Interview with Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin by the TASS news agency
Question: Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you. We have long wanted to talk with you about the forthcoming 70th anniversary of the United Nations. The anniversary session of the General Assembly is starting. You have headed up the Russian mission here for ten years now if I’m not mistaken. In your opinion, how universal is the instrument called the United Nations Organization? How well does this international organization deal with the functions delegated to it back in 1945?
Vitaly Churkin: I think it is a very important organization. It is the backbone of international relations. It’s a very complicated and diverse organization. As you know, there are several main branches, they include the General Assembly in which all the 193 United Nations members take part, and there is the Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council and others. The organization is trying to adapt itself to the challenges of the times.
There is much talk about reforming the organization, but I think it’s worth remembering that if an organization is reformed all the time it won’t be able to do its work. Nevertheless, new concepts are introduced form time to time. Some ten years ago the Human Rights Council was set up, which so far has not lived up to expectations. Strategically it was even expected, over time, to become one of the key structures of the United Nations. So far it hasn’t. More recently, some seven years ago, the Peace Making Commission was created, also a new feature for the United Nations, which helps countries overcome crises, for example, if they are in a state of civil war --these are mostly African countries – and to bring the situation back to normal in these countries in various spheres – social, economic, etc. And of course the Security Council tries to find answers to the challenges in international affairs.
You know, the trouble is that the seventh decade of the United Nations, unfortunately, has seen a dramatic rise in the potential for conflict in the world. So the Security Council, with varying degrees of success, tries to respond to these challenges. The structure is not to blame, the problem is that the political will and the resources to solve these problems are not always available.
To me, for a Security Council decision to be effective three components are needed. First, it should be a sound decision. Second, there needs to be the political will. And third, the resources are needed. Take, for instance Resolution 2118 , one of the major successes of the Security Council in recent years, a Russian-American initiative on Syria’s chemical disarmament.
It was a sound decision based on an agreement reached between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva.
Question: It was seen as a great success...
Question: Is it supposed to be on a voluntary basis?
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, of course. There are countries, by the way, that are glad to do this. The leaders in this regard are India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In fact, they even derive some economic benefits from this. But they would not go in just anywhere and make their peacekeeping contingents available.
So, it’s quite complicated. And in some cases it’s unclear what is to be done. Take, for instance, the Libyan situation. We all remember what happened when a Security Council resolution was violated. Instead of protecting civilians, bombings began, with the aim of changing the regime. As a result the country fell apart and nobody knows what to do about it. The Secretary-General’s special envoy is trying to mediate, but what it will all lead to is anybody’s guess. Is it the fault of the Security Council? Of course not. It’s just the way things are.
Let's consider. Some say that at some point a peace-keeping contingent will need to be deployed in Libya. That’s after they work out a settlement. But the Libyans don’t want this. At one point there was a UN mission which had to leave the country for security reasons. As often happens, they simply tried to put up a guard, a couple of hundred men to provide security. But the Libyans said, No, we don’t want any armed foreigners on Libyan territory. What can you do in this situation? You see? It calls for unity, colossal cohesion of the international community, colossal political will to commit serious mechanisms and resources which no one is willing to provide in order to resolve the situation. These are the kinds of problems we encounter.
Question: This actually leads me to my next question. How has the format of the United Nations survived for 70 years? You say that the world has changed and that the last ten years have been very difficult. And yet, to what extent, in your view, is the spirit of 1945, when the victorious countries created this unique international organization, still alive within the walls of this building on the East River?
Vitaly Churkin: In those years I hadn’t been born yet, and it is a bit hard for me to judge what the spirit was at the time. But I think there were various shades to that spirit even then, you know? There were probably different moods in the air.
It’s the same today. But I think that the spirit of cooperation, if you like, is still there. It is felt by the members of the United Nations. In spite of all the, shall we say, particularities of the present moment, I believe it is present in the format of the five permanent Security Council members. I for one, speaking about my predecessors, was interested to read the memoirs of Alexander Belonogov, who was our permanent representative from 1986 until 1990, if memory serves. And he describes as an achievement that he managed to persuade the other members of the Five, that is, the ambassadors of the United States, Britain and France, to get together and discuss some issue. So, it was something unusual at the time, it was an achievement.
Question: You mean, just to meet and discuss things?
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, to get together. And today it is all in a day’s work. The Five – everybody knows it, though we do not always publicize this – we have our meetings, we hammer out resolutions, we have one-on-one meetings with the UN Secretary-General, etc., etc. This is one of the key functioning mechanisms both of the Security Council and indeed of the whole organization. So, we have probably not only preserved that spirit, but have developed it in many ways. I can tell you about what I think is another achievement, we wanted to do it for a long time, but somehow it didn’t work out, and now it is beginning to work.
One of the organs under the Charter is the Military Staff Committee, that is, the military advisers of the ambassadors of the five permanent SC members. For years it was a formal body. They assembled, opened a meeting and closed it. Later, they were approached, informally, by people who were developing UN peacekeeping operations, told them something and then dispersed. Now after a lot of effort (and due to a change of position of some members of the Five on the issue) we have managed to involve the Committee in some real work. Not long ago the five military advisers went to Haiti for the first time, where a peacekeeping operation is under way. They helped to sort out what was right and what was wrong about that military operation. One more trip is being planned.
I remember a very interesting meeting that took place when the crisis in Mali broke out. The permanent representatives had gathered together with their military advisers. A military delegation from France arrived. That was a couple of years ago. They discussed what to do about Mali. It was the first such military-political meeting. Various options were discussed. We witnessed heated debate between the Americans and the French about what should be done. So, some interesting processes are going on.
Question: You mentioned the word “reform.” I've been hearing since 2000 that the UN needs to be reformed, that reforms are already underway. Ten years ago we were also making a film about the United Nations. Kofi Annan was Secretary-General at the time. And then too, there was a lot of talk about reform. But you don’t see much evidence of this. Are the reforms in the final stage? What is preventing the reforms from moving forward? What kind of reforms does the UN need? Some of the questions are pretty simple. For example, the UN has 193 member countries, and FIFA (the International Football Federation) has 209. So, for some reason some countries are not members of the UN.
Vitaly Churkin: I partly commented on this question when I said that the organization should be left alone. The question is, what do you mean by reform? For example, I mentioned the Human Rights Council and the Peacekeeping Commission. The most urgent issue, of course, is reform; and in fact, the most important issue, not just now, but in the past 10−15 years, has been the reform of the Security Council.
The last enlargement of the Security Council took place in the 1960s. Initially there were 11 countries, including the five permanent members. Then it grew to 15 countries, though there were still five permanent members. There has been talk for a long time that there are now more UN members, that the world has become different, that Africa has become – well, Africa. Latin America feels more confident and independent, and so on. Voices are heard calling for increasing the number of Security Council members in order to make it more effective and representative. I have a reservation here. If it has more members, the Security Council will of course become more representative, but it will certainly not become more effective. It may not sound politically correct, but from my experience working at the Council, it is hard to agree even with 15 members. And if there are 25 or 27 members? Or consider a routine discussion. Today a discussion at the Security Council normally takes two hours. Can you imagine what will happen if there are 25 members? And they all want to speak at the Security Council. The Security Council holds 400 meetings a year. Last year there were 400 meetings in various formats. Can you imagine what will happen if there are 25 or 27 members? But the issue must be addressed, and nobody is challenging that, and we do not challenge that. The problem is that official intergovernmental talks on the issue have been going on for eight years, and they were preceded by 11 years of informal consultations. And the two main camps still cannot come to an agreement. There are countries that want to become permanent Security Council members in addition to the Five, and there are countries that categorically object.
Question: Let’s be clear from the start: for the countries that want to become permanent members, does that include the power of veto, or do they just want to be permanent members?
Vitaly Churkin: That’s a very important question. Some countries that want to be permanent members say they do not seek veto power. For example, Germany says it does not need the power of veto. Make us permanent members, we don’t need veto power. The African countries, which claim two permanent seats, say they want the power of veto. It’s one of the complicated issues.
Question: Two permanent members from African...
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, from African countries...
Question: And from the Arab world too I understand.
Vitaly Churkin: There are also disputes over this. Some Arabs believe they must have their own permanent member. And some are against it. Why are they against it? Because there is a group of major countries that understand that they do not qualify to be permanent members. But they are reluctant to let some of their neighbours skip the queue. That is why the fiercest opponents of increasing the number of permanent members are such countries as Italy and Argentina, countries that suggest another option, they want there to be semi-permanent members. They want to create an addition, a new category of members. For example, a more influential state could be elected not for two years, but, say, for eight years, that is, they could be re-elected for another term. Now a non-permanent member cannot be re-elected right away. Well, they can’t agree among themselves. For a reform to be adopted it has to get 129 votes. And none of these models…
Question: Gets enough votes…
Vitaly Churkin: No, it doesn’t get enough votes at the General Assembly. Because, one would have thought that instead of all these negotiations a General Assembly resolution could just be drafted on what kind of reform it should be, and it could be put to a vote. And I must say that there are such resolutions, various groups of countries have prepared them. They were put up for official discussion, but nobody puts them to a vote because they may not get the required 129 votes and then the whole thing would have to be put on the back burner for years. Because the UN works in such a way that you cannot, for example, put the same resolution to a vote every year. Tensions are running high around this issue. Some wanted to reform the system in time for the 70th anniversary. We have warned against this, and said there should be no undue haste and that the issue needs to ripen, so to speak. We shall see what the next step will be.
Question: What reform format will be discussed at the upcoming 70th anniversary session?
Vitaly Churkin: During the course of the session, during the political debate, I am sure many countries will touch upon this topic, stating their position in an attempt to push forward the reform of the Security Council. Will any steps be taken? Not to agree on a reform, but to take the next step. There are various options. Time will tell.
Question: You are talking about the Security Council. What is the decision-making procedure? How are the decisions prepared? Who has the right to table draft resolutions?
Vitaly Churkin: Only a Security Council member can submit resolutions. When a resolution is put to a vote, non-members of the Security Council who back the resolution may become co-sponsors. So, it will be written on the resolution that the resolution has been proposed not only by certain members, but perhaps by 50 more countries that are not members of the Security Council. As for how they are prepared, there is an informal notion of “pen-holder” at the Security Council. I have to say that our “troika” of Western colleagues has grabbed a lot of these pens and everybody seems to expect the delegation – some are in charge of Afghanistan, some of Iraq affairs – to prepare a draft resolution. And first, as a rule it is discussed by the Five permanent members, then it is put before the other members of the Security Council, they consult with experts and so on, before the resolution is put to a vote. That’s the way resolutions are made.
Question: If I understand you correctly, countries that are not members of the Security Council have to lobby whatever initiatives they might have through Security Council members or wait until they…
Vitaly Churkin: Exactly. Surely there are situations when non-members are more involved in the actual drafting. For example, a historic, very important resolution – if it actually works – was recently passed that confirmed and supported a comprehensive deal over the Iran nuclear problem.
Well, that resolution, a very complicated resolution, was entirely prepared at the talks between the Six and Iran, we had nothing to do with it, in its content. The draft resolution was basically prepared there. So, the resolution was in fact drafted jointly by the Five, Germany and Iran. Then it was submitted to the Security Council. It should be said that when we adopted resolutions on the Iranian sanctions this was done in the Six format. But Iran was not invited, of course, because the sanctions were being introduced against Iran. Germany was sitting at the table, but I must say that it was partly a matter of decorum. There are cases when non-members of the Five, non-members of the Security Council, are invited to take part in drafting a resolution, and they behave in a very circumspect and humble manner. That is, they do not challenge any members of the Five and keep their heads down. That’s one of the features.
Question: As far as I can tell, if you look, for example, at the last 15 years, Russia is fairly active at the General Assembly, at the United Nations in general. Our country is very much involved in everything that is happening here. In your opinion, which General Assembly resolutions sponsored or co-sponsored by Russia are the most significant and the most useful for the destinies of the world?
Question: We have every right to be proud of this.
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, of course. And I have to mention two things. When we proposed the resolution we thought that some would attempt to belittle our achievements, etc. But the final resolution was like a song.
That is, it refers to the flight of Yuri Gagarin, a Russian-born Soviet citizen. The adoption of that resolution is a model of international cooperation. Various countries spoke about their own achievements, but they spoke in terms of their contribution to the common human endeavor in which Yuri Gagarin’s flight was an important milestone. This to me was the most pleasant resolution passed by the General Assembly in recent years.
Question: When we speak about the United Nations, we cannot help but mention the person who is the head of the organization. Ban Ki-moon is the 8th Secretary-General in the Organization’s history. I had the honour to speak with him and with some of his predecessors. You’ve been working with him for almost ten years now. How do you assess the role of the current UN Secretary-General and what is your personal chemistry with him like?
Vitaly Churkin: I took part in the election of the Secretary- General in 2006. In general, it’s a very interesting procedure. I think the right man was chosen. First, it is very important that Ban Ki-moon established what I think is a very open and frank dialogue with Russian President Putin. As for Mr Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, he often talks with him over the phone and in person. I have never had any problems working with the Secretary-General.
First of all, he works a great deal, but when he is in New York one can always meet with him. I can't remember any occasion when I called and asked him for a meeting and did not get a reply within 30 minutes with an exact time, usually on the same day. If necessary, on Saturday or Sunday. If necessary he can be reached over the phone even when he is not in New York, etc. And we have a certain conversational style. As a rule it’s one-on-one meetings. He listens very attentively to the message we are trying to put across on various issues, and he takes it into account. And in general I have to say that the Secretary-General, especially in recent times, has been making bold statements on some issues which may irritate the powers that be, and so on. That is, he turned out to be a person – and this is very important – who listens, but is not easily swayed. You see what I mean? I know of a number of cases when he came under pressure – do this, don’t do that. But he still acted in accordance with his perception of what should or should not be done.
Question: Do I understand you correctly that he performs the function not just of communicator between the members of the United Nations, members of the Security Council, but in accordance with his status, he has the right to have a personal position on political issues?
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, of course. This is how I see the role of the Secretary-General in the modern world. The trick is that he is expected to provide a measure of leadership. At the same time he cannot detach himself from this sinful world. And of course the Secretary-General’s main political work is based on the decisions passed by the Security Council. The Security Council passes a resolution on some problem and the Secretary-General appoints special envoys or does some work himself. He has to proceed within the framework of Security Council resolutions. Sometimes he may come up with an initiative, but that initiative must take into account the opinion of the main players. For example, today Syria is a very acute problem. He has his special representative, Staffan de Mistura, who puts forward his initiatives, which will become the initiatives of the Secretary-General when they are finalized. But he does not take these initiatives out of thin air. These initiatives emerge from his communication with the main parties to the conflict. He listens to the opinions of the Security Council members, above all the five permanent members, and the initiative matures gradually. If an initiative just comes out of nowhere it may sound grand, but it will amount to nothing. So, the job of the Secretary-General is very complicated. That’s why discussions are already heating up on how, when, and who will be elected as the new Secretary-General next year.
Question: Are there already any ideas and candidates, and should there be a rotation in the regions the Secretary-General comes from? Today he's a representative of Asia; does this mean that a European cycle should begin again?
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, yes. You are quite right. Now, for the first time, it should be a representative of the Eastern European region.
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, Eastern. In general, the situation is like this. The UN has five regional groups which were once formed in some way. One of these is the Eastern European group. It’s relatively small, 27 or 28 countries.
Question: Are we also in that group?
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, we are in it too. There is the Asian group which has 50-odd countries, so they are of different sizes. There is a certain perception of how they promote candidates to various posts – not only for the job of the Secretary-General, but the heads of committees, etc. This is complicated UN bureaucracy. As you said, Ban Ki-moon was elected when it was Asia's turn. Now the Eastern European group is arguing vehemently that it should be a representative of Eastern Europe. Question: So, we also have a firm position on this…
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, we support them. They’ve written a letter to the General Assembly President arguing that the candidate should come from Eastern Europe. We say: “Yes, we support this.” However, I remind my colleagues from time to time that when Ban Ki-moon was elected and it was Asia’s turn, Latvian President Vike-Freiberga put forward her candidacy. She was one of the six candidates. So that kind of undermines…
Vitaly Churkin: Well, not exactly unity…
Question: Is Latvia also a member of this group?
Vitaly Churkin: Latvia is also a member of the Eastern European group. They have declared it now and continue to declare it but the response from the other members is somewhat lukewarm. There was recently an informal discussion at the General Assembly of the prospects for the election of a new Secretary-General. The Eastern European group reaffirmed its ambition, but nobody responded. Nobody said, “Yes, we support you.”
Question: Should we perhaps pitch in and act as a locomotive? Vitaly Churkin: No, we shouldn’t be in a hurry to become involved for the simple reason that we will have our say when the issue is discussed at the Security Council. We are simply warning against unnecessary steps that would just make the process more bureaucratic and cumbersome. Some enthusiastic people want to include an express statement that the Security Council should present more than one candidate. Or that the candidate should preferably be a woman. That kind of thing. We do not want to see the bureaucratization of the process.
It is a difficult conversation, but I think it is drawing to a close normally. There are already several credible Eastern European candidates. In my opinion they are very worthy people who can head up the organization. And there is a woman among them, Irina Bokova. There are signs that other female candidates may come along, so I think in the end everyone will be pleased. Last time, in 2006, when Ban Ki-moon had rivals, everything passed fairly smoothly. Discussions began in late July at the Security Council and by early October an agreement was reached. That’s all there is to it.
Question: In a civil way.
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, in an optimum manner. Anyway, we shall see. I do not rule out that it will be more complicated this time around.
Question: You said there are women among the candidates. You actually mentioned Ms Bokova, the current Director General of UNESCO. Let me divulge a little secret: in our previous interview with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon he said he would convey his wish to the Security Council that there should be a woman candidate, though he did not, in that interview, say who he had in mind, but in any case he spoke in terms of the formula of “cherchez la femme…”
Vitaly Churkin: I can tell you that Ban Ki-moon – and I am joking of course – is not indifferent to women – in the political sense. And he has accomplished a great deal.
Question: This is sacred in the political sense.
Vitaly Churkin: This is sacred. In the political sense. When he became Secretary-General he immediately said that one of his tasks is to bring more women to top positions in the UN. And I must say he has accomplished a great deal. His Chef de Cabinet, practically the second or third most important position in the Secretariat, is an Argentinian woman, Susana Malcorra.
There was a woman in charge of administrative structure, a German woman, who then became the chief representative for disarmament, but she has quit now. Things are not as good in some other departments. The Secretary-General has many special representatives in charge of peacekeeping operations or special political missions. I think there is only one woman among them. But there are women in important posts connected with violence against children, violence against women. That is, Ban Ki-moon has managed to enhance the role of women. I wouldn’t be surprised if during the selection of candidates for Secretary- General he will make this point, but let's face it, the Secretary-General has no say in the selection of candidates. In general, there is only one country among the Five that is vocal on the need to have a woman, though they do not name whom they would like to see in that post. That country is Britain. They have declared that it should be a woman. I asked them if they have in mind Ms Bokova, because she is so far the only officially declared candidate? They said, no, no. So far we mean it in a general way. An interesting conversation, if a little premature perhaps. It’ll be next year, but it’s a very important theme. Because the Secretary-General plays an important role in international politics and in running the organization itself. So, the best candidate should be selected, someone who would be prepared to take on this difficult job.
Question: I understand that it should be a consensus recommendation of the five permanent members…
Vitaly Churkin: Five and not only five. For example, in 2006 the Security Council did not hold a vote for Ban Ki-moon, he was elected by acclamation. Everyone said with one voice, there wasn’t even a show of hands to demonstrate exceptional unanimity. But in general, the Five must give its approval, because any of the five members can veto the recommendation. But I think that even if some country or two countries from among non-permanent members categorically object to a certain candidate, that would seriously impede the promotion of that candidate.
Question: I see. You mentioned acclamation, a procedure that exists at the Security-Council. People who watch the activities of the Security Council on television feel that acclamation happens very rarely. Especially in recent years, when you watch the work of the Security Council, you see the heated debates that flare up among the permanent members. People see your debates with your opponents. But when you leave the Security Council room how constructively do you manage to work outside the Security Council hall? What do you count on more, your debates in the Security Council hall or your work as a permanent Security Council member with other permanent members outside this hall?
Vitaly Churkin: You know these are two equally important aspects of the work of the Security Council. On the one hand, open debates are important because the whole world, especially in recent years, is watching, and this reflects the positions of the states and the character of the very acute problems facing the Security Council. But we are professionals. I can tell you this. There were recently some sharp exchanges between the five permanent members and other members of the Council. I think some of my partners in the Five used unpardonable expressions. I drew their attention to this during the course of the Security Council meeting. And shortly after that I had to call one of them to discuss some business. And we discussed in a perfectly calm manner what should be done to finalize a very important Security Council resolution on which we have been working for a long time already. We hope it will be passed soon. That is, we have to take things in stride. Otherwise the Security Council wouldn’t be able to work.
Question: Going back to the 70th anniversary of the UN. What people have played a particularly notable role in the history of the United Nations? You have worked with some of them and have met some of them. Who are the most remarkable personalities in the history of the UN?
Vitaly Churkin: Well, you know…
Question: In your opinion…
Vitaly Churkin: It’s hard for me to speak in terms of the history of the UN. But I think of course there is Kofi Annan, who incidentally is very close with Sergey Lavrov. I worked with him at the tail end of his tenure. The last seven months. He was a larger-than-life figure who had a very interesting path. When he was elected he was just deputy Secretary-General for peacekeeping. It’s an important but obscure post. And during the next ten years he grew into a statesman of world stature. A world-class politician and diplomat. That’s a very important quality, and of course he was very interesting to work with. As Secretary- General – he is known to be engaged in all sorts of important causes – he combines an informal manner and firmness. He is a person who will not be pushed around and will not yield to polemical outbursts. He was able to cut such people short. It was interesting to observe all this. In general, this is one important aspect of work. Each of my present colleagues in the Five is the fourth I am working with from each country. And I can tell you that I have fond memories of each of them. Because each of them was a distinct character. For example, and I’d rather not talk about the current ones, but…
Question: You still have to work with them.
Vitaly Churkin: Yes, I still have to work with them. But I had very close business and personal relations with the previous Chinese Permanent Representative Li Baodong. He is now deputy prime minister. I have gone through a lot with him. The Syrian affairs. Joint Russian-Chinese vetoes. We had very trusting relations and he was a very likeable man. He came to me, we spoke, we have personal ties. I think we understand each other. Speaking about Americans, there too I met quite an array of characters. John Bolton, you know him, don’t you?
Question: Yes, of course.
Vitaly Churkin: A Neocon, a noisy fellow. Then there was Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghani fellow, former US Ambassador to Iraq…
Question: A totally different type.
Vitaly Churkin: A totally different type. And then there was Susan Rice, the current adviser. A very different type again, colourful and complicated, but also a person with whom one could sometimes conduct serious discussions on some very important matters. In short, a gamut of human and professional types, which has been very interesting for me.
Question: Because I have had the honour of knowing you for more than 30 years, and all my life I have known you as a fairly emotional, even highly emotional, person, nevertheless the post of Permanent Representative to the UN, your work, especially during the sessions of the Security Council and the General Assembly, presupposes restraint. Restraint and firmness. How do you manage it, because to me it is always a human enigma how an emotional person can hold his temper in such heated clashes.
Vitaly Churkin: It may sound odd to quote poetry in this situation, but you remember what Eugene Onegin said to Tatyana: learn to control your passions.
Question: Have you learned to do this?
Vitaly Churkin: I think I have. I started my working life at 22 as a Foreign Ministry interpreter. It so happened that almost at once I sometimes had to interpret at the Kremlin. I interpreted for Podgorny and Kosygin, and later strategic arms negotiations. I remember that sometimes I was very nervous before the start of the talks. But as soon as they started all this translated into concentration. Today, I wouldn’t say that I am very nervous, I know what I have to do and I brace myself accordingly. Sometimes I am furious inside, but I know that I have to behave myself and to think about what I need to say now and what I'll need to say later, and considering that I have never engaged anyone at the Security Council in a fist fight, I think I am doing all right on that score.
Question: You certainly are.
Vitaly Churkin: Thank you.