Reforming The United Nations

Reforming The United Nations

Suter Keith

In October, the UN will turn 54. It has outlasted its predecessor the League of Nations but it has not lived up to the vision that some of its architects very ambitiously held for it. It was crippled, for example, by the Cold War. It has been troubled throughout its existence by a lack of funds and an unwillingness of countries to live up to their international obligations. The purpose of this article is to survey some of the ideas for reforming the UN. There is no shortage of ideas for reforming it – only a lack of political will to do so.

Options about reforming the UN may be divided into ‘micro-reform’ proposals (not requiring an amendment to the UN Charter) and ‘macro-reforms’ (requiring an amendment to the UN Charter). I have coined the distinction between micro- and macro-reforms because amending the UN Charter is very difficult. There has been no substantial amendment to the Charter since it was written in 1945. Amendments have to be adopted by a vote of two thirds of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with the respective constitutional processes. The Permanent 5 (P5) – US, Russia, China, France and the UK – can each veto any proposed amendment. Since 1945, the only changes have been to the number of member-nations on UN bodies; these changes have arisen because of the increase in the UN’s overall membership. For example, the UN Security Council’s membership was increased in 1965 from 11 to 15.

All micro-reform proposals could be introduced immediately. Here are some suggestions, not in any order of priority.

Governments should pay their UN dues on time. The UK is one of the few governments to be prompt in doing so. The US by contrast is the largest single debtor, owing about US$1 billion. This sounds a great deal of money until it is recalled that this works out at US$4 per American per year – about the cost of a hamburger and French fries. Additionally, the US’s annual expenditure in Vietnam for the year 1970 was (in today’s terms) over US$100 billion. The US – like so many other governments – can find money for war but not for peace.

It is hardly a novel idea to suggest that governments pay subscriptions on time. Individuals who belong to clubs or associations know that their continued membership depends partly on paying their subscriptions. But UN member-states are slow to pay and show no remorse for their lateness.

It is worth emphasizing that the UN has a small budget and so the amounts required from governments are not onerous. The budget of the City Council of New York is much larger than the UN’s. The advantage that the New York City Council has over the UN is that it can obtain revenue more easily than the UN. About two-thirds of the UN’s membership at any one time are in arrears.

More women should be appointed to senior positions. The senior level of the UN has traditionally had none or only a few women. This was similar to the lack of women as heads of national delegations. However, just as some countries are now making more of an effort to ensure equal opportunity at the head of delegation level, so the UN’s own employment practices could reflect that same determination. The UN Secretary-General has little leverage over countries (such as in the slow payment of their dues) but the Secretary-General does have much greater scope for action in employing women in the Secretariat’s senior level.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the world’s main legal body. But attendance at it is not compulsory. Only about a third of the UN’s membership accept its jurisdiction. Much greater use generally could be made of international arbitration – rather than recourse to war.

The Secretary-General could be appointed for only one, seven-year term. The present arrangement is for the person to have five-year terms, with the understanding that only two terms will be served. There is a temptation to use the end of the first term as an election campaign to get re-appointed. One term in office would remove that need and perhaps make the office-holder a little more independent.

The UN Secretariat could be a truly international civil service. UN staff promise not to take instructions from their national governments but there is a temptation to maintain close links with their governments. The US$R and the former eastern European bloc staff were the worst examples of how UN staff were controlled by their governments.

Similarly, national governments ought not to use the UN as a dumping ground to reward retired politicians or relatives of the ruling establishment who need a job – or whom the government would prefer to have out of the country. Recruitment should be on merit: it generally is at the lower levels but not necessarily at the senior level.

To sum up, if the micro-reform proposals were put into effect – and that in theory could be done overnight – then the UN would be a very different body from the one it is today.

Macro-reform proposals are based on amending the UN Charter. Unfortunately, as noted above, it is very difficult to amend the UN Charter.

The post-Cold War era does not mean that amendments to the UN Charter will be any easier to achieve. For example, Japan and Germany would like to become members of the Security Council and they are trying to give the impression that their inclusion would represent only a minor change to the UN Charter. There are valid reasons for this change, not least because of their economic power. But to make this change could provoke suggestions from countries from different regions requesting a similar status. But which other countries should be considered for equal treatment? In Asia, should it be India, Pakistan, or Indonesia? In Latin America, Brazil, Mexico, and perhaps Argentina would be contenders. Among African countries, reference is made most often to Nigeria, but other countries may have strong claims, including the democratic and non-racial South Africa.

Meanwhile, the UK and France would resist any move to remove them in favour of Germany and Japan. The UK could, for example, go to Pakistan and draw to its attention that India would like to get on the Security Council. Pakistan would prefer the status quo rather than have India on the Security Council. The UK could do the same with Argentina vis a vis Brazil. The net effect would be countries preferring to stick ‘with the devil they know rather than the devil they do not know’. All this politicking would assure that the UK remains on the Security Council.

Therefore, the chances of achieving macro-reforms are not necessarily very good. This means that as the UN gets older so it will have some fundamental faults that will become even more apparent as the years roll by.

The Security Council is the best example of this incongruity. This is designed to meet day or night to handle threats to international peace and security. Its core consists of the Permanent 5 (P5), which were the Allied leaders in World War II. The other 10 serve two-year terms and are elected via the UN’s caucus system to maintain a representative balance of the world.

Ideas for reforming the Security Council focus on its composition and the veto power. The P5 are no longer necessarily the world’s main countries as they were in 1945. The UK and France are the most obvious members to be dropped. Germany and Japan (ironically the two big losers of World War II) are the obvious candidates to join the Security Council. Germany would like permanent membership on the Security Council since this would reflect its economic strength. It was said of the UK in the early 1960s, that it had lost an empire but not yet found a new role. It can be said of Germany that it has regained its unity but it has yet to find a new role. Being on the Security Council would give (Germany evidently hopes) a clear sense of direction. Japan has given the UN similar signals. Japan is increasing its financial contributions to UN operations. It is now giving more foreign aid, for example, than does the US. There is an element of taxation without (permanent) representation.

An alternative approach to reforming the Security Council would be to break the nexus between the P5 and the veto power. The P5 would remain permanently on the Security Council but the veto power would be abolished entirely. The P5 would not have to worry about an election every two years – and the cost of retaining their permanent membership would be the surrender of the veto. The chances of major Security Council reform are slim, if only because the P5 states could use their veto power to block reform.

The General Assembly is the world’s main political forum. It meets for about the last four months of each year, with all UN member-nations (now 188) present. It adopts non-binding resolutions which indicate how the world’s governments think on particular issues. The main debate on reforming the General Assembly has been generated among nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), especially the Campaign for a More Democratic United Nations (CAMDUN) and the International Network for the UN Second Assembly (INFUSA). The UK Medical Association for the Prevention of War (now part of UK MEDACT) first proposed in 1982 that Article 22 of the UN Charter be amended to create a subsidiary body for the General Assembly. The new body would have an advisory status and would represent the views of NGOs. Representation would be based on the size of national population.

Another NGO urging UN reform is the New York-based Centre for War/Peace Studies, headed by Richard Hudson. Hudson has pioneered the Binding Triad proposal. The General Assembly each year adopts hundreds of non-binding resolutions. Hudson has proposed a shift in power, so that the General Assembly could adopt binding resolutions (thereby absorbing some of the Security Council’s power). This would require a change from the present one state/one vote system to a system reflecting global population and economic realities. For a resolution to be binding, it would need to get two-thirds of the votes in three tiers of voting: of all the members present (a continuation of the present system), of the world’s most populated states (thereby favouring the Third World and reflecting the majority of the world’s people), and of the world’s richest states (which would favour the developed countries and reflect today’s economic reality). Far fewer resolutions would be adopted under this system but any resolution that did make it would obviously reflect today’s global realities.

The Trusteeship Council has worked itself out of job. The Allied and Associated Powers at the end of World War I decided that they would not as was usual for military victors – divide up the territory of the vanquished countries between themselves as a reward for winning. Instead, it was agreed that the colonies would become Mandates, to be put on the road to independence. The policy was continued after World War II, with the Mandates becoming Trust Territories. The Trust Territories are now independent. The Trusteeship Council structure could be retained, with its focus now as either an Environmental Council or as a Council for the World’s approximately 300 million Indigenous Peoples.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has 54 member-nations elected for three-year terms. ECOSOC initiates reports and makes recommendations to the General Assembly, UN member-nations and specialized agencies on economic, social and cultural matters. There are 16 autonomous specialized agencies, some of which are well known to the general public and some are not: for example, UN Development Programme (UNDP), World Health Organization (WHO), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Labor Organization (ILO), International Maritime Organization (IMO), Universal Postal Union (UPO), International Telecommunications Union (ITU). There are also the big financial agencies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Additionally, there are subsidiary bodies such as UN Fund for Children (UNICEF) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Unfortunately, ECOSOC has never been able to serve effectively as a world policy forum for economic, social, and related questions. ECOSOC is an organizational accumulation of institutional bodies which do not comply with political rationality and organizational efficiency. Over the years, the ECOSOC machinery became extremely complicated. About 40 bodies are reporting directly to it. Since many of these bodies have their own subsidiaries, the total number of experts and inter-governmental committees in the economic and social field is close to 200.

The main idea for reforming ECOSOC is to give it more power over the specialized agencies and the other bodies nominally within its jurisdiction so as to ensure better co-ordination and less duplication. Each agency has its own governing board. The governing boards are then linked back to different government departments at the national level. For example, the British governor on the World Bank is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may not share the sympathy of his colleague the Foreign Secretary on foreign aid issues. Each agency has its own method of operating and its own objectives. This means that some agencies overlap in the field, with resulting confusion. Thus, there is criticism that – although the UN is a small organization – there is a duplication of effort and a lack of central direction. Therefore, an enhanced ECOSOC could provide the UN with a greater sense of direction.

To conclude, the issue of UN reform is now on the international agenda. But it is worth noting that there are different motivations behind the various proposals for UN reform. Non-governmental organizations want a more effective UN, while many governments simply want a cheaper one. The overall goal should be a more effective and more ambitious UN. The UN is a bridge to a better world.

Keith Suter is Senior Fellow, Global Business Network Australia

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