A Year of Bold Decision?

What UN Reform Would Have Looked Like

By Ryan Gawn | 2005-10-01 12:00:00

Recent years have been devastating for the United Nations. The Baghdad bombing killed 15 UN staff in August 2003, and world opinion divided over the war in Iraq and the UN's role itself. While some complained that the organization failed to enforce its own resolutions, others felt let down by its inability to prevent an unnecessary war.

In response, the Secretary-General (SG) appointed the 16-member High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (HLP), with the task of redefining the UN. The panel aimed to analyze the threats to peace and security, evaluate existing policies and institutions to address them, and recommend changes to ensure effective collective responses to threats.

The panel published the document "A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility"1 in November 2004. Its 101 recommendations were designed to allay the security concerns of all states, ensure that the UN works better, and strengthen the international rule of law.

In January 2005, the UN-commissioned Sachs report, "Investing in Development: A Practical Plan for Achieving the Millennium Development Goals"2 was published. This evaluated the progress toward the Millennium Development Goals since 2000 and suggested how they could be achieved within the plan's remaining 10 years. The SG consulted with civil society, governments, and academics on the feasibility of both proposals. His Strategic Planning Unit took soundings from many quarters and worked closely with the authors of the two documents, using their proposals as a foundation for debate. The SG wanted solid proposals that were "bold and achievable." He wrote:

"In the present report, I have resisted the temptation to include all areas in which progress is important or desirable. I have limited myself to items on which I believe action is both vital and achievable in the coming months. These are reforms that are within reach -- reforms that are actionable if we can garner the necessary political will."3

And so on March 21, 2005, the SG's 63-page report "In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All"4 was published. The SG proposed a comprehensive strategy to reform the United Nations, with the decision to be made by a summit preceding the autumn General Assembly. Mark Malloch Brown, the SG's chief of staff, commented,"If any report has Kofi Annan's name all over it, it is this one."5 The SG invested personal prestige on the reform. In the report he explains that this is a key moment for concerted reform:

"...[sixty] years later, we once again find ourselves mired in disillusionment, in an all too imperfect world. It is easy to stand at the sidelines and criticize. And we could talk endlessly about UN reform. But our world no longer has that luxury. The time has come to adapt our collective security system, so that it works efficiently, effectively and equitably... I fervently hope that world leaders will rise to this challenge. In the past three years we have all lived through a period of deep division and sombre reflection. We must make 2005 a year of bold decision."6

Nevertheless, this argument has been presented before, and while the SG claimed that this would be the "make or break" moment, the reality is far from this. The organization will continue to exist as long as it serves the interests of the big powers, including the US, and "no reforms, however well intentioned, will turn the UN into the perfect instrument millions of people seem to want -- one capable, of ordering international relations so that all states obey the same rules, and especially rules that govern the use of force."7

There was widespread public support for reform and an overhaul of the UN, as the SG proposed. In a recent 23-country opinion survey, in every country except Russia a majority supported the expansion of the Security Council. In most countries a majority backed making the UN significantly more powerful. 8


The report "In Larger Freedom" showed that development, security, and human rights were interdependent.9 The SG's recommendations were classified into four "clusters":

* Freedom from want: Poverty reduction and promotion of global prosperity were the primary goals in this category, with an emphasis on achieving the Millennium Development Goals that were adopted during the world leaders' summit in 2000.

* Freedom from fear: This set of recommendations was geared at creating an equitable, efficient and effective collective security system with strategies for confronting a broad range of security threats.10 Recommendations relate to terrorism, organized crime, weapons of mass destruction, small arms and light weapons, and criteria for the use of force by the Security Council (SC).

* Freedom to live in dignity: These recommendations were rooted in principles of rule of law, human rights, and democracy, which are at the heart of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments were asked to recommit themselves to these principles, including by affirming the emerging norm of the "responsibility to protect."

* Strengthening the UN. These proposals were aimed at strengthening the UN's capacity to meet the needs and circumstances of the 21st Century. Recommendations included streamlining the work of the General Assembly (GA) and expanding the SC so that it is more representative of the world's demographics. The report also called for the establishment of a Human Rights Council as a new principal organ within the UN system.


In 2000, the international community had agreed to confront global poverty, hunger, disease, and development. They had laid out key pragmatic targets for 2015, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The SG's report acknowledged that "developing countries should recommit themselves to taking primary responsibility for their own development by strengthening governance, combatting corruption and putting in place the policies and investments to drive private-sector-led growth and maximize domestic resources to fund national development strategies."11 This resonates with the Bush Administration's Millennium Challenge Account, although the US opposed the raising of Overseas Development Aid to 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).12.There seemed to be growing willingness from states to act on commitments made in 2000 and at Monterrey in 2002. Several donor states have announced plans to more than double their development assistance to 0.7 percent of their GDP by 2015, or even further.

If action on this front should be blocked, the impact of this cluster on all of the others would be negative. Development underpins security, and the report concentrated on implementing the Sachs recommendations, aiming to make the MDGs successful. Recent moves (such as the doubling of aid to Africa by the G8)13 showed that this had support across the board.14


Definition of terrorism. The SG 's document encouraged member states to agree on a clear definition of terrorism as any intentional attack on civilians and non-combatants by non-state actors for political purposes -- any act intended to "cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians."15 This would hve been a major step, defying the notion of some member states that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Reaction to this definition varied. States largely agreed that resistance against occupation cannot include killing civilians, but some Arab UN members demanded exemptions. Divisions remain over the issue of "state terrorism" and America and other states worried that "too sweeping a definition risked labelling as terrorism the bombing of military targets hidden in civilian neighborhoods, as in Iraq."16 The SG's panel achieved unanimity on the definition, but reactions from some governments led the SG to temper the proposed definition of terrorism.17

Use of force. The SG also proposes that the rules concerning use of force be made more flexible so that an attack does not have to be imminent or underway before self-defence can be invoked. This is a radical departure from previous policy and essentially permits pre-emptive action in the face of an "imminent" threat. However, the US wanted this proposal to avoid requiring the SC's permission for preventive action in the case of "latent" threats - which would surely have included Iraq. Their ideal would be to let countries launch preventive strikes without SC permission, even where no attack seems imminent (for instance, where a terrorist group is about to acquire nuclear know-how but cannot yet make a bomb).

The SG also proposed that members reach a "common view" -- a criterion to be used in future cases when the SC is asked to endorse military action. The criterion would consider the seriousness of the threat, proportionality of response, and likelihood of success. For the US, this looked like a way to restrain the world's superpower. For some, it would be better by far for use of force to be sanctioned by the SC in accordance with the Charter. However, as The Economist argued, "there will still be times -- Kosovo, Darfur, arguably Iraq -- when the council chooses to withhold its approval but a country or group of countries will nevertheless be right to take armed action, either in self-defence or for humanitarian purposes. Short of the creation of world government, no amount of legal ingenuity is ever going to change that."18 With most states seeing the provisions in the Charter as sufficient in this respect, any changes were unlikely.

Peacekeeping. In recent years, the number of peacekeeping missions has increased and the demand for peacekeepers is severely stretched. The SG called for the creation of strategic reserves that can be deployed rapidly and the establishment of a standby UN civilian police. This proposal had strong support from civil society, but less so from member states, who wish to select their contributions to peacekeeping missions on an ad-hoc basis. Governments had been asked to support a stronger relationship between the UN and regional organizations and to consider linking regional peacekeeping capacities to the UN peacekeeping system.

Weapons of Mass Destruction. On April 13, 2005, the GA unanimously adopted the Nuclear Terrorism Convention. The treaty obliges governments to punish those who illegally possess atomic devices or radioactive materials. The treaty is the 13th anti-terrorism convention introduced to the GA and the first completed since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US. The Convention was a key recommendation in the SG's report. The measure was seen as "an important step toward multilateral efforts to combat terrorism, by preventing terrorists' access to 'the most lethal weapons known to humanity.'"19 The revitalization of this process for non-proliferation and disarmament requires urgent attention. At the recent review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, recalcitrant states hid behind debates over process to avoid confronting the hard issues. Meanwhile, there are still 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Iran's enrichment activity suggests that more states could go nuclear.20

Peacebuilding Commission. Another key proposal was to establish a Peacebuilding Commission and a Peacebuilding Support Office to improve international support for countries recovering from conflict. The SG stated that the UN's "record of success in mediating and implementing peace agreements is sadly blemished by some devastating failures." He also noted a gaping hole in the UN's institutional machinery to "effectively address the challenge of helping countries with the transition from war to lasting peace."21

Failed states are breeding grounds for terrorism and international crime. Thus, preventing destabilization is in the interests of many member states. The proposed office would identify states on the verge of collapse, provide assistance to prevent such collapses, and sustain the efforts of the international community in post-conflict peacebuilding. Most perceive this as an idea whose time has come22 and also favor strengthening UN capabilities for mediation, humanitarian response, and peacekeeping.23


Commission on Human Rights. The SG stated that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights "suffers from declining credibility and professionalism, and is in need of major reform."24 The current commission is dysfunctional and has enabled countries such as Liberia and Sudan to cover up human rights abuses in their countries rather than advance better practices. His proposal would replace it with a smaller standing Human Rights Council, as a principal organ of the UN or subsidiary body of the GA.25 Membership in the new Council would be limited only to states with a credible human rights record, who would be elected by a two-thirds vote of the GA. Some commentators urged that democracy be prerequisite for entry onto the Commission, but this seemed unlikely due to China's position. NGOs also advocated that a new Human Rights Council recognize that no human rights record is perfect, and that there needs to be a "sustained, depoliticized process of authoritative, impartial and objective analysis," namely, the increased power of independent human rights experts within the Commission.26 Criticism from some governments led the SG to avoid creating specific criteria for membership on the human rights panel.27

Responsibility to Protect. "In Larger Freedom" also calls for the adoption of a collective "responsibility to protect" policy by the SC. Thus, "if national authorities are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens, then the responsibility shifts to the international community to use diplomatic, humanitarian, and other methods to help protect the human rights and well-being of civilian populations."28 This would make it easier for the SC to authorize intervention for humanitarian purposes in cases where people's rights and needs are not protected by their own government. It would also shift the focus from the preservation of national sovereignty to that of human security. Critics argued that nothing would change:

"Nor, of course, would embracing a 'responsibility to protect' ensure UN intervention in a future Darfur. The council could sanction military force right away (as it did, after the fact, when NATO intervened in Kosovo) if its members had the political will. It is the absence of that will, not some legal quibble, that is holding them back now."29


Secretariat Overhaul. The SG urged member states to endorse reforms to improve accountability, transparency and efficiency within the Secretariat. In addition, he sought to reform the Secretariat by "commissioning a comprehensive review of the Office of Internal Oversight Services with a view to strengthening its independence and authority, as well as its expertise and capacity."30 This had widespread support (including from the US) especially following the accusations against the SG in the "Oil for Food" crisis.

Security Council Enlargement. The most controversial reform was the proposed expansion of the SC to make it more representative.

"Everyone agrees that the Security Council is an unrepresentative relic: five of its 15 seats are occupied by permanent, veto-wielding members (America, Russia, China, Britain and France), while the remaining 196 countries have to take turns occupying the remaining 10 seats, and have no veto."31

The SG did not express a preference between his two options, which both propose enlargement from 15 to 24 members. Model A pr vides for six new permanent seats, with no veto being created, and three new two-year-term seats divided among the major regional areas. Model B provides for no new permanent seats but creates a new category of eight renewable four-year-term seats and one new two-year, non-renewable seat, divided among the major regional areas.

The SG was realistic, realizing that the Permanent Five will not give up their cherished veto:

"Let us not get so focused on the veto. It is a reality that it is not going to be possible to remove the veto. It is utopian to think that we can do it."32

Nevertheless, some civil society commentators had hoped for the proposal to include the HLP's recommendation that permanent members pledge themselves to refrain from the use of veto in cases of genocide and large-scale human rights abuses, as well as the use of indicative voting.33

The battle lines were drawn up between three main proposals, which each need a total of 128 votes, as well as P5 support, to be adopted by the GA.

* The Group of Four (G-4 -- Germany, Japan, India and Brazil) proposes a plan similar to Model A -- six permanent members without veto power (one for each of the G-4 nations and two for Africa) and four non-permanent seats elected for two-year terms.

* The Uniting for Consensus Group, commonly known as the "Coffee Club" (Argentina, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Spain, and Turkey) was trying to stymie the G-4's efforts, generally proposing a plan similar to Model B: ten non-permanent members that can be re-elected.

* The African Union's proposal for a 26-member SC would add six new permanent members (two permanent seats for Africa). While very similar to the G-4's proposal, it differed from the G-4 plan in that it called for an additional five non-permanent seats instead of four and insisted that new permanent members possess the veto.

* Finally, the US and China were widely rumored to be working against any significant enlargement. The US was still smarting over Germany's opposition to the Iraq war, and China opposed a permanent Japanese seat.34 Ironically, the US had declared its formal support for a permanent Japanese seat, which casts doubts on the durability of the US-China alliance. Indeed, US and Chinese positions were key obstacles for reform, as any enlargement would need to evade a Permanent Five veto to be passed.

Some criticisms of the proposals relate to the size (some said that it would be more difficult to achieve decisions in a 25-member body), andcriteria for membership of the SC (geographical balance, population, and contributions). Some even call for non-proliferation policies35 and democracy as criteria for membership. India, with one-fifth of the world's population, remains outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not been asked to cap its nuclear capabilities as a condition for membership. Except for the latter criterion, Egypt would be a prime contender. However, its democratic record has been criticized.36 Indeed, if democracy were made a prerequisite for a seat on the SC, the message would be heard around the world. Since Russia and China already hold permanent seats on the SC, their positions would not be threatened, but it would indeed introduce a new policy of privilege for democracies. The adoption of the proposal for a permanent democracy fund by the UN suggests that this criterion is not so far-fetched.

Pessimistic critics claimed that these reforms would make no difference as they would not resolve the fundamental problems. They said that the debate in the SC before the Iraq War would have had the same outcome if the SC had been expanded, and that enlargement is no answer.37

"The permanent five did not fall out over Iraq because they could not agree on the rules. They fell out because America and Britain claimed to have a different view from Russia, France and China about precisely the questions Mr. Annan would like them to pose in future: the seriousness of the threat, proportionality, chances of success and so on."38

Others responded that although it is not possible to make the SC perfect, it is possible to improve it.

Ryan Gawn is a Rotary World Peace Fellow, Universidad del Salvador, Buenos Aires.


1 www.un.org/secureworld/

2 www.unmillenniumproject.org/reports/ fullreport.htm

3 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap1.htm

4 www.un.org/largerfreedom/

5 http://query.nytimes.com/gst/ abstract.htmlres=F30E11F935580C728EDDAA0894DD404482&inca

6 www.economist.com/displaystory. cfmstory_id=3445764

7 www.economist.com/displaystory. cfmstory_id=3786918

8 www.economist.com/agenda/displaystory. cfmstory_id=3784676

9 www.un.org/largerfreedom/

10 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap3.htm

11 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap2.htm

12 www.globalsolutions.org/programs/ intl_instit/latest_news/ in_larger_freedom.html

13 www.nytimes.com/reuters/news/news-group-africa-aid.html

14 www.reformtheun.org/index.phpmodule= uploads&func=download&fileId=723

15 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap3.htm

16 www.economist.com/agenda/displaystory. cfmstory_id=3784676

17 www.iht.com/articles/ 2005/03/20/news/nations.php

18 www.economist.com/ displaystory.cfmstory_id=3786918

19 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap3.htm

20 www.iht.com/articles/2005/06/02/opinion/ edlarsen.php

21 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap3.htm

22 www.stanleyfoundation.org/reports/ Issues05.pdf

23 www.fride.org/eng/Publications/ Publication.aspxItem=802

24 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap5.htm

25 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap5.htm

26 www.un-ngls.org/UNreform/ Amnestyinternational.doc

27 www.iht.com/articles/2005/03/20/ news/nations.php

28 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap4.htm

29 www.economist.com/displaystory. cfmstory_id=3786918

30 www.un.org/largerfreedom/chap5.htm

31 www.economist.com/agenda/ displaystory. cfmstory_id=3784676

32 www.iht.com/articles/ 2005/04/28/news/india.php

33 www.un-ngls.org/sg-report- NGOs-comment

34 www.economist.com/displaystory. cfmstory_id=4277373

35 www.un-ngls.org/UNreform/centreforpeaceandconflict.doc

36 www.brookings.edu/views/op-ed/ ohanlon/20041217.htm

37 www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm story_id=4277373

38 www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm story_id=3786918

39 www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp NewsID=15370&Cr=UN&Cr1=reform&Kw1=security+council&Kw2=reform&Kw3=

40 www.globalsolutions.org/hill/ HR_ 2745_Summary.html

41 www.brookings.edu/views/ op-ed/fellows/florini20050614.htm


UN Reform and the US Congress: from Cooperation to the Bully Pulpit

In Washington, politicians are still grappling with how to influence UN reform. The SG's proposals failed largely for lack of US support, and debate on the Hill was heated.

The UN Reform Act of 2005 (drafted by House International Relations Committee Chair Henry Hyde) laid out some visionary changes that may help the UN become more effective. Yet this legislation (passed by the House by a vote of 221 to 184) threatens to withhold 50% of US dues if 32 of the 40 reforms are not implemented in one or two years.40

Opposition to this legislation has been fierce: "Nothing could be better calculated to infuriate the rest of the world and entrench the view that the US is a bully rather than a partner in international efforts."41

Congress has two other alternatives; the "UN Reform and Institutional Strengthening Act," which allows more negotiating flexibility and authorizes (but does not require) the withholding of dues, and the 174-page "Gingrich-Mitchell United States Institute for Peace Task Force on the United Nations" report.42 This is the product of a bi-partisan task force, and echoes many of the SG's recommendations. It also avoids threatening the withholding of dues, and sees this pressure as a last option.

-Ryan Gawn

After 400 amendments,not much was left of Kofi Annan's dreams for United Nations reform

What was the outcome of the Secretary-General's effort to reform the UN? At a September summit 150 heads of state and government adopted a compromise agreement, but omitted some of the most urgent reforms. US Ambassador John Bolton presented some 400 last-minute objections and amendments. The negotiators had to abandon many specific commitments, replacing them with vague statements of intention or references to existing international agreements -- some of which, such as the Landmines Treaty, are binding only on signatories.

There is still no agreement on a definition of terrorism, as Kofi Annan's advisory team had proposed. Although there will be a new Human Rights Council with a larger budget, it probably will have no more power against dictatorships than the existing Human Rights Commission. Nuclear proliferation and disarmament are not covered at all in the text of the agreement; in fact, the section on environment includes a paragraph rebuking the nuclear-free states of the South Pacific and urging them to be more considerate of the needs of states that ship radioactive material by sea.

Security Council reform has been handed off to the General Assembly, where it will be discussed later in 2005 or possibly put off further into the future.

There were some positive changes, however. The "responsibility to protect" doctrine has been endorsed, requiring the United Nations to protect civilians from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and massacres, using military power if necessary, whenever their own government will not protect them. There will be a new peacebuilding institution to rebuild nations wrecked by warfare. A small standing police force will be created to deal with peacekeeping emergencies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime will acquire increased capacity.

The UN administration probably will become more efficient, with new auditing arrangements to be set up and the secretary-general wielding more authority to set priorities; at present he must get the approval of the General Assembly to make significant changes.

The greatest disappointments concern the UN's failure to provide strong remedies for poverty and environmental dangers. Kofi Annan put the best face on the outcome, claiming that it was not a failure -- but it was. The reactionary policies of the United States must be blamed for the inadequate responses to these urgent problems. One can only grieve for the loss of this rare opportunity.

Yet the struggle is not over. A week after the summit ended, Kofi Annan asked Swedish Prime Minister Gran Persson to set up a network of leaders to pursue additional reforms. Persson had chaired the meeting of world leaders that had reached the disappointing reform document, which later was criticized from all sides in the General Assembly. Persson's new reform team will include Argentina, Britain, Canada, Egypt, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine. Persson will concentrate on reforming the Security Council and even getting rid of the veto. Each country represented on the team will attempt to influence other national leaders in its own region. As Persson said, "There's a momentum in the process now. It's on the agenda. If this opportunity is missed, it will take some time to restart."

-- Peace Magazine staff

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2005

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