San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Country Wins U.N. Council Seat

Costa Rica has new leverage to push its ambitious global agenda, thanks to a new position on the U.N. Security Council.

The country beat the Dominican Republic Tuesday for a nonpermanent seat on the council from 2008-9. The Dominican Republic withdrew its candidacy after snagging just 70 votes to Costa Rica’s 119.

Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno said Costa Rica will use its new post to promote human rights, Security Council reform, nuclear nonproliferation and reductions in military spending. Such an agenda could face resistance within the 15-member council, Stagno admitted.

“We are going to brush up against some vested interests,” he said. “But that’s part of diplomacy.”

This will be Costa Rica’s third seat on the Security Council, following terms in 1974-5 and 1997-8. The council is seen as the real power center at the United Nations. Responsible for maintaining international peace and security, the council can issue cease-fire directives, send U.N. peace-keeping forces and call for economic sanctions or collective military action. It is the only body in the United Nations whose decisions can be binding for U.N. members.

The council has five permanent members – the United States, China, Great Britain, France and Russia – and 10 nonpermanent members elected for two-year terms. Each year, five countries on the council are replaced by five others from the same regions.

A nonpermanent seat can be a mixed blessing, said Simon Chesterman, a U.N. expert and professor at New York University (NYU) School of Law. Council countries have found themselves forced to opine on prickly issues, such as the level of danger posed by Iraq in 2002-3.

“Getting onto the Security Council is an achievement, a recognition of status, but it can force a country to take very awkward political decisions,” he said. “I suppose it’s a question of be careful what you wish for.”

Still, Chesterman said the council does give small countries a platform to promote an issue and even make a difference on the world scene. President Oscar Arias and Stagno are aiming for just that.

In a speech this month before the U.N. General Assembly, Stagno said he would continue pushing for the Arms Trade Treaty. The agreement, which Arias helped draft, would essentially prohibit governments from selling weapons to known human rights violators (TT, March 17, 2006).

Stagno also hopes to jump-start the Costa Rica Consensus, a proposal of the Arias administration that international aid be reconfigured to reward countries that limit military spending.

Stagno has also promised an “intense campaign” for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which would come into force after being ratified by all 44 countries with nuclear technology. Some 10 countries must still be convinced, he said.

The council seat will also give more visibility to the Arias administration’s campaign to limit climate change, as spelled out in his Peace with Nature plan, two analysts said. Arias hopes to lead a group of countries in balancing carbon output with carbon input, largely through reforestation (TT, July 27).

We should not expect quick results from such an ambitious agenda, said Luis Guillermo Solís, a historian at the Latin American Faculty on Social Sciences (FLACSO). But, he said, the country’s efforts will help lay the groundwork for eventual change.

“You don’t carry petty stuff to the Security Council. You bring big visions to discuss there,” he said.

Costa Rica will send a handful of representatives to New York, where the United Nations sits, to complement an eight-member staff there, Stagno said. Some “24 months of intense work” await them.

A Feverish Campaign

Stagno campaigned tirelessly for the hard-won seat. He visited 12 African countries in late August in a bid for votes. Some 60% of the Security Council’s agenda deals with situations in Africa, Stagno explained later at a press conference.

He also met with more than 70 foreign ministers in New York in recent weeks, said Miguel Diaz, press officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By the time the United Nations voted, Stagno said, he had more than 100 written promises of support.

All 192 members of the U.N. General Assembly can vote for the nonpermanent Security Council members in a secret ballot.

The winner must receive support from two-thirds of the states present and voting.

The election is largely not merit-based, said NYU’s Chersterman.

“It’s kind of like a school election where it’s partly popularity contest, partly friendship,” he said.

That counted in favor of Stagno, who served as ambassador to the United Nations from 2002-6.

“He’s got a lot of friends and a lot of admirers at the U.N.” said Chesterman, who counts himself among them. The greatest obstacle for Costa Rica was also one of its strengths: The country has already served twice on the Security Council, while the Dominican Republic never has.

Chesterman said that could have made a difference to smaller countries, concerned with notions of fairness.

After the first round of elections Tuesday, Costa Rica had 116 votes – more than in either of its previous wins, Stagno said. But the country still did not have the two-thirds required for a win. After a second round proved inconclusive, Henriquillo del Rosario, the Dominican Republic’s interim ambassador to the United Nations withdrew the country’s candidacy, and the few campaign spats were buried in diplomatic niceties.

“We want to show the world our solidarity with Latin America and with Costa Rica, a country that we love.We have always been brothers,” del Rosario said.

Libya, Vietnam, Burkina Faso and Croatia were elected to the Security Council the same day. The other nonpermanent members for 2008 are Belgium, Italy, Panama, South Africa and Indonesia, all of whom have already served one year of their term.


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