Reforming the UN

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Mark Malloch-Brown
Mark Malloch-Brown

President of the Open Society Foundations and former head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

If two middle-aged singles were to re-tie the marital knot, the likely reason would be to share their lonely old age. Yet there might be altogether more dynamic reasons for the EU and the UN to consider renewing their vows. They could, at a stretch, become the world’s new power couple.

As a policy brief by the European Council on Foreign Relations entitled “Why Europe Needs a New Global Strategy” argued recently, despite the despondency that grips its politicians and publics, Europe achieved several decades of dynamic diplomacy that slumped into failure only in recent years. That success centred on the soft power successes of the EU’s own enlargement strategy, still arguably the single most significant geopolitical shift of our times, and on building up regional partner institutions like the African Union, where Europe has largely bankrolled improved peacekeeping and conflict resolution capabilities. Europe has made a much bigger contribution to peace on the African continent, for example, than has the U.S. creation of its Africa Command.

But now the ‘Big Rises’, notably of China and its fellow BRICs, and the ‘Big Fall’ of President Obama’s America leave Europe apparently naked and middle-aged, a far greater symbol of Western decline over the last decade than the United States itself. Europe’s failure to apply to its Arab neighbours the same soft power skills of economic inducement and political smooth talking that brought Eastern Europe into its fold has reinforced a growing perception that Europe has lost its way.

Consumed by the internal crisis of the euro and lacking political will, resources and vision, Europe has watched its Arab neighbours slump back into instability and authoritarianism. Nowhere is Europe’s failure, and in this that of the wider world as well, more evident than Syria. Feckless diplomacy, a divided UN Security Council, and empty threats of intervention all amount to a casebook study of how not to handle a crisis. Russia and the U.S. deserve the major share of the blame, but Europe is left wringing its hands; Russia and America have been powerful meddlers, while Europe was just impotent.

Like it or not, Europeans in this day and age expect their governments to pursue their international objectives through the rule of law, international institutions and through the sometimes rather elusive concept of soft power

Within the bowels of this disaster, though, lie the clues to a way back for Europe, and perhaps even Syria. The first lesson is that the only forum in which EU member countries can make their views heard in a situation such as Syria is the UN. Public opinion in Europe won’t countenance, at least for now, sabre rattling by NATO or the creation of coalitions of the willing, let alone military intervention. The vote in the British Parliament against even limited punitive air strikes after the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime made that very plain.

Like it or not, Europeans in this day and age expect their governments to pursue their international objectives through the rule of law, international institutions and through the sometimes rather elusive concept of soft power. They are increasingly wary of the projection of force unless all other means of dispute resolution have been exhausted. In other words, Europeans imbue the core approach of the United Nations since its founding. Although British and French governments may sometimes hanker after the gunboat diplomacy of bygone times, more cautious governments like those of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden better represent long-term European public sentiment. The last decade has seen a 20% fall in Europe’s military budgets, an even greater fall in military R&D spending and an increasingly deep-seated wariness about foreign adventures. A recent U.S. Secretary of Defense noted with concern that Europe is in danger of “demilitarising”.

For most Europeans, any military deployments must be with the authorisation of the UN Security Council. The sad examples of Iraq and Libya are now etched into the political consciousness of Europe. In the UK, this is carved deeper every time former prime minister Tony Blair speaks up in favour of another intervention. It is a history of personal and national political vanity that most Britons want to forget.

Europe is not necessarily on a path to unilateral disarmament, where the value of the UN would be only as a debating chamber for Europe’s powerless armchair warriors. Quite the opposite, because the EU’s enlargement along with other assertions of European leadership show that ‘Big Values’ and a ‘Big Market’, combined with modest force projection under a UN banner and an activist multi-lateral diplomacy, can bring sweeping gains for Europe. Most recently, the European Council did discuss defence for the first time in five years at their December summit, although not very convincingly.

For an EU pairing of diplomatic charm backed by the reluctant use of force to be effective, however, Europe’s diplomats need to rediscover how to work the UN’s corridors, and the EU needs to become a more imaginative leader of UN reform. If it is to put its faith in a UN dimension to its foreign policy, Europe needs a UN that can deliver.

From the decade since Iraq in 2003, Europeans at the UN have been a house divided. Too often, Britain, and latterly France, have either followed their own star or that of America. For a time, Germany’s ambition for permanent Security Council membership put it at odds with Italy. And at times the different economic and neighbourhood interests of northern and southern Europe created their own strains.

Europe has tried to address these divisions through laboriously negotiated common positions, and by lots of prickly protocol about who gets to speak for Europe on what. Missing, though, is a strong EU policymaking process that would give Europe real leadership and a powerful voice in multi-lateral deliberations. For now, Europe remains less than the sum of its parts.

There is an important proviso to this. The further down the list of individual member states priorities an issue is, the better the common position. It’s easier to get consensus on Congo than China, or on Rwanda than Russia.

Syria is now driving home the need for two key UN reforms where EU leadership could be decisive: humanitarian action and Security Council reform. On the first, the UN has allowed its relief operations for Syria to be ‘captured’ by the Assad regime. It cannot significantly expand cross-border feeding and health programmes to communities that are either controlled by rebels or under siege from the government. This has allowed the regime to make relief a weapon of war. It reflects how UN humanitarian work has become subject to Security Council approval rather than being governed by independent ‘Red Cross’ principles of humanitarian need. In the days of the Cold War, when the Security Council was routinely deadlocked, it never occurred to me as a young UN relief worker to seek express Security Council approval. My colleagues and I operated under a higher authority, so to speak, by claiming the mantle of international ethics and humanitarian law.

Europe is the biggest collective funder of UN humanitarian work, and a champion of these activities. It should seek to restore the principle of political independence for that work. And behind this European interest there lies a growing attention to human rights as against state rights. One expression of this may be detaching humanitarian action from political control, but ultimately the very European re-calibrating of the rights of the individual versus the state requires a much bigger make-over.

Over the last 68 years, the greatest change in the UN has been the trend giving more weight to individual rights and less to sovereign rights, with Europe in the forefront of this

Over the last 68 years, the greatest change in the UN has been the trend giving more weight to individual rights and less to sovereign rights, with Europe in the forefront of this. As my old boss Kofi Annan wrote back in 1999, “state sovereignty, in its most basic sense is being redefined – not least by the forces of globalisation and international co-operation.” To that should be added the forces of mass communication because there is a journalist in every war zone and a television screen in every living room.

At the UN’s founding in 1945, the principle of state sovereignty prevailed. The UN Charter represented small concessions of sovereignty to the UN, but ultimately was more about preventing a return to war than enshrining the rights and protection of individuals. In the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there were considerable differences between the 18 delegates on the nature of these rights and the proper relationship between the individual and the state. But it wasn’t just non-democratic powers like the Soviet Union that resisted turning the UN into an international arbiter that could overrule national sovereignty in favour of individual human rights. Historians like Mark Mazower record that “the British, embarrassed by the colonies, the USA, embarrassed by segregation and civil rights” sought also to ensure that the Universal Declaration was non-binding.

Sixty years later, after the rights revolution of the 1970s, the end of the Cold War and tragedies in Biafra, Rwanda and Bosnia, the tide turned. In 2005, the UN’s General Assembly endorsed the responsibility of each individual state to “protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Should a state fail to do so, that responsibility to provide such protection would devolve to the international community, acting through the Security Council and on a case by case basis ‘to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner’ including the use of force pursuant to Chapter VII of the UN Charter. In short, sovereignty was declared to be conditional on a state’s discharging its primary responsibility to protect; it is not absolute without regard to its behaviour.

The introduction of this doctrine of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or ‘R2P’ was one of the most important reforms of Kofi Annan’s term as Secretary-General. Although it was really a clarification in international law regarding state sovereignty, it was accompanied by such institutional reforms as the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission and the replacement of the UN Commission on Human Rights with the Human Rights Council.

Yet it is these institutions, particularly the Human Rights Council, together with an unreformed Security Council, that have disappointed. The Human Rights Council started out as a farce, devoting almost all of its meeting time to Israel and passing eight resolutions of condemnation. Things have not improved – it has been described as a ‘theatre of the absurd’. Most recently, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Vietnam were all elected to the Council despite significant evidence of human rights violations and having denied access to UN human rights monitors. Just four years after the Peacebuilding Commission was set up to encourage post-conflict reconciliation, justice, reform and investment, an official assessment described its deficiencies and it is often described as ‘unwieldy’, though these failings are not terminal.

For the gridlock to be broken the Security Council must be reborn as a forum for co-operation and dialogue that existing members such as Russia and China can trust and invest in

But it is the Security Council that is truly broken. And where it is broken, dysfunction, discord and disagreement trickle down into other parts of the UN. Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in an article in 2004 that the UN’s reputation “rises and falls these days based on the performance and perceived legitimacy of three of its most visible components – the Security Council, the Commission on Human Rights and the peacekeepers in the field”. The latter of these were at least addressed in some part by the reforms of 2005, but then as now, Security Council reform proved too intractable.

I have previously described Security Council reform as institutional chiropractice. If only this critical piece of the organisation’s spine was properly aligned around members that are thought to represent the world as it is today, then the alignment would fall down through the lower spine, arms, and legs as the whole body politic recalibrates itself. Where there is disagreement or gridlock in the Security Council over such pressing issues as the crisis in Syria, or worse where vast swathes of the UN’s 193 member states feel utterly disenfranchised, the entire co-operative underpinning of the United Nations is compromised.

To lead on security or any other issue, and to hold convening power, the UN and its Secretary-General must be able to act with moral authority. Yet authority is derived from legitimacy and representativeness. Where the Security Council has twin deficits in both, the UN is weakened and wider reform is frustrated. The Security Council’s dysfunction is toxic, in itself.

The current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, is often criticised for not doing enough to press member states for comprehensive reform, or to institute reforms in the secretariat. But although the Secretary General can enable and advocate reform, ultimately the power to implement wide-ranging change lies primarily with UN member states. Without permanent membership or representation on the Security Council, countries like India, Brazil and South Africa as well as many other smaller countries, will engage less with the UN and look to regional bodies like the African Union and the Arab League as forums for co-operation and communication.

Members of the General Assembly continue to feel disenfranchised on key issues, without leadership on the Security Council and without much of a say on the appointment of the Secretary-General. They therefore see empowerment of the Secretary-General and the Security Council as a power grab by the large countries that make up the P5, and refuse to acknowledge that across the board reform is about strengthening the institution as a whole rather than diminishing the role of the General Assembly.

Security Council reform is needed to underpin wider UN reform, and in truth it is more than this. Not only does the spine of the Security Council facilitate the working of the rest of the UN, but the Security Council deals with the most important issues relating to peace and intervention and is thus also its most vital organ. If the Security Council is powerless to stop atrocities in Syria, as it was during the Srebrenica massacre or the genocide in Rwanda, it is, as Hillary Clinton described it in 2012, ‘neutered’.

Barack Obama, who in part won the Nobel peace prize for his “emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other institutions can play”, similarly dismissed the Security Council’s resolutions as ‘hocus pocus’ as recently as last September. Then, in October, Saudi Arabia announced that it would not take up its hard-won, non-permanent seat on the Security Council, and accused it of ‘double standards’ while demanding its reform before it would participate. The recent past has nevertheless seen some Security Council breakthroughs; two and half years of diplomatic deadlock were broken last September when a deal on Syria’s chemical weapons emerged, and most recently the Security Council authorised an African-led and French-backed peacekeeping force to quell spiralling violence in the Central African Republic. The recent nuclear agreement with Iran was a Security Council-plus exercise, a rare but important success too for Europe and Catherine Ashton, its foreign affairs chief.

Expanding the Security Council’s permanent membership is not enough. To make the Council work, veto and procedural reform is also needed

But friction remains, and in the words of France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius, “these positive outcomes cannot hide the fact that, for a long time, the Security Council, constrained by vetoes, was powerless in the face of the Syrian tragedy.” As seen with Libya and UN Resolution 1973, even when the Council reaches a decision, its implementation can be the cause of dispute. In Syria, although an agreement was reached on chemical weapons disarmament, the Security Council has not been able to force peace negotiations or protect civilians. The distrust sowed by the action taken in Libya has led to inaction in Syria, with non-Western Security Council members seeing any action as the thin end of the wedge.

For the gridlock to be broken the Security Council must be reborn as a forum for co-operation and dialogue that existing members such as Russia and China can trust and invest in. This will only happen when the Security Council is more representative of the balance of power in today’s world.

In the seven decades since 1945, membership of the UN has almost quadrupled from 51 to 193 states. The number of permanent members is the same today as when it was created, and the number of non-permanent members has increased from only six to ten. The basic proposal, which remains stuck on the drawing board since the Annan reforms of 2005, is to add six or seven more permanent members – Germany, Japan, India, Brazil and South Africa, plus one more African country. But what exactly would happen to the veto under such a plan is not agreed.

In November 2010, President Obama endorsed India for a permanent seat, and as Security Council reform is only realistic with the full backing of the United States, this was an important step. As a UK minister, I myself came enticingly close in 2009 to getting all the permanent members to commit publicly to Security Council reform, but then the new Obama Administration, fresh in office, pulled back and wanted more time to think about it.

Beyond the U.S., the UK supports widening permanent representation on the Security Council to Germany, Japan, India and Brazil. At least one, and I would say two, representatives from Africa must surely also be appointed, given that a majority of the items on the council’s agenda deal with Africa, and yet the continent has no voice equivalent to a permanent member.

Requiring two vetoes rather than one may one day be a more realistic approach as it will preserve the balance of power in the Security Council while enhancing the institution’s legitimacy and representative character

Expanding the Security Council’s permanent membership is not enough. To make the Council work, veto and procedural reform is also needed. The veto’s use is not nearly as widespread as is thought; the Council does most of its business without a veto. It is wielded, though, when the stakes are high. Last October, France’s Laurent Fabius proposed a significant alteration – that the P5 would “voluntarily regulate their right to exercise their veto” in the face of a ‘mass crime’. This crime would be determined by the secretary general at the request of at least 50 member states. This ‘Responsibility Not to Veto’ (RN2V), pushed by human rights advocates is in the eyes of some “subjective, vague and open to interpretation”. Crucially, it doesn’t involve France or any other of the P5 giving anything up in favour of new or non-permanent members.

Requiring two vetoes rather than one may one day be a more realistic approach as it will preserve the balance of power in the Security Council – a prerequisite for the U.S., the UK and other western powers – while enhancing the institution’s legitimacy and representative character. The core objection today would be America’s concern that it alone could no longer veto anti-Israeli resolutions. But if joined by Germany, that might give some reassurance given the latter’s long post-1945 history of single-mindedly protecting the status of Israel in international forums.

But adding Germany may be a bridge too far for the rest of the world, which already considers Europe to be over-represented. This is the calculation Europe needs to make, because making Germany another European power with full privileges, veto and life membership is a deal-breaker for many other countries.

Instead, Europe may want to lead on a different proposal to create a new class of regional members, initially including the current P5, who would enjoy 10-year renewable memberships. The criteria for candidacy (say share of regional GDP, aid and defence spending, etc.) would favour a region’s leading members, even though who those are may shift over time. For instance, there was talk in 1945 of admitting Brazil, and now, it would again deserve membership. But for the decades in between it would not have done. China and the U.S. are unlikely to be unseated, as to do so would leave a large part of global power unrepresented at a fatal cost to the Council’s legitimacy.

So a rotating, renewable regional membership offers greater legitimacy and flexibility of representation. For Europe, such a Council might start with the two incumbents, Britain and France, but come the first election Germany would probably elbow one of them aside. And no doubt Italy or Poland, and perhaps Sweden at the head of a Nordic bloc, will one day press their own claims. It would make for a dynamic, accountable – and democratic – international governance, and an end to the P5 sinecures of representation without accountability.

It takes people to make a marriage and a moment may come when there is new leadership in Brussels and New York. A new European Commission in Brussels will be followed in 2016 by the election of a new UN Secretary General. Many argue it is Europe’s turn to nominate a candidate, and a better UN is surely a good cause for Europe and what it stands for. It might also give Europe and the UN a second honeymoon.

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