The United Nations is turning 75 this year.
While the UN has so far successfully averted a third world war, the aggressions in Iraq, Ukraine and Syria remind us that interstate conflicts remain a real and present danger. The Security Council’s failure to resolve intrastate conflicts, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Yemen to Myanmar and the prolonged occupations in Kashmir, Palestine and Western Sahara have undermined its credibility as the ultimate peacemaker and enforcer in the international system.
These aggressions and failures have compounded the attack on international law and multilateralism as a gathering storm of global crises — from Covid-19 to climate change, from genocide to terrorism, from WMD to cyberwarfare — threatens international peace and security and undermines the international order as we know it.
As the Covid-19 crisis has so clearly revealed, the Security Council’s most powerful members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — have shown as little initiative in responding to new threats as they have shown in resolving old ones. For many weeks, the Council was missing in action, and then on April 9, it held a closed meeting and several informal consultations since then that have so far failed to yield a concrete response to the worst global crisis since World War II.
The Security Council must be willing and able to act “promptly and effectively,” as the UN Charter says, to address threats as they emerge, to resolve conflicts and to prevent and punish violations of international humanitarian and human-rights law.
The UN’s 75th anniversary offers a chance for the Council to recommit to the promise and vision of the UN Charter and to resurrect the Council’s responsibility to ensure a multilateral response to common challenges, based on universally accepted principles. The secretary-general and the member states alike are seeking an ambitious plan to ensure a UN that is, as they say, “fit for purpose,” in the 21st century. In his remarks to the Security Council on Jan. 9, 2020, António Guterres said: “We must return to fundamental principles; we must return to the framework that has kept us together; we must come home to the UN Charter.” To do so, UN member states are negotiating a 75th anniversary declaration to reflect a commitment to multilateralism, in general, and to the UN and its Charter, in particular.
In the same spirit, Together First is a rapidly growing network of global citizens and civil society organizations from across the world committed to finding collective solutions to global challenges and to expanding the boundaries of political possibility. Together First is hosting an “ideas hub,” presenting proposals and linking various campaigns to promote better global governance. The timeliest proposals will be featured in a “to-do list” to be sent to world leaders in the weeks to come. Together First has also commissioned a series of reports to study specific issues in our global system and to look deeper into the erosion of multilateralism. It launched the first report on April 21, marking the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace.
The first report recommends several ways to improve the effectiveness, inclusiveness and transparency of the Security Council. All the reforms could be achieved without having to amend the UN Charter. Yet if they were fully implemented, the recommendations would significantly strengthen the Council’s ability to fulfill its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”
The report and its recommendations are addressed to the UN secretary-general, to UN member states and to the elected and permanent members of the Security Council, calling for:
• More use of the secretary-general’s authority under Article 99 of the Charter to bring matters to the Council’s attention, including early warnings by the high commissioner for human rights;
• Greater reliance on the Uniting for Peace resolution adopted by the General Assembly in Resolution 377 (V) of 1950 to overcome a veto in the Council, especially in situations involving mass-atrocity crimes;
• More inclusive working methods, such as Arria-formula meetings, to hear from legitimate nonstate parties to conflicts and reforming the single-penholder system.
While Article 99 has not been formally invoked in recent years, Guterres has drawn matters to the Security Council’s attention, most recently in his August 2017 letter on the situation in Myanmar. The secretary-general should use his Charter authority more often and more explicitly — not only to bring matters to the Council’s attention but also to propose actionable recommendations to resolve conflicts, to protect civilians and to ensure accountability for serious violations of international humanitarian and human-rights law. The secretary-general should also draw attention to the high commissioner for human rights’ early warnings of such violations.
The Uniting for Peace mechanism allows the General Assembly to act on matters where the Security Council has failed to do so because of a veto by one or more of its of permanent members. The Uniting for Peace tool has been used 10 times since 1950, but it has not been invoked since 1997. It remains a tried-and-tested mechanism that should supplement member states’ efforts to urge permanent members to refrain from using their veto in situations involving mass-atrocity crimes, including the France-Mexico Initiative and the ACT Code of Conduct Regarding Security Council Action Against Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity or War Crimes.
The working methods of the Security Council must also be improved. While Article 32 of the UN Charter explicitly refers to state parties to a conflict, the intent and spirit of Article 32 is that all parties to a conflict should be heard. The Council’s practice of convening Arria-formula meetings should be used to invite legitimate parties to intrastate conflicts to give them a voice and a stake in the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Hearing from all parties to a conflict is necessary — not only to ensure the fairness of the Security Council’s process but also to enhance the prospects of its success.
Council members must also move away from the single-penholder system, in which a small number of predominantly permanent members draft most Council resolutions. Recent precedents show that it is possible for the Council to work more collaboratively, where elected members have a more equal, active role in the drafting and consultation process.
The Council is expected to be the ultimate enforcer. Its failure and success determine the fate of humanity amid all threats to international peace and security — not only those arising from war and terrorism but also from pandemics and climate change.
Together First launched its first report on April 21 in hopes that its recommendations, if accepted, will restore the Security Council’s sense of responsibility and member states’ commitment to fulfill the UN Charter’s vision and its promise to the people of the world.
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Mona Ali Khalil is an internationally recognized public international lawyer with 25 years of UN and other experience, including as a former senior legal officer in the UN and in the IAEA, with expertise in peacekeeping, peace enforcement, disarmament and counterterrorism. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in international relations from Harvard University and a master’s in foreign service and a J.D. from Georgetown University. She is an affiliate of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict and a nonresident fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. She is the Founder and Director of MAK LAW INTERNATIONAL, a legal advisory and strategic consulting service, assisting governments and intergovernmental organizations in the service of “We the Peoples.”
Fred Carver is an adviser to UNA-UK, where he was the head of policy, specializing in peacekeeping and other topics, from 2016-2020. From 2011 to 2016, Carver ran the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, an NGO that advocated for peace in Sri Lanka based on justice and accountability for crimes committed in the civil war. Carver has a master’s degree in Asian politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and started a Ph.D. at Kings College London on the effects of urbanization on political violence in Pakistan.