September 24, 2007 | Op-ed

UN-Real Assembly

Last week the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly opened in New York. One can only imagine what Evelyn Waugh, author of the farcical Black Mischief, would have made of a global gathering with a president hailing from a state legally known as “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and seconded by no fewer than 21 vice presidents and six committee chairpersons. On their first full day in office, the aforementioned worthies gathered as the Orwellian-sounding “General Committee of the General Assembly.” Meeting behind closed doors for the first time in memory, they rejected a request by the Republic of China on Taiwan to place the question of its admission to the world body on this year’s agenda. The rejection effectively ends its 15th failed bid for membership in as many years, although it was the first time the application was made under the name of “Taiwan” rather than the formal historical appellation.

As Dan Steinbock warns, President Chen Shui-bian’s diplomatic maneuvers around Turtle Bay, as well as a planned referendum on Taiwan’s application for UN membership timed to coincide with the island’s presidential elections in March 2008, may well lead to a period of heightened tensions. While these initiatives should be approached with considerable caution, the issue that has escaped notice is the current architecture of the international system, one that is far less attuned to historical and political realities than Taiwan’s quest for greater international recognition.

The classical international legal position is contained in the “Montevideo Criteria” articulated in the first article the 1933 Convention on the Rights and Duties of States: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following characteristics: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” The third article of the convention also specified that “the political existence of the state is independent of the recognition of the other states.” The doctrine contained in the treaty, which was only signed by the United States and 18 Latin American republics, is considered customary international law and has been explicitly accepted as such by international and regional bodies, including the European Union.

Judging by these criteria, Taiwan’s claim to statehood and international personality is unassailable. It has a permanent population of 22.8 million, which would make it the 48th most populous state in the world (the UN acknowledges the existence of 193 states, 192 member states and one non-member state, the Holy See). It has a defined territory of 35,980 square kilometers, including Matsu and Quemoy islands and the Pescadores archipelago. It has a government which not only stands in historical continuity with that of the Republic of China, one the of founding members of the United Nations and an original permanent member of the Security Council, but is also considered one of the freest in the world. And, while the recognition of others is a not legal precondition of statehood, Taiwan has full diplomatic relations with 23 UN member states as well as the Holy See.

More important than these basic qualifications, however, is Taiwan’s economic, social, and geopolitical significance in the world. With a GDP of $346.7 billion, it has the 16th largest economy in the world, and the GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) of $29,500 puts its inhabitants on par with the citizens of the European Union. With foreign exchange reserves of $261.3 billion, it is the world’s fourth largest creditor nation, behind the People’s Republic of China, Japan and Russia. Despite the island’s imposed diplomatic isolation, Taiwanese agencies have carried out humanitarian and development work around the globe. In São Tomé and Príncipe, to cite one example, an ambitious malaria elimination program begun in 2003 has already reduced the infection rate among children, the most vulnerable group, from upwards of 35 percent to between 1 and 5 percent (the regional average is 17 percent). From the point of view of U.S. interests in the east Asian region, there is a place for increased cooperation with Taiwan, along with strengthened alliances with Japan and South Korea and new partnerships with India and Vietnam.

In contrast, the case for some of the countries sitting in judgment on the application last week is less clear, even by the minimal juridical requirements of the Montevideo Criteria. Can anyone seriously claim that the plenipotentiary of the ironically named Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the vice presidents on the General Committee, hails from a territorial nation-state in any meaningful sense of the term? Does the Iraqi envoy, another vice president, actually represent a functional government?

The General Assembly that would have deliberated over the Taiwan question—had it actually been placed on the agenda—has over the course of the last decade and a half seated the representatives of no fewer than 15 entities purporting to be the government of Somalia. The current Somali regime is so illegitimate in the eyes of its citizens and hence ineffectual that, notwithstanding the presence of 15,000 Ethiopian troops and 1,700 Ugandan peacekeepers, it cannot even keep the main market in the putative national capital of Mogadishu open—thus driving a quarter of the population to flee in the last four months. Nonetheless, in the phantasmal world of the United Nations, the “Transitional Federal Government” of Somalia is the legal sovereign of a “state” and its envoys have every right to sit in front of those of South Africa and Spain and cast a vote that carries the same weight. In fact, while the UN Charter contains a never-used provision for expelling members who “persistently” violate the seven principles outlined in Article 2, there is no mechanism for revisiting the credentials of members whose claim to sovereign statehood no longer has any basis in objective reality.

And while it will not countenance Taiwan’s participation in its deliberations, even on a non-voting basis, the UN’s 2006 Blue Book: Permanent Missions to the United Nations, No. 295 lists no fewer than 21 non-state “entities having received a standing invitation to participate as observers in the sessions and the work of the General Assembly and maintaining permanent offices at headquarters”—ranging from “Palestine” (“entity”) to the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organization and the Central American Integration System (“intergovernmental organizations”) to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (“other entity”). There are 35 other groups who may participate in the General Assembly but have not been accorded the privilege of claiming scarce office space. While both the basket case Palestinian Authority (which exports little more than terrorism) and the five-member customs union of Central America (which handles about $36 billion a year in imports) can have representatives at meetings of the General Assembly and its eight committees, Taiwan, a World Trade Organization member with an annual trade volume of over $420 billion, does not even have the right to be in the building.

In making his case for “pragmatic idealism” in TNI, former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III argued that Americans need to recognize and be prepared to accept that the United States will have to deal with authoritarian regimes and even talk to declared enemies. Earlier this year, Derek Chollet argued in a TNI essay that “a greater sense of sobriety about the limits of America’s power and influence to act alone” and “more appreciation for strong, effective international institutions” led to the realization that “in today’s world, if the UN didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it.” In their own way, both counsels are valid, but precisely because they are founded upon the realist notion articulated by Hans Morgenthau that the interest of the nation-state defined as power “is the perennial standard by which political action must be judged and directed.” A world body that continues to operate exclusively on surreal fictions of statehood and utopian notions of sovereign equality, while simultaneously failing to broaden its base to account for real-world power, condemns itself to increasing irrelevance.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University.