You are here: Interview: Alexander Yakovenko on Russia and the UN

What are your top priorities for the 67th session of the UN General Assembly?

Today, multilateral diplomacy, with the United Nations at the heart of the rule-based international system, has no alternative. Russia will stress the need for strict compliance with the UN Charter, and for further efforts to strengthen the legal framework of international relations. This includes uniform interpretation and application of treaties and UN decisions, including those made by the Security Council, the principal body responsible for maintaining international peace and security. The very first resolution adopted at the current session, namely the Declaration on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels, is a major achievement in this regard.

As far as particular issues are concerned, we will, of course, address the situation in the Middle East. Russia fully supports the aspirations of peoples to freedom and social development. At the same time, we are worried by attempts to solve domestic disputes by force. All international actors should use their influence in the Arab world to promote peace and dialogue rather than violence and terrorism. Other priorities include: preventing nuclear terrorism, promoting a comprehensive nuclear test ban, prohibiting chemical weapons, and promoting transparency and confidence building in outer space. On the humanitarian front, we will focus on human trafficking, dialogue between civilisations and combating modern forms of racism and xenophobia – particularly relevant for an institution born out of the defeat of an ideology of hatred.

Is there one UN body or initiative that deserves more funding?

Frankly speaking, given the effects of the world financial crisis, our efforts, just like those by many other states, are focused on savings. We believe a lot can be achieved in terms of financial efficiency. What matters is the proper organisation of work and political attention to the most important issues. Of course, we have priorities, which we support, where possible, through voluntary contributions, for example, peacebuilding activities or those of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

What has been your country’s greatest achievement at the UN?

I think that the most important achievement, not only for Russia, but for the whole world, was the preservation and strengthening of the UN after the end of the Cold War. At that time, many thought that the organisation was only fit for deterring a major conflict between the two opposing blocs and that it would be a nuisance at the time of a new global empire, as envisaged, for example, by Karl Jaspers. But the other option prevailed, that of a world order.

And that had a logic of its own. The UN was created for our world. The Cold War confrontation distorted the picture of the world. Now things have drastically changed for the better. Despite what many sceptics say, the UN has become more efficient: one need only compare the number of Security Council resolutions adopted before and after 1991. Human rights, anti-terrorist and peacekeeping activities have flourished. And most importantly, the UN’s unique legitimacy has been strengthened.

“Reform of the Security Council is the single most important factor in improving the UN’s performance.” Do you agree?

Security Council reform is of crucial importance but I disagree that the UN underperforms because it has not taken place. Both the Council and the UN more widely are broadly efficient. To judge the performance of the whole organisation by occasional disagreements at the Security Council is irresponsible. Consider the successes of peacekeeping missions in Africa, international aid and development assistance, or the everyday work of the plethora of specialised agencies, such as the World Health Organisation and International Civil Aviation Organisation.

That said, I firmly believe that the UN can perform better. We see UN reform as a broad process that should include streamlining the competences of various bodies and improving management practices. In the human rights field, there is a need to better delineate the responsibilities of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the treaty-based bodies. Russia also proposes to revive the UN Military Staff Committee, which will enhance peacekeeping activities and the Security Council’s military expertise. The UN Peacebuilding Commission could be entrusted with more coordination and consultation functions. And we need to overcome the stagnation of the UN’s disarmament structures. The work of the General Assembly itself should be revitalised and made more efficient.

As for the Security Council, the main objective should be to make it more representative without reducing its efficiency. It is necessary to continue searching for a compromise model that would enjoy the general support of UN member states. Rushing to decisions that do not enjoy such support could result in the Council losing rather than gaining authority. The focus has got to be on the regions not represented or under-represented, i.e. the South, and the position of the current permanent members should remain intact, including the veto right, or, as the Charter puts it, the principle of “concurring votes of the permanent members”. The principle is often criticised, but when the US proposed its inclusion, it did so for a reason. The idea was (and still is) that in order for Council decisions to be effective they needed the support of the world’s major states. This encourages them to seek agreement rather than take hasty, unilateral decisions. We are convinced that, on the whole, the principle contributes not only to the efficiency, but also to the authority and legitimacy of the Council.

Could the UN have done more to prevent the financial crisis?

Given that the current crisis surprised many experts, let alone politicians, it is difficult to say whether the UN could have prevented it. However, the crisis has definitely highlighted the need to reconsider the organisation’s role within the global economic governance system. Russia is interested in continuing a broad discussion on this issue. We propose focusing on building efficient relationships between the UN, the international financial and trade institutions, and informal groups such as G20. Linking the G20’s work with UN social and economic priorities will be an important task for the Russian G20 Presidency in 2013. But those countries in which the crisis originated must first put their houses in order, however painful the correcting measures might be. Further procrastination will be disastrous for all.

How can the UN become more effective in preventing mass atrocities?

Mass atrocities, and internal conflicts in general, are a relatively new area of international cooperation, and greater UN involvement in these situations is a matter under discussion. However, a lot has been done to establish a framework for bringing those responsible for crimes against humanity to justice. Despite many shortcomings, Russia positively assesses the experience of international tribunals and is looking at the activities of the International Criminal Court with much interest. We fully subscribe to the relevant provisions of the Rule of Law Declaration (GA Resolution 67/1) whereby UN member states committed “to ensuring that impunity is not tolerated”. We also share the focus on raising national capacities in the prevention of, and accountability for, mass atrocities.

Soon, the BRICS are predicted to have a larger share of global GDP than the US or EU. By some calculations, they already have. Should the bloc prepare to become the biggest UN and aid contributor?

In 2011, BRICS accounted for 45% of the global population, but only a quarter of global GDP. Modernisation of the economy, and of societies as a whole, is a major challenge for us and this is what we are currently focusing on. The BRICS see their contribution in terms of reforming the world financial system and promoting sustainable and balanced growth. Of course we will cooperate with the UN’s development assistance programmes. We also support a fair scale of contributions to the UN system. However, we expect developed countries to continue to live up to their economic status. This is not a matter of competition or prestige, but an issue of our joint commitment to the UN. Ideally, international development should be integrated into national development strategies.

What is the future of the BRICS countries as a grouping within the UN?

Cooperation within BRICS is a major long-term track in Russia’s foreign policy. We envisage this will grow into a genuinely strategic partnership on a wide range of global economic and political issues. We believe BRICS to be a new model of global collaboration, transcending the old patterns of East-West or North-South barriers. It is no bloc or strategic alliance of the past – that level of mutual commitment is out of place in today’s world.

Within the UN, the group has already accumulated valuable experience of coordination, including at the Security Council, of which all the five BRICS countries were members in 2011. We take joint or very similar positions on many situations, such as Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Somalia, and on the structure of the international order, including the inadmissibility of abusing the Security Council in order to impose one-sided solutions to crises. As such, we will continue to coordinate our positions in various forums. However, we don’t want BRICS to be perceived as a particular grouping in opposition to others. We are not against anything; we are in favour of pretty tangible things; we are a positive actor in international relations. We strive for unity of the international community – something that requires a break with the outdated bloc thinking.

Finally, on a lighter note, would the UN be better off if its headquarters were in Russia?

In the aftermath of the second world war, I cannot imagine that any city of my country, devastated as it was after the Nazi invasion, would have been able to host the UN headquarters. Today, it is a different matter, although frankly, relocating the UN headquarters would hardly be a cost-efficient exercise! However, in the long term, it is not unthinkable to see it moving to the Asia- Pacific region, following the present eastward shift in the global economy and world affairs overall.

H.E. Dr Alexander Yakovenko has been Ambassador of the Russian Federation to London since January 2011. Prior to this, he served as Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of multilateral diplomacy and the United Nations. He began his diplomatic career in 1976, with postings including New York and Vienna