Since the late 1990s there have been many calls for reform of the United Nations (UN). However, there is little clarity or consensus about what reform might mean in practice. Both those who want the UN to play a greater role in world affairs and those who want its role confined to humanitarian work or otherwise reduced use the term “UN reform” to refer to their ideas. The range of opinion extends from those who want to eliminate the UN entirely, to those who want to make it into a full-fledged world government.
An official reform program was initiated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan shortly after starting his first term on 1 January 1997. On 21 March 2005, Annan presented a major report on UN reform entitled In Larger Freedom.
Security Council reform
A very frequently discussed change to the UN structure is to change the permanent membership of the UN Security Council, which reflects the power structure of the world as it was in 1945. There are several proposed plans, notably by the G4 nations, by the Uniting for Consensus group, and by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
At another level, calls for reforming the UN demand to make the UN administration (usually called the UN Secretariat or “the bureaucracy”) more transparent, more accountable, and more efficient, including direct election of the Secretary-General by the people (see presidentialism).
UN Secretariat/administration reforms seldom gets much attention in the media, though within the Organization they are seen as widely contentious issues. The UN Secretariat has about 30000 staff around the globe, of which 35% work at the headquarters in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi. They run the bureaucracy of the UN, responding to the decisions by the Member States in the Security Council and the General Assembly.
Among the notable efforts of Secretariat reform since 2005 is the Secretary-General’s report Investing in the United Nations from March 2006 and the Comprehensive review of governance and oversight within the UN, June the same year. From the Member States side there is the Four Nations Initiative, a cooperation project by Chile, South Africa, Sweden and Thailand to promote governance and management reforms, aiming at increased accountability and transparency.
During 2005 and 2006 there was little progress within the area of Secretariat reform, not least due to a wide confidence gap between groups of Member States as well as an enforced “spending cap” which soured relations between the North and the South. During late 2006 and 2007 the discussion atmosphere has greatly improved in the UN and successful resolutions have been taken such as resolution 61/261 on Administration of Justice and 61/244 on Human Resources Management.
Enhancing its democratic nature
Another frequent demand is that the UN become “more democratic”, and a key institution of a world democracy. This raises fundamental questions about the nature and role of the UN. The UN is not a world government, rather a forum for the world’s sovereign states to debate issues and determine collective courses of action. Adirect democracy would request the presidential election of the UN Secretary-General by direct vote of the citizens of the democratic countries (world presidentialism) as well as the General Assembly (just as cities, states and nations have their own representatives in many systems, who attend specifically to issues relevant to the given level of authority) and the International Court of Justice. Others have proposed a combination of direct and indirect democracy, whereby national governments might ratify the expressed will of the people for such important posts as an empowered World Court.
For the UN to become more democratic in a direct sense, several issues would have to be addressed, including:
- Representation would need to be based more on population vote and UN democratic and free elections to the Secretary and Assembly, rather than the present strict one state, one vote principle. Another proposal is to establish a consultative United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) as an intermediary step towards a world parliament within the UN structure. An assembly where Liechtenstein has the same voting power as India is far from equally representational (generally considered a key aspect of democracy).
- The United Nations Security Council veto power needs to be either reformed or removed. Again, this could remove a form of counter-representationalism, where the permanent Security Council members have their opinions weighted above others. However, it is not clear, given the very extensive powers of the General Assembly under the UN Charter—as clarified by the Assembly’s own ‘Uniting for Peace’ resolution of 3 November 1950—that an effective Security Council is a necessary precondition to an effective United Nations Organization.
- The UN would have to be given some power of governance over its members, just as a national government has power of governance over its citizens. This would imply having the power to impose sanctions on members who would not follow the UN’s determined courses of action and resolutions (including the human rights’ resolutions).
- As implied in the previous item, the UN might also exclude from its membership those nations which it determined to be grossly violating the human rights of its people, including the right to periodic democratic, universal, secret-ballot elections (upheld in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).
It is likely that the small countries, which make up the majority of the current members of the General Assembly, would oppose the first of these changes (some of these might oppose the fourth), while the current permanent members of the Security Council would oppose the second, and probably the third as well. However, reformers have proposed that with incremental and simultaneous attention to these points, it is possible that the interests of the large and small nations might be reconciled through compromise in order to avert the anarchy and relative powerlessness of the present system which hamper the interests of both large and small nations. For example, if the veto power were progressively limited while also basing the weighting of the General Assembly more on population, large and small nations might be more trusting of the system to assign more supranational authority to the votes of the General Assembly and judgments of an empowered World Court.
Diversity and democracy
Implementation of population-based UN voting also raises the problems of diversity of interests and governments of the various nations. The nations in the UN contain representative democracies as well as absolute dictatorships and many other types of government. Allowing large powers to vote their population’s interests en blocraises the question of whether they would really represent the interests and desires of their individual citizens and the world community. Anything like direct election would be impossible as well in the many nations where an accurate direct vote would be impossible or where the local government has power to influence the local voters as well as security of the ballot box. Giving the UN any kind of actual governance power raises the question of how these powers could be carried out. What would happen when a vote of the UN General Assembly demands changes in the borders or political status of a nation, or requires citizens in some nations to tax themselves in favour of other nations, or demands the arrest of the leader of a nation, and is met by refusal?
The subsidiarity principle resolves some of these issues. The term originates from social thought within the Roman Catholic church and states that no larger organ shall resolve an issue that can be resolved at a more local level. It can be compared to federalist principles where entities of the union retain some aspects of sovereignty. Only when two or more members of the federation are affected by any given act does the federal government have the authority to intervene. Giving a reformed UN more powers but enshrining the subsidiarity principle in its Charter would guarantee that the UN does not evolve into a world autocracy that can arbitrarily dictate policy. For example, the fate of Kashmir would have to be decided through a referendum held by the Kashmiris and not by a vote in the General Assembly.
United Nations Parliamentary Assembly
A United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, or United Nations People’s Assembly (UNPA), is a proposed addition to the United Nations System that eventually would allow for direct election of UN Parliament members by citizens of all over the world.
Proposals for a UNPA date back to the UN’s formation in 1945, but largely stagnated until the 1990s. They have recently gained traction amidst increasing globalization, as national parliamentarians and citizens groups seek to counter the growing influence of unelected international bureaucracies.
On the subject of financing, an interesting proposal has been made:
“A tax on missiles, planes, tanks, and guns would provide the UN with its entire budget, as well as pay for all peacekeeping efforts around the world, including the resettlement of refugees and reparations to the victims of war.”
The main problem with implementing such a radical tax would be finding acceptance. Although such a system might find acceptance within some nations, particularly those (1) with a history of neutrality, (2) without an active military (such as Costa Rica), or (3) with lower levels of military spending (such as Japan, which currently spends 1% of its GDP on Defence), it would be unpopular among many consumers of arms. Nations such as these range from the United States, which spends 4% of its GDP on defense, to dictatorships who depend on arms to keep themselves in power. Other likely opponents would be nations engaged in ongoing military conflicts, or others in a state of heightened military alert, such as Israel and Taiwan. Arms producers would also oppose it, because it would increase their costs and possibly reduce their consumer base.
Another problem with the United Nations is that finances are not controlled by the overwhelming monetary contributors. In theory, democratizing the budget by allowing all members to vote on it would be the ideal. However, as in voting matters concerning non-fiscal issues, blocs are formed that effectively quell reform. In general, First World nations (which tend to have strong democratic systems within their governments) contribute the vast majority of finances for the UN. However, Third World nations (which more often than other nations tend to have dictatorships for governments) have more control over where those funds go. This is because the number of Third World nations is larger than the number of First World nations. It is arguable that the high rates of economic growth in many Third World states, as well as a growing degree of liberalisation, such as is occurring in Indonesia and Brazil, both of which are moving away from previous eras of authoritarian rule, could reduce this problem in the future.
Human rights reform
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights came under fire during its existence for the high-profile positions it gave to member states that did not guarantee the human rights of their own citizens. Several nations known to have been guilty of gross violations of human rights became members of the organization, such as Libya,Cuba, Sudan, Algeria, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, the United States was also angry when it was ejected from the Commission in 2002. While it was re-elected, the election of human rights-abusing nations also caused frictions. It was partly because of these problems that Kofi Annan in the In Larger Freedom report suggested setting up a new Human Rights Council as a subsidiary UN body.
On Wednesday, 15 March 2006, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of establishing a new United Nations Human Rights Council, the successor to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, with the resolution receiving approval from 170 members of the 191-nation Assembly. Only the United States, the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Israel voted against the Council’s creation, claiming that it would have too little power and that there were insufficient safeguards to prevent human rights-abusing nations from taking control.
Removal of spent provisions
Several provisions of the United Nations Charter are no longer relevant. In Larger Freedom proposed the removal of these provisions:
- Since there are no longer any trust territories, the Trusteeship Council no longer serves any purpose, and has not met since 1994. Thus, Chapter XIII of the Charter is no longer relevant, and can be deleted.
- Due to Cold War disagreements, the Military Staff Committee never succeeded in its intended purpose. Although it formally still meets fortnightly, it has been effectively inactive since 1948. Thus, article 47, and the references to it in articles 26, 45 and 46 can be deleted.
- The “enemy clauses” in articles 53 and 107 contain special provisions relating to the members of the Axis in World War II (Germany, Japan, etc.) These are no longer relevant; Japan in particular would like to see them removed.
There are also other provisions of the UN Charter that deal with transitional arrangements, and thus are now spent. For example, article 61(3) and article 109(3). However, In Larger Freedom does not contain any proposals with respect to these provisions.
Due to the difficulty in amending the Charter, it is unlikely that any of these spent provisions will be amended except as part of a package making substantive amendments, such as Security Council reform. Further, while In Larger Freedom proposes that certain provisions be removed there is not universal agreement. One school of thought in particular suggests that the Military Staff Committee could be revitalized by member states finally meeting their Article 45 commitments to provide a force able to perform peacemaking and peace enforcement under the legitimacy of the United Nations flag.
Following the publication of Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in February 2007, a “Paris Call for Action” read out by French President Chirac and supported by 46 countries, called for the United Nations Environment Programme to be replaced by a new and more powerful United Nations Environment Organization (UNEO), to be modelled on the World Health Organization. The 46 countries included the European Union nations, but notably did not include the United States, China, Russia, and India, the top four emitters of greenhouse gases.
- Amendments to the United Nations Charter
- Binding triad: a proposal to change the power mechanisms of the UN
- The Four Nations Initiative on Governance and Management reform of the UN Secretariat