San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.N. Envoy Warns Against High Expectations

Jorge Urbina, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United Nations, took his hard-won, albeit temporary, seat this week on the U.N. Security Council, considered the most powerful arm of the international body.

During his two-year term, Urbina, 61, will push the Foreign Ministry’s ambitious agenda, which includes nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, human rights, and increased fairness and transparency within the council.

With such a checklist, he will rub shoulders with the five permanent members on the council – the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain.

A one-time university professor, expert on decentralization, and former deputy U.N. ambassador, Urbina will head a team of 14 Costa Rican diplomats and administrators in navigating the sticky politics of the 15-member council. The seat, won in a hard-fought battle with the Dominican Republic, puts Costa Rica on the world stage.

But don’t hold your breath, Urbina warned in a recent telephone interview from his New York City office.Vested interests and entrenched rules, he says,will limit his power to effect big changes before Costa Rica’s term expires in December 2009.

TT: What issues does Costa Rica want to bring to the Security Council?

JU: The Costa Rica Consensus really interests us. (The proposal by President Oscar Arias holds that donor countries and international financial institutions should reward nations that decrease spending on the military and arms and increase spending on social welfare.)

The biggest challenge will be convincing other council members to talk about this. Donor countries feel that they have the right to give money to whomever they please. And recipients of aid don’t want conditions that limit their access to the money.

So the Costa RicanConsensus, while moral and respected, will confront harsh political realities.

What is Costa Rica’s stand on the veto rights of the five permanent members?

The veto is not a democratic institution. It is an inappropriate privilege. But it would be really hard to eliminate the veto altogether.

We want to limit the use of the veto in certain situations – homicide, war crimes, and violations of international human rights.We also want countries that use the veto to explain to other U.N. members their reasons for doing so. But the countries with veto rights must impose these parameters on themselves. Clearly, it’s a closed game.

You have said that there is too much secrecy surrounding the Security Council’s decisions, and that other U.N. members do not have enough access to the council. How will Costa Rica try to change that?

We want to change the nature of the reports that the Security Council compiles for the General Assembly. They should not be mere lists of things the council did, but rather analyses that describe in more detail what happened and what the different countries’ positions were.

Will you push for a change in the makeup of the Security Council?

Costa Rica supports adding more members, but not permanent ones, and they shouldn’t be given veto rights.

What about the five permanent members?

The council was founded on the idea that some countries should have more responsibility than others in maintaining international peace and security. That basic idea holds true, but the world has changed a lot since 1945, and new powers have developed. Japan is a clear case. Japan today gives more money to the U.N. than England and France together.Maybe we should have a way of regularly reviewing (the council’s permanent make-up).

Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno has said Costa Rica will also push for fairer treatment of terrorism suspects. How will you do that?

There is a procedure (within the U.N.) through which countries can put organizations and individuals on a terrorism list. This has consequences. The individuals cannot travel, for example, and their bank accounts could be frozen. Costa Rica wants these people and groups to truly be able to dispute the list…and examine the reasons they were put there. We are concerned with ensuring due process.

Costa Rica has a pretty ambitious agenda.

It is very ambitious. I want to be clear that we are going to work on these issues, but we are not promising that within two years, when we leave the council, things will have changed very much. We understand the council’s dynamics, and we know things move slowly.

We don’t want to raise expectations. The council also has a really full agenda, and most of our time will be spent addressing the agenda that the council already has. This morning there was a discussion on the situation in Kosovo. In the evening there will be a discussion on the situation in Somalia. The council is analyzing 27 situations around the world.

Which of these 27 issues are most pressing?

I think peacekeeping is much more important than peace building. The work the council does in countries like Haiti, East Timor, Burundi, Liberia is less urgent.

Meanwhile the council is tackling peacekeeping work in places like Sudan and Somalia, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by military activity.

China has been reluctant to crack down on human rights violations from its post in the Security Council. How will Costa Rica maintain its strong, lucrative alliance with China while still taking a hard line on human rights issues?

Of course, Costa Rica has to seek consensus. That will be a good part of our work. I’m sure China has the same worries that we do about a series of situations. What often happens is that the proposed solution goes against  (China’s) interests. I can tell you that withinthe council, there is a friendly climate. We understand each other’s differences. I don’t think our role in the council will affect our relationship with any of the other members.

Kosovo, run by a U.N. mission since 1999, is expected to declare independence from Serbia in the coming months.

Security Council members are divided on the issue.Where does Costa Rica stand?

I don’t have concrete instructions on the Kosovo issue yet, but I’ll tell you what I think…The international community will have problems with a declaration of independence because it could have a ripple effect across the world. What would happen if the Basques in Spain declared independence?

What would happen if the Taiwanese declared independence? I think the declaration of independence by territories within a state would be unacceptable for many people.

So we have to search for a way for Kosovo’s Albanians to exercise a series of rights without violating the principles of international law.


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