A PAN-AFRICAN VISION
An African vision for global order would be based on the principle of equality and the need to redress historical wrongs. Africa’s political and intellectual tradition draws on its experience as a freedom-seeking continent, deriving insights from the anticolonial and antiapartheid struggles. This emphasis on self-determination is evident in the work of many African governments to advance economic development, which is the ultimate form of empowerment. Solidarity among African states and societies helped sustain the campaigns against colonialism and apartheid in the twentieth century. Today, that sentiment underpins the AU and its Agenda 2063, a development plan that seeks to transform the continent into an economic powerhouse. And although the pan-African project remains a work in progress—and more must be done to consolidate democratic governance across the continent—it has much to teach the world.
Africa is constantly struggling for a more equitable global order. As targets of historical injustice, Africans are leading voices for justice—defined as fairness, equality, accountability, and redress for past harms. African societies have also shown the world how to promote reconciliation between warring groups and communities, most notably in South Africa. Africans are “reconciliactors,” as they proved at independence. When the former colonial powers withdrew from Africa, Africans did not immediately retaliate against Europeans for the brutal and exploitative system that they imposed on the people of the continent.
This long record of pursuing peace and reconciliation gives Africans the moral authority to demand a reconfiguration of the global order. Indeed, segments of the African foreign-policy-making community are clamoring to reform the multilateral system, replacing an order based on might makes right with one grounded in the pursuit of self-determination, global solidarity, justice, and reconciliation. In particular, they are pushing to transform the UN system into something fairer and more consonant with Africa’s own historical experiences.
THE NEW MULTILATERALISM
No institution epitomizes the paternalistic exclusion of Africa more than the UN Security Council. According to the nonprofit International Peace Institute, more than half of Security Council meetings and 70 percent of Security Council resolutions with Chapter 7 mandates—those authorizing peacekeepers to use force—concern African security issues. Yet there are no African countries among the Security Council’s five permanent members, who are empowered to veto any resolution. The continent must make do with two or three rotating member seats that lack veto powers. It is a travesty of justice that African countries can only participate in deliberations and negotiations about their own futures on such unequal terms.
Africa has made the case for reform of the UN system before. In March 2005, the AU issued a proposal for reforming the world body that noted that “in 1945, when the UN was being formed, most of Africa was not represented and that in 1963, when the first reform took place, Africa was represented but was not in a particularly strong position.” The AU went on to state that “Africa is now in a position to influence the proposed UN reforms by maintaining her unity of purpose,” adding that “Africa’s goal is to be fully represented in all the decision-making organs of the UN, particularly in the Security Council.” But for almost 20 years, this appeal has been rebuffed by the permanent members of the Security Council, many of which are now scrambling to enlist African countries in their struggle over Ukraine.
Instead of attempting to resuscitate the 2005 AU proposal, which has largely been overtaken by events, African nations should go back to the drawing board and begin a new process for reforming the multilateral system. The founders of the UN recognized that the world body would not be able to survive indefinitely in its original form. As a result, they included a provision to review and amend its charter. Article 109 of the UN Charter enables a special “charter review conference” to be convened by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly and a vote from any nine of the members of the Security Council. Such a vote cannot be vetoed by the permanent members, which in the past have sabotaged attempts to reform the council. Theoretically, therefore, there are no major obstacles to convening a charter review conference, apart from securing a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. A coalition of African countries and other progressive states could immediately begin drafting a General Assembly resolution to put a charter review conference on the agenda.
Such a review conference would have the power to substantially alter the UN Charter and introduce new provisions that would transform the multilateral system. Unlike the current system, which privileges the interests of a few powerful states, the conference would be relatively democratic, since Article 109 states that “each member of the United Nations shall have one vote” and that provisions shall be approved by a two-thirds majority. Its recommendations would therefore hold a high degree of moral legitimacy, and the conference could further buttress its standing by conducting broad-based consultations with governments, civil society, businesses, trade unions, and academics.
The specifics of a revised multilateral system would be hashed out in the review conference, but the new order should be more democratic and better able to address the needs of the downtrodden—those who are displaced, affected by war, or simply impoverished. In practical terms, a new multilateral system should not be two tiered, as the current one is, since history has repeatedly shown that more powerful countries will abuse their privileged positions. No country should enjoy veto power over collective decision-making, and authority should be split between nation-states and supranational actors, including the AU, the EU, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Organization of American States. A world parliament akin to the current UN General Assembly, except with expanded democratic powers, might be reinforced by a global court of justice, both of which would have their own sources of funding—for instance, from taxes on international capital flows.
A SYSTEM REBORN
It would be naive to think that the beneficiaries of the current system, notably the five permanent members of the Security Council, would allow a review of the UN Charter simply because African countries have demanded one. Consequently, Africa will have to build a coalition of the willing, rallying the rest of the global South and whatever developed countries can be persuaded behind its bid to remake the multilateral system. But an institutional overhaul on this scale is not without precedent: other international organizations have transformed themselves in the past, notably the European Economic Community, which became the EU, and the Organization of African Unity, which became the AU.
African countries have an important role to play in reforming a multilateral system that is failing a majority of the world’s population. But until their interests and concerns are taken seriously, African governments will continue to pursue a strategy of nonalignment and intentional ambiguity in their dealings with major powers. Attempts to cajole or strong-arm them into picking a side in the latest might-makes-right contest in Ukraine are bound to fail, since no one in Africa believes that the international order is based on rules. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. Africa is showing the world how to build a fairer and more just global order.