Photo: Opening of the Review and Extension Conference of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 17 April 1995. Seated on the podium from left to right: UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; President of the Conference, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala (Sri Lanka); Secretary-General of the Conference, Prvoslav Davinić. Credit: UN Photo by Evan Schneider # 68537. - Photo: 2024

Jayantha Dhanapala: An Outstanding Practitioner of Multilateralism at its Best—Part 2

By HMGS Palihakkara*

Read Part 1:

COLOMBO | 5 June 2024 (IDN) — On the challenge of Artificial Intelligence (AI), there is an animated ongoing discourse about the vistas of material advances AI promises as well as the dangers it can morph into. The human penchant to weaponise almost every technology they invent is well documented. The spectrum of potential war-making applications AI seems to offer is vast and even bewildering.

The AI weaponisation appears to be well on track already. The handy work of the AI-drone combination in causing loss of life and material devastation in the current theatres of war in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, is proof enough.

Tech giants predict that a microchip will be available for less than $5 sooner than later. Cheap drones are already in destructive business. These two technologies represent a weapon of choice for state and non-state actors.

Given the strategic and tactical leverage offered by AI, big tech companies and their host governments will have significant financial and strategic stakes in developing regulatory or oversight regimes in this domain. These then have to be negotiated and administered by multilateral means. The preliminary exploration of this issue under UN auspices does not seem to have made much headway.

As one of my dialogue partners from across the Palk Strait commented in a lighter vein, the multilateral system needs to respond quicker before the AI-equipped cheap drones can become the poor man’s weapon of mass destruction!

Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala was an early responder to this menace long before it manifested on ongoing battlefields. Nearly ten years before his passing, he cautioned an international conference in Geneva about the looming danger of ‘AI-equipped autonomous weapons’ and their proliferation, especially among non-state players. This will therefore remain a complex but indispensable agenda item on the multilateral issue paper.

All this will put to the test the relevance and role of multilateralism in a world buffeted by conflict and multiple shifts in alliances and power centres, while the order that is emerging is increasingly multipolar. Many strategists have opined, however, that a multipolar world and an order that was in flux needed more multilateralism than ever before.

A series of resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council since 2018 have sought to reiterate commitment to multilateralism, the central role of the UN therein, and the need for reinvigorated multilateralism to address emerging challenges. The clear message is that multilateralism and related systems remain at the core of the rules-based international order.

These declarations of good intentions in and of themselves represent good paperwork. However, they are too feeble, in my view, to address the underlying structural and strategic issues contributing to persistent inertia within the system.

The conduct of multilateralism is supposedly based on the principle of sovereign equality. However, the veto-dominated decision-making in the UN Security Council (UNSC) is clearly unequal. That process is dictated by the self-interest of one or more of the five veto wielders and not necessarily by the Charter-mandated principles.

UNSC: Double standards at its worst

The annals of the Security Council are littered with many such vetoes. Two of the latest examples, quite frankly, are diplomatic abominations. They are the Russian veto of resolutions condemning its own blatant aggression in Ukraine and the American veto of resolutions asking Israel to briefly stop obliterating Gaza and the Gazans by dropping US-supplied 2000-pound bombs on these hapless people.

While the UN Security Council, the apex body of UN multilateralism that is supposed to oversee the so-called ‘rules-based order’, continues to practice the ‘rule of force’, there will be little or no credibility for the rest of the multilateral system to preach the ‘force of rule’ to other member states.

This is a double standard at its worst. Selectively using the rule of force in inter-state relations while selectively preaching the rule of law in intra-state activity will progressively enfeeble the legal and moral authority of the Charter-based multilateral system.

Redressing this anomaly of the rule of law vs. the rule of force and the attendant credibility gap will be an essential part of UN reforms. This is a catch-22 situation, perhaps a conundrum beyond resolution, because the reform project itself has long been straight-jacketed by the threat of veto by Permanent Members.

Some analysts ask, perhaps unfairly: Will the UN-centric multilateral system remain a glorified appendage of the balance of power architecture manipulated by the P5 countries? This question has some substance, though.

Will major powers continue to bypass the UN to wage war and make peace, as in the case of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and now Ukraine and Palestine? Will the UN be called upon only to clear the humanitarian debris when the intervening powers declare victory (as in Iraq and now in Palestine or Ukraine) or cut and run (as in Afghanistan)?

These are not easy to dismiss as provocative polemics. Empirical evidence stares at us.

However, despite these challenges in certain fields, the UN’s norm-setting and field activity and programmes by UN agencies such as WHO, ILO, FAO, UNHCR, and UNICEF remain great human achievements in a world afflicted by an array of man-made and natural disasters.

They have done some sterling work to promote international cooperation in technical, humanitarian, human rights, and socio-economic fields. Our country immensely benefited from these technical inputs, and due in no small measure to that cooperation, we achieved remarkably high human development standards, quite disproportionate to our GDP punch.

It would be fair to say that the UN multilateral system has achieved gold standards in norm-setting and humanitarian affairs but is burdened with double standards in implementation and monitoring. Redressing this contradiction between gold standards in norms and double standards in practice remains a difficult but indispensable challenge for the system.

Loss of legitimacy happens when any entity persistently refuses or ignores to deliver on the mandates it was entrusted with by its constitutive instruments or by its membership. It is a strange logic, besides being a legitimacy deficit, if the Security Council feels itself insecure to be able to address threats to international peace and security, as has happened in relation to situations in Ukraine and Palestine today and in many other situations in the recent past.

In the final analysis, it is the states which constitute the membership of a multilateral body, that are responsible for inaction, inconsistent action or procrastination bearing upon its efficacy. If the Security Council does not act amidst growing threats to international peace and security, despite the majority voting to act, it is that member who bears responsibility for its inaction.

Often, though, it is the case that the member concerned has no political will to act. As Gareth Evans, one-time Foreign Affairs Minister of Australia, has said, “Political will is never waiting in a cupboard to be found; it has to be nurtured and generated…..”

The news about three European Nations breaking ranks with the conventional ‘US-led Western democracy’ posture  in order to recognise Palestine’s statehood perhaps signifies that a ‘will-inspiring Cupboard’, albeit with a lot of skeletons, has at last been found among the ruins and horrors in Gaza!

So, the moral of this pragmatism is that despite many deficits inherent in the current UN-centric multilateral system, not even a diplomatic ‘lion-heart’ will attempt to look for an alternative to the UN. Given the current state of flux in international affairs, the adversarial trajectory of force relationships, and, of course, the fallible nature of human decision-making, it would be impossible to negotiate a consensus to remake a new United Nations.

Instead, slow and grinding reforms to the current architecture will likely be the way forward. Predictably, this truism did not escape the seasoned scrutiny of Jayantha Dhanapala. Writing a tribute to him in the Financial Times of June 13, 2023, former US diplomat Dr. Patrick Mendis quotes him as saying in this regard: “I want to be a practical idealist, even if it is an oxymoron!”

For Jayantha Dhanapala, it was a professional journey driven by the ideal of multilateralism. There was a strong, unflinching consensus-building thrust to it as well, which remained the hallmark of Sri Lankan diplomacy back then. From the NAM stewardship of the 1970s to the Law of the Sea in the 1980s and the NPT in 1995, Sri Lanka had maintained a consistent track record as an international consensus builder in some ground-breaking diplomatic endeavours.

It created for ourselves a diplomatic profile quite disproportionate to our GDP punch and our demographic and economic attributes. All this testifies to the kind of diplomacy the young professionals of our generation were field-tested with, using the likes of Jayantha Dhanapala as templates.

As we pay tribute to him, I am certain that all of us will recall all that with admiration, gratitude, and professional pride.

*HMGS Palihakkara is former Foreign Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka and former Ambassador to the United Nations. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Opening of the Review and Extension Conference of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, United Nations Headquarters, New York, 17 April 1995. Seated on the podium from left to right: UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; President of the Conference, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala (Sri Lanka); Secretary-General of the Conference, Prvoslav Davinić. Credit: UN Photo by Evan Schneider # 68537.

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