, opposes Germany, Pakistan is opposed to arch-rival India, and Mexico opposes Brazil.
China is not among the group, but Chinese leaders -and street protestors in several Chinese cities -- have made no secret of their opposition to Japan's membership.
When asked for his views on expanding the Council, China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya used the word "consensus" repeatedly. "I think it is essential, because we believe on important issues such as this, if there is no consensus, then the U.N. membership might be divided," he said.
But in a speech to the General Assembly last week, Germany's U.N. Ambassador Gunter Pleuger ridiculed the idea of consensus, suggesting it was a code word for inaction. "Let us not fool ourselves. Everybody knows that consensus on this complex issue is not possible," he said.
Ambassador Pleuger served notice that Germany would push for speedy approval of Plan A. "Our position is clear. We are working on a reform resolution that should be put to a vote in May or June," he said.
The German announcement surprised many who had assumed that a vote on Council expansion would not come before September, at a U.N. summit of world leaders.
The Consensus Group sprung into action. Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini and senior Pakistani and Mexican officials flew to New York to rally opposition. They were joined at a public event by top ministers from like-minded countries South Korea, Argentina, Spain and a few others.
Speaking to reporters, Pakistani special envoy Inam ul Haque suggested that all countries should have equal access to Council membership. "What we have decided is to convince those that are still unconvinced that the Security Council should become more responsive to the needs of the international community. But our efforts will continue to achieve a consensus," he said.
Speaking through an interpreter, Italian Foreign Minister Fini rejected a reporter's suggestion that consensus was a code word for doing nothing on the critical issue of reform. "I don't think seeking widest possible consensus is a way of expressing opposition, nor is it a way of simply trying to delay the process. I think it is the main way to invigorate the United Nations system," he said.
South Korea's U.N. ambassador Kim Sam-hoon went a step further. In a General Assembly speech last week, he warned that any push for more permanent Security Council seats could damage prospects for much-needed U.N. reform. "The process is not likely to meet success, but will create serious divisions among the general membership, thereby casting a shadow on the prospects of the summit in September," he said.
The United States has not ruled out Security Council enlargement, but has set a high benchmark.
A U.S. State Department official told the General Assembly last week Washington would support a proposal for reform only if it enhances the Council's effectiveness. In an apparent reference to the Plan A/Plan B controversy, U.S. Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli called for a "broad consensus", and rejected calls for what she termed "artificial deadlines" for the reforms.