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Serious UN Reform: Going Beyond Minor Fixes?


Catherine Nyakoe, Kenya Mission Legal Counsel gives speech at UN Security Council
A Security Council meeting on Article 100 of the UN Charter, Oct. 26, 2022. The essayist writes that channeling the energy generated by critics who focus on the UN’s supposed demise amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could instead be “building the political coalitions necessary for change and thinking more creatively about the system as a whole.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE 

“The United Nations is dead,” said the Catholic Herald in 1947, two years after the UN was founded. Reports of its demise are perennial, but they seem to have reached a crescendo this year, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine considered a litmus test for the 77-year-old organization.

Russia’s wanton act of aggression is not the first time one of the five permanent members, or P5, of the Security Council has invaded a country. But it’s hard not to see the UN as failing to constrain this permanent-member-gone-rogue from threatening nuclear war to deploying rape as a “military strategy.”

Could it have done better? Some commentators think it has exceeded expectations. They rightly note that the lack of mechanisms to constrain the P5 — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — was part of the UN’s founding bargain and argue that the organization has nonetheless mounted a response to the invasion that would be inconceivable in most other situations.

With Russia’s veto neutralizing the Security Council, the General Assembly has adopted four strong resolutions condemning Russia’s actions. The Human Rights Council created a Commission of Inquiry and Special Rapporteur for Russia — the first for a P5 state. Secretary-General António Guterres has been unusually outspoken about the war and played a key role in brokering the Black Sea grain deal. The wider system sounded the alarm on the impacts of the invasion on global food, energy and financial security.

Other writers and pundits, mainly from the P5 countries, have adopted a reductionist view of the UN that is almost as anachronistic as the Security Council. They say that it was never meant to do more than avoid big-power confrontation, ignoring the evolution of the system over the past seven decades as well as the glaring question marks — impossible to ignore in Britain right now — as to who exactly is a big power today.

Ukrainians fighting and living on the front lines are unlikely to find solace in these arguments. Neither are Tigrayans, failed again by the Council last week, Palestinians who have suffered the veto for decades or groups like Sri Lanka’s Tamils, who don’t even make it to the agenda.

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A moribund UN can do little for all of these people, especially as there is little chance of a successor organization rising from the current geopolitical ashes. We need to keep pegging away on making the system work better — for Ukrainians and everyone whose plight is being ignored.

Unfortunately, the recent spike of interest in UN reform is unlikely to deliver, unless we can change the Venn diagram of what’s desirable and feasible. So far, we are stuck in familiar territory: debunked ruses to remove Russia’s permanent seat; rehashed procedural fixesproposals that seem to exist in a political vacuum; and warm words on the need for reform, à la President Biden’s September speech at the UN General Assembly.

We need to channel this energy into building the political coalitions necessary for change and thinking more creatively about the system as a whole.

At present, we play into the UN’s power imbalance by focusing on the Council and the P5, in particular. Instead, we should look at how to better leverage the collective power of the remaining 188 members, especially as the US and Europeans, to a lesser extent, are seeking to demonstrate global solidarity.

Could smaller and medium-size countries coalesce around achievable reforms that chip away at P5 privilege? Changing the “penholder” system that allows the P5 to dominate drafting resolutions in the Council, for instance? Or finding a stronger role for the African Union in crafting peacekeeping mandates, including by ensuring AU missions are funded through the UN budget?

Similarly, what would happen if these countries refused to stand for Council seats, so the P5 must own their own failures? Could they effectively go on strike by not taking part in other elections or fielding candidates for positions until their demands for progress are met?

The biggest prize would be agreement on which states are candidates for future permanent or longer-term Council seats. Currently, the P5 can afford to be vocal champions of reform, knowing that such agreement is unlikely.

But there is broad consensus on issues such as increasing General Assembly action on peace and security. In the past, the Assembly has strengthened the mandate of peacekeeping missions; endorsed sweeping sanctions (against apartheid South Africa); and, more recently, created a mechanism to support accountability in Syria. Earlier this year, it agreed to convene automatically when a veto is cast in the Security Council.

What more could be done if the president’s office of the Assembly was reinforced? Could the Assembly take more concrete action when the Human Rights Council and other Geneva-based rights mechanisms sound the alarms?

Finally, we need to look beyond the traditional peace and security actors. The so-called return of geopolitics has downgraded much-needed debates on the UN’s development and humanitarian functions, which are crucial to prevention and peace-building. Overstretched and underfunded, these tasks continue to absorb the bulk of the UN’s resources.

How much more could the UN achieve if it played to its unique strengths — mediation, norm-setting convening — and launched a concerted drive to divest other tasks to entities that could handle them effectively and with more legitimacy? And how much stronger would implementation of global decisions be if actors such as parliaments, local governments and civil society were integrated into UN decision-making and delivery?

Too many UN debates call for an end to business as usual, while proposing exactly that strategy. Without fresh political and creative energy, those of us working on reform risk falling into the same trap. The world’s people deserve better.

Global Director of Advocacy at

Natalie Samarasinghe is the global director of advocacy for the Open Society Foundations. Previously, she was the executive director of the United Nations Association-UK, the first woman to have this role, and a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. She has degrees in human rights and modern history from Oxford University and the London School of Economics.

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Serious UN Reform: Going Beyond Minor Fixes?
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Vyacheslav Luchkin
Vyacheslav Luchkin
1 year ago

UN was founded on rotten principles: nontransparency, nonaccountability, prosecution immunity. With such prerequisites, only 1 outcome is possible for this organization: UN became a mafia. It is the largest criminal organization in the world. Its leadership cares only about filling its bottomless pockets. UN must be dissolved, its leadership must be brought to justice and new international organization must be founded.

Ponle Sueez Akande
Ponle Sueez Akande
1 year ago

I am certain that the United Nations is wasting crucial time. Natalie Samarasinghe is being realistic halfway. We need to be urgently pragmatic, while on the other hand, we continue to formulate the ideal global governance system necessary for managing the global catastrophic challenges. The two approaches are complementary. We need to commence some pilot schemes in those areas of the catastrophic challenges, where now possible so to do. I have critical ideas as veritable solutions to the global catastrophic challenges. But I lack and I need financial grant to comprehensively them in the form of books.

Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Rousseau Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Keynes, Friedman, Roscoe Pound, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato etc were exemplars who wrote books at critical historical epochs of catastrophic challenges.

I can do the same as those exemplars mentioned above. Please kindly give me the benefit of doubt. Thanks.

Alexandre Gorelik
Alexandre Gorelik
1 year ago

A rather useful review of several commonsensical proposals regarding UN reform beyond the well-known and threadbare ideas. (But reference to “this permanent-member-gone-rogue” threatening to deploy rape as a “military strategy” is clearly misplaced in the otherwise no-nonsense piece.)
An emphasis on the UN’s development and humanitarian functions is more than welcome. But the idea that extra actors (parliaments, local governments and civil society) may be integrated into the UN’s decision-making leads nowhere.

Ellen Tolmie
Ellen Tolmie
1 year ago

I’m no expert but after skimming recent online alternative proposals, this idea seems no more far-fetched than those … I assume, like all SC reform efforts, it would be initially fiercely resisted by the P5 but, given its relative simplicity and much improved global fairness, it could be useful as a clear, communicable advocacy stick to build support for this long overdue reform. The ‘simplicity’ includes separating it from all other UN reforms … to help it happen but also as a key precursor to other reforms. I share this fantasy hoping only that it might help jumpstart further discussion.

Reform 1: Enlarge the permanent members to represent all continents to include:
EU(collapsing the UK/France seats into 1)
3 seats for 4 regions, with one of these rotated in/out of veto privileges annually (countries chosen by largest regional pop size):
Brazil (latin america)
Egypt (mid-east / north africa)
India (south asia)
Nigeria (sub-saharan africa)

Reform 2: Replace the single country veto with a majority P7 veto: so 4 of 7 must agree for a veto to pass.

much fairer representation, including all continents and +4 billion population, so a majority of the world pop;
this fairer representation would greatly increase chance of reform moving forward: by Charter, it needs a 2/3rds GA vote and 2/3rds members ratification … While there is much to disagree on, there is much to appeal. Likely not to be acted on by the current P5 (Charter says each P5 must also OK) after first passing, but GA could pass it annually to keep the pressure on; expected P5 resistance must be met by growing global advocacy campaign, shaming, etc., given its huge equalizing step forward; tho EU is not a country, it is exceptionally integrated economically and legally; this exceptional status could be accepted by others to knock UK/France down to one permanent veto-wielding seat, an equalizing achievement on its own; of current P5, Britain + France have most backed SC reform. Given Brexit, UK would initially vehemently oppose this reform but the rest of the EU would support. And France wants a stronger EU and more power in EU, would gain prestige backing this. (And, while UK will initially veto, it will look terrible doing so and be more and more isolated, so eventually might fold, even rejoin EU).
EU backing for this reform would also enhance its prestige: sacrificing 1 of its former seats for the greater good … while compensating for its colonial past

WHY 3 seats for new 4 regions representation:
slightly lesser status in the “P” club (tho big jump up from current state) will help mollify the Big Four (US, China, Russia, EU), acknowledging their greater world economic/political power (despite Russia’s decline); the 4 countries would rotate in/out of their 3 seats annually, i.e. 1st year: Brazil, Egypt, India/2nd year: Nigeria in, Brazil out/
3rd year: Egypt out, Brazil back in. The ‘out’ country would still retain a permanent SC seat, but without veto privileges … this permanence is necessary for continuity given annual rotation.
Keeps the permanent veto members at an odd number permitting clear majority veto margin
The choice of regional rep countries for new “P” club, and their rotation, helps balance/mollify Big Four rivalries – i.e.: China may always oppose India, so will up its efforts to woo Brazil, Nigeria, Egypt … US may have greatest perceived current influence w/new members but China, Russia, EU will all challenge that
Yes, there are real risks backing these new members; i.e., given recent India and Brazil radical-right govts. But all current national political configurations will change for better or worse (as Trumpism dramatically shows).

WHY change from a single majority permanent members’ veto (minimum 4 out of 7 “P7” votes):
Eliminates a single power stalemating action that may be contrary to SC majority view
Completely abolishing the veto in SC will never be accepted by the Big Four … and given their outsized economic/ political power (and related responsibilities) is arguably not ‘fair’ and could be ‘a cure worse than the disease.’ It would open global security issues to being decided by a possible SC of small countries with neither the population nor power to enforce their vote (that dilemma can stay in the GA!). More critically, it could fatally undermine the UN among the Big Four, causing them to circumvent it even more than they already do.
Adds power to the voices/issues of regions historically left out of global rival decisions
Hopefully increases/encourages global cooperation/consensus across regions
Enhances real potential for SC to stop wars and sustain peace … the point!

Does it solve all SC problems? Obviously not. But it does greatly improve the current very outdated configuration.

Now is the time to push SOME serious alternatives. Not eligible for another term, SecGen Guterres can risk championing this debate (his EU nationality doesn’t hurt) and push GA to move on it. Now is the time: global crises (pandemic, economic depression, P5 aggressions, climate, refugees, rightwing surges) are reaching potential explosion. Unless the UN can offer a real venue to help surmount these challenges, it will become irrelevant, undermining the entire development progress agenda.

Sincerely, Ellen Tolmie

John Vlasto
1 year ago

Serious reform of global governance is likely to require a serious catalyst. This could well be climate change and environmental degradation more broadly. As Greta Thunberg said, “change is coming, whether we like it or not.” The question is whether humanity can find a way to govern itself effectively before some runaway environmental change takes control out of our hands. Perhaps reform of global governance should start with the most pressing global challenge: managing the planetary commons in the common interest of humanity, rather than as the lowest common denominator of 193 sovereign national interests. Maja Groff (co-author of a book linked in the article) and I will be initiating a project to reform global environmental governance at COP27.

Jens Orback
1 year ago

Always interesting to take part of N. Samarsinghe’s views. Let me first say that the unwillingness of the P5 to live up to the San Francisco promise and open for a change in their dominance of the SC can be seen as a global coup. Just as we have seen many examples of liberators’ performance when they shall deliver democracy and freedom after the reached power. UN is unlike as an organization but it could nevertheless glance at the EU or other regional bodies to find inspirations on how legitimacy and operational power step by step could be build into multilateral cooperation.
Jens Orback
Global Challenges foundation

Gerald Günther
Gerald Günther
1 year ago

Let us not forget that Member States aspiring to join the exclusive club of Permanent Security Council Members, such as India and Brazil this year failed to vote against Russis‘s aggression on Ukraine and the incorporation of Ukrainian territory after fake referendums into Russia. Also, no mention here of the now often legalistically challenged legitimacy of Russia retaining the P5 seat of the Soviet Union, nor of China’s past incorporation of Tibet into the PRC or it’s present declared position not to forgo the use of force to incorporate Taiwan into the PRC, and it’s breach of treaty obligations with the UK over the current status of Hongkong.

gus speth
gus speth
1 year ago

I am deeply sympathetic to the views expressed in “Serious UN Reform,” and have been since I was Administrator of UNDP in the 1990s.There is another dimension of UN reform that needs urgent attention. Right now, the international community is woefully unprepared for the climate chaos that we see emerging around the world, devastations that will surely increase steadily for many years. Huge questions both normative and operational are presented. Important UN efforts are underway, notably the upcoming climate COP 27 in Egypt, but as best I can tell, I do not see an emerging architecture of international response, nor a clear depiction of alternatives to be considered, UN and otherwise. Perhaps I am missing something. Gus Speth, Administrator UNDP, 1993-99.

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