The Institution of the United Nations approaches the age of a 70-year old this May. After seven decades of being at the hub and nub of world matters, it does seem entirely appropriate that the role of the UN and the work of the multitudinous bodies within and under it be seriously reassessed. That quaint old notion of plodding on with the WW2 winning coalition (called “the United Nations”) to preserve peace and prevent future wars all but dissipated and disappeared long long ago. Today there is an extensive real-world record to do an appraisal on, rather than merely pander to its then founders’ aspirations. Some sea-change is clearly in order and needs to be ushered in. In this context, even as the United Nations embarks on a year-long celebration of it’s 70th birthday this May, we look at what plagues the world body, and what some elder-statesmen have to say is an apt direction for the UN is to move ahead.
The UN system today is one huge mega-operation that more often than not defies any orderly analysis, and that is the crux of the whole issue here, and may be said to be its biggest problem. In most of the less glamorous and lesser-known UN agencies and programmes, quite a considerable quantum of equally important technical or humanitarian work is being done, quietly. The World Food Program, the International Maritime Organization and the Universal Postal Union, for instance, are generally serving their members rather well, without any contentious political matters creeping in, without much ado and without much publicity.
Some others, however, seem to unfortunately have gone off the track, among them even UN humanitarian bodies like the UN Relief and Works Agency (“UNRWA”), which has helped preserve and perpetrate Palestinians as “refugees” over several generations, in violation of every precept of the “refugee” status for entirely political goals. As a matter of fact, it could well be said that it is the UN’s well-known political institutions that are broken and need to be fixed: the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. The Cold War had effectively gridlocked the Council, but now the Soviet Union is gone, and it still has not fulfilled its originally envisaged role. On critical contemporary issues like nuclear proliferation and the war against international terrorism, the Council’s performance has been marginal at best. Far too often, members are satisfied with rhetoric rather than action.
Reform efforts have proven unsuccessful or even counterproductive. By the UN’s 60th anniversary, for example, the existing Human Rights Commission had become a safe haven for the world’s most egregious human-rights abusers. As with other UN bodies, members were typically elected through the consensus judgements of their respective regional groups, one of the least-known but most pernicious UN practices. When disgust and embarrassment finally forced the UN in 2006 to create a new “Human Rights Council,” few of the necessary reforms were adopted, or if adopted they were significantly watered down. As a consequence, the UNHRC is essentially indistinguishable from its predecessor.
There are countless other issues to consider as well, but that debate is for another occasion, another forum. Here in this context of the 70th Anniversary, we would like to reproduce an open statement by Kofi Annan and Gro Arlem Brundtland, entitled “Four Ideas To Save The Peace: Celebrating Its 70th Anniversary, The UN Must Reform To Recover Its Authority.” Kofi Annan is Chair and Gro Harlem Brundtland is Deputy Chair of The Elders, a group of global leaders for peace founded by Nelson Mandela.
Seventy years ago, the United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Looking around the world today, the least one can say is that it is not fully succeeding in this mission. From Nigeria through the Middle East to Afghanistan and Ukraine, millions are dying from that scourge, or are imminently threatened by it, and the UN seems powerless to save them.
We have four ideas for making it stronger and more effective.
A big part of the problem is that the Security Council, which is supposed to maintain world peace and security on behalf of all member states, no longer commands respect — certainly not from armed insurgents operating across borders, and often not from the UN’s own members. Throughout the world, and especially in the Global South, people struggle to understand why, in 2015, the Council is still dominated by the five powers that won the Second World War. They are more and more inclined to question its authority and the legitimacy of its decisions.
We ignore this threat at our peril. Times have changed since 1945, and the Council must adapt. Almost everyone claims to favour expanding the Security Council, to include new permanent members, but for decades now states have been unable to agree who these should be, or whether, like the existing ones, they should have the power to veto agreements reached by their fellow members. Our first idea aims to break this stalemate. Instead of new permanent members, let us have a new category of members, serving a much longer term than the non-permanent ones, and eligible for immediate re-election. In other words they would be permanent, provided they retained the confidence of other member states. Surely that is more democratic ?
Secondly, we call on the five existing permanent members to give a solemn pledge. They must no longer allow their disagreements to mean that the Council fails to act, even when — for instance, as currently in Syria — people are threatened with atrocious crimes. Let the five promise never to use the veto just to defend their national interests, but to use it only when they genuinely fear that the proposed action will do more harm than good to world peace and to the people concerned. In that case, let them give a full and clear explanation of the alternative they propose, as a more credible and efficient way to protect the victims. And when one or more of them do use the veto in that way, let the others promise not to abandon the search for common ground, but to work even harder to find an effective solution on which all can agree.
Thirdly, let the Council listen more carefully to those affected by its decisions. When they can agree, the permanent members too often deliberate behind closed doors, without listening to those whom their decisions most directly affect. From now on, let them – and the whole Council — give groups representing people in zones of conflict a real chance to inform and influence their decisions.
And finally, let the Council, and especially its permanent members, make sure the UN gets the kind of leader it needs. Let them respect the spirit as well as the letter of what the Charter says about choosing a new secretary general, and no longer settle it by negotiating among themselves behind closed doors. Let us have a thorough and open search for the best qualified candidates, irrespective of gender or region; let the Council then recommend more than one candidate for the General Assembly to choose from; and let the successful candidate be appointed for a single, non-renewable term of seven years. He or she – and after eight ‘he’s it is surely time for a ‘she’ — must not be under pressure to give jobs or concessions to any member state in return for its support. This new process should be adopted without delay, so that it can be used to find the best person to take over in January 2017.
These four proposals are spelt out in greater detail in a statement (http://theelders.org/un-fit-purpose) issued today by The Elders. We believe they form an essential starting point for the UN to recover its authority. And we call on the world’s peoples to insist that their governments accept them, in this, the UN’s 70th anniversary year.