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Creating a Better Pact for a Better Future


The mural “Mankind’s Struggle for Lasting Peace” was created by José Vela-Zanetti of the Dominican Republic for the UN, where it hangs in the headquarters. With the UN’s Summit of the Future approaching in September, the essayist assesses the distance between the world body’s vision and today’s reality by proposing six critical elements for a better pact for a better future. UN ARCHIVES

As we approach the Summit of the Future in September, it is time to measure the distance between the United Nations’ vision and today’s reality.

The UN is not on track to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change or the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. While SDG5 and Security Council Resolution 1325 ushered in a new millennium filled with hope for the empowerment of women, the UN is also far from achieving full gender parity by 2030. There has yet to be a female secretary-general and only five of the 15 permanent representatives in the Security Council are women.

Humanity is facing not one or two but three concurrent existential threats: the risk of nuclear escalation, the specter of a new, more lethal pandemic and an accelerating climate change crisis. The pace at which artificial intelligence is outpacing its makers is potentially a fourth.

The terror of Al Qaeda, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram and Daesh shook the conscience of humankind. Meanwhile, the promise of “never again” continues to ring hollow in the 21st century, with confirmed genocides against the Darfuri and Yazidi people and, as recently pronounced by the world court, plausible genocides against the Rohingyas and Palestinians.

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While the UN has so far successfully fulfilled its aim of averting the scourge of a third world war, interstate and intrastate conflicts are proliferating, with civilians paying a heavy price — in death and destruction — from Haiti to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Sudan to Myanmar, from Syria to Afghanistan, from Ukraine to Palestine where, according to Oxfam, the daily death rate in Gaza is “higher than any other major 21st century conflict.”

All told, the Security Council is the greatest failure of the UN Charter’s vision, and the P5 pose the most consequential threats to international peace and security. The unlawful invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom began the unravelling of the post-WWII order. The Russian aggression and occupation of Ukraine has accelerated the erosion of international law, leaving three of the five permanent members of the Security Council in violation of the Charter. A fourth member of the P5, China, is committing grave human rights violations against the Uyghur people. The abuse of the veto by China, Russia and the US is impeding the Council from fulfilling its primary responsibility under the Charter.

When they meet in September, member states must bridge the gap between the Charter’s promise and today’s reality. Out of self-preservation, they must work together to save the UN and to save humanity from further chaos, crisis and carnage.

Here are six critical elements for a better pact for a better future:

• The latest draft of the Pact for the Future regrets “that there has never been a woman Secretary-General” but merely offers to take this fact into account during the next appointment process. The pact must include a clear commitment to appoint a woman as the next secretary-general.

• The most consequential part of the draft relates to decision-making in the Security Council. Reforms that require amendments to the UN Charter will not yield change in time to save us from the “confluence of crises” the world is facing. The draft refers to Article 27(3) of the Charter, which requires member states, including the P5, to abstain from voting — much less vetoing — any decision under Chapter VI relating to a dispute to which they are a party. The pact must go much further and call upon the P5 to voluntarily refrain from exercising their veto in situations involving genocide and other mass-atrocity crimes. Exercising the veto impedes the prevention and punishment of these universal crimes and contravenes the P5’s own binding obligations under the Genocide Convention and the Geneva Conventions especially when the international courts have pronounced on the matter.

• The draft rightly recognizes the value of the Uniting for Peace resolution and confirms the subsidiary responsibility of the General Assembly for maintaining international peace and security. The Assembly’s 10th and 11th emergency special sessions on Palestine and Ukraine, respectively, have shown that the Assembly can act when the Council is paralyzed. The pact should also confirm that the Assembly has the authority to recommend more robust measures to reflect the will of the international community. While the Assembly cannot force countries to act, it can authorize those willing to do so to impose arms embargoes and other sanctions on aggressing states as it has done in the past.

• On the protection of civilians, the draft reiterates the third pillar of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P): the commitment to “support credible, timely and decisive action by the Security Council to prevent or end the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes” and conveys a message to the P5 not to block such action. Yet, the draft pact fails to explicitly reaffirm R2P, which the Assembly unanimously endorsed in 2005. Given the blatant disregard for the sanctity of civilian life, the pact should explicitly remind member states and the Security Council of their responsibilities under all three pillars of R2P.

• While the draft deals with existential threats, including climate change, artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons, it does not explicitly mention the prevention of pandemics. This is a stunning omission in light of the recent toll of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also misses the opportunity to specifically call upon the nuclear weapon states to commit to a “no first use” policy and to urge all states to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

• The draft also ignores the need to engage with nonstate parties (NSPs) to intrastate conflicts. It is impossible to resolve an armed conflict without hearing from all sides in the fighting. Such engagement is without prejudice to the primacy of sovereign states; it can be done informally or virtually, through Arria-formula or Zoom meetings; and it should be limited to representatives of legitimate NSPs who are committed to a political resolution of the conflict. Giving nonstate parties a voice in the deliberations may help the Security Council make more informed decisions and may even incentivize the NSPs to renounce the unlawful use of force to get a “virtual” seat at the table.

The heart of the draft pact is in the right place. It seeks a world worthy of the UN Charter’s vision: one where all states are equally bound by international law; where every civilian is equally worth protecting; and, above all, where the future is governed by the power of principles and not by the principles of power.

The Summit of the Future is taking place, however, in a world where a member state can literally shred the UN Charter in the General Assembly and where three of the P5 are willfully preventing the Security Council from fulfilling its responsibility to prevent genocide and to end aggression and occupation.

The rest of the UN membership must seize this historical moment to make a better pact for a better future: one that is more explicit in its demands, more concrete in its action plan and more urgent in its purpose.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the Pact for the Future?

Mona Ali Khalil is an internationally recognized public international lawyer with 30 years of UN and other experience, including as a former senior legal officer in the UN and 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 the founder and director of MAK LAW INTERNATIONAL and an affiliate of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. She has co-authored several publications, including the UN Security Council Conflict Management Handbook; Reinvigorating the United Nations; Protection of Civilians and the upcoming Empowering the UN Security Council: Reforms to Address Modern Threats.



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