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The United Nations: Vision, Reality And Reform


Gareth Evans
28 September 2005
Foreign Affairs
by: Gareth Evans

Author: Gareth Evans is President of the International Crisis Group and was a Minister in the Hawke-Keating Government

No organisation in the world embodies as many dreams, yet delivers as many frustrations, as the United Nations.

Nothing could be nobler or more moving than its stated goals, not only ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’, but to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights’ and ‘promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’.

And nothing could be more central to the Australian Labor Party’s traditional values – if we can remember them any more - than the concept of a rule-based international order:

  • in which decisions about war and peace are made collectively rather than unilaterally by a fully empowered and appropriately representative Security Council;
  • where global norms are set and treaties negotiated by a General Assembly and Economic and Security Council in which all the nations of the world participate on an equal footing;
  • where poverty, hunger, disease and all the other threats that make the lives of so many people around the world shorter or more miserable are dealt with effectively by multilateral agencies operating in a spirit of cooperative internationalism; and
  • where the role and influence of individual countries is not primarily a function of their military or economic might, but rather the commitment and creativity and energy and stamina they bring to the resolution

But only sporadically and erratically has the UN been the central actor – or even the central stage (and the intriguing thing about the UN is its character as both) - in advancing and achieving these objectives. For most of its history the Security Council has been a prisoner of great power manoeuvring; the General Assembly a theatre for empty rhetoric; the Economic and Social Council a dysfunctional irrelevance; and the Secretariat, for all the dedication and brilliance of a host of individuals, alarmingly inefficient.

Of course there have been great achievements along the way. Even during the desolate Cold War years there was the management of decolonisation, which can be legitimately characterised as the largest scale redress of human rights in history; the invention of peacekeeping as a wholly new means of conflict management; the giant strides made by UN programs and agenciesWHO, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, UNWRA, UNDP and all the rest in feeding the starving, sheltering the dispossessed and immunising against disease.

Since the end of the Cold War, the new cooperative environment enabled major new advances in peacemaking (with more civil conflicts resolved by negotiation in the last fifteen years, for the most part under UN auspices, than in the previous two hundred), tougher-edged peacekeeping and post-conflict peacebuilding. And a far more concerted international effort has been made than ever before to set and implement new agendas on a whole range of social, economic and development issues, including women, children, the environment, indebtedness and catastrophic disease.

But the disappointments have also been immense:

  • the failure to respond effectively to large scale atrocity crimes in Rwanda , the Balkans and Sudan ;
  • the bypassing of the Security Council in the 2003 invasion of Iraq ; the serious marginalisation of the UN and erosion of effectiveness of its major treaties in the area of arms control and disarmament;
  • the complete politicisation and loss of credibility of the Human Rights Commission; continued management lapses and conspicuous inefficiency in the performance of the UN secretariat and many of its programs and agencies;
  • a failure to meet many of the social, economic and development targets identified in the global agenda-setting conferences;
  • and a general sense that the whole UN security system is still too geared to the central preoccupation of its founders 60 years ago – states waging aggressive war against each other – and not responding adequately to the much wider range of human security threats and challenges likely to dominate attention in the 21 st century.

It was against this background, and particularly in the aftermath of the US decision to ignore the Security Council and lead the charge into Iraq, that we came to what Kofi Annan famously described two years ago as ‘a fork in the road, a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself’: either the international community could reaffirm the international rule of law and abide by the principles of cooperative internationalism, or descend into anarchy, finding ourselves utterly unable to cope with the security problems of the 21 st century - terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, continuing wars within and between states, organised crime, and the great pure human security issues of poverty, disease and environmental catastrophe.

He identified 2005 – the UN’s 60 th anniversary year – as the appropriate opportunity for the world’s leaders to take stock of where the multilateral system had come to, and take some major steps forward to reform and revitalise it. He commissioned two major reports - the Report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change on 21 st century security threats, published at the end of last year, and the Sachs Report on the Millennium Development Goals published early this year - and then in his own report, In Larger Freedom, published in March, superbly distilled the essence of those two earlier reports into a blueprint for change ranging over development issues, security issues, human rights issues, and the basic architecture of the international system.

In a speech in June this year UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said ‘I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the Organization, and if we miss it this time, I don’t know when [world leaders] are going to get the opportunity again’. He was not exaggerating. What made 2005 a critical watershed for the UN is the way three things came together in a way that has not been the case for a long time, and will not happen again for a long time - the perceived need for change, a detailed agenda for change, and a clear opportunity, with the 60 th Anniversary and all the summitry and expectations associated with it, to achieve change.

But it has now become sadly apparent, with the World Summit come and gone this month,that we have almost completely blown this great opportunity. There were a handful of significant achievements, but overall the final declaration of that Summit makes desolate reading, not least to those of us who have given our heart and soul over many years to trying to preserve and enhance the integrity and effectiveness of the UN system.


Summit Stocktake

Let me spell that out by taking you briefly through the major issues – as they were articulated by the Secretary-General, debated over the last few months, and addressed (or not addressed) in the Outcomes document. They have been divided into four ‘clusters’, relating respectively to Freedom from Want (development issues), Freedom from Fear (security issues), Freedom to Live in Dignity (human rights issues) and Institutional architecture issues.

Development Issues. Here the news was essentially neutral: no major steps forward, but none back – though the US created major havoc in the negotiation process for a time, not only by not being prepared to make any specific substantive commitments, which was expected, but arguing against any reference even to the Millennium Development Goals in the Outcome document.

A broad consensus has already developed around the Millennium Development Goals and the outcome of the Monterrey International Conference on Financing and Development on what is required from both developed and developed countries. For the developed countries it involves more aid, both long term and of the ‘quick win’ variety, wider and deeper debt relief, and a serious commitment to a decent outcome from the Doha trade round. And for the developing countries it involves clearer national strategies for achieving stronger governance, eliminating corruption and policies capable of generating economic growth.

Basically the Summit preserved and reiterated that consensus, but without doing anything much to translate the by now familiar rhetoric into operational reality.

Security Issues. There were four main areas of focus. The first, on which the news is best, is further improving conflict prevention and resolution capability - involving a commitment to better peacemaking capacity (though better prepared and supported mediators and negotiators); more readily available reserves, both military and civilian, for peacekeeping and other peace operation; and a far more systematic and coherent approach to post-conflict peacebuilding through the establishment of a new institution to fill a longstanding international gap, a Peacebuilding Commission.

The idea is to bring together – in a new institution, serviced by a highly professional secretariat, with decent funding support - all the key stakeholders for each particular situation, including not only the UN’s own programs and agencies, but the international financial institutions, the donor community, the relevant regional organisations and of course representatives of the countries in distress, in order to work out coherent recovery and reconstruction plans and systematically, and with sustained rather than ad hoc attention, ensure their implementation. What was left unresolved – and hopefully to be negotiated by the end of the year – was the detailed composition of the new body and the question of its relationship to either the Security Council or ECOSOC or both.

The second set of issues on the peace agenda, on which the news is worst, is disarmament and non-proliferation: where the news is much more gloomy. What is needed is action both on the supply side, in particular to constrain the availability of fissile material; and on the demand side to reduce the motivations for acquiring weapons of mass destruction (by addressing everything from real security threats to perceived double standards in arms control regimes), but what is presently likely to happen is neither. There was no sign at the NPT Review Conference earlier this year of any agreement whatever on any of the four big activities crying out for shutdown by mutual consent if a new cascade of proliferation is to be avoided - nuclear testing, new and continuing weapons programs, reprocessing or uranium enrichment – and when it came to the Summit, no agreement whatever could be reached on anything: the page is a complete blank. Failure to even begin to find a new consensus on these issues is potentially quite disastrous, bringing closer what the HLP feared would be a ‘cascade of proliferation’.

The third issue is confronting terrorism, where the need here was twofold - to embrace a broad based policy response going beyond intelligence, policing and military cooperation to addressing root causes, including political grievances; and to find common cause at last on an international definition of terrorism making attacks against civilians and non-combatants as indefensible as piracy and slavery. In the event , some lipservice was paid to the first – with the General Assembly given a mandate to come up with a comprehensive strategy document. But on the second the leaders went no further than to condemn terrorism ‘in all its forms and manifestations’ – absolutely shirking the crucial norm setting task of saying that the particular form of violence against civilians was absolutely prohibited.

The fourth big issue in the security basket was redefining the rules governing the use of force – essentially through a set of guidelines for the Security Council identifying criteria for legitimacy such as magnitude of threat, force as a last resort, proportionality of response and the need for such action to be likely to do more good than harm. This was killed by a combination of resistance from the US to having any guidelines at all which might constrain the Security Council’s (and by extension its own) freedom of action, and some not very intelligible arguments from some on the other side that to have any principles purporting to limit the use of force to exceptional, highly defensible cases, is somehow to encourage it.


Human Rights Issues. The first big Summit issue here was the creation of a new Human Rights Council to replace the totally dysfunctional Commission on Human Rights with a less politicised, more professional body actually committed to advancing human rights, not defending the indefensible, became a talismanic issue for the US. The idea was to have a smaller new body elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly in a way that would exclude the worst human rights violators from membership. But a fierce rearguard action was fought by a group of countries – Pakistan , Egypt , Iran , Syria , Uzbekistan and Cuba prominent among them – who have blocked every attempt to reach agreement on the structure, mandate and mode of operation of the new body. In the event there was agreement to create a new Council, but every other issue was left completely unresolved.

Better news on the human rights front was the agreement to double the resources and approve a new action plan for the High Commissioner on Human Rights – intensely lobbied for by the new Commissioner Louise Arbour.

But the best news on the human rights front – and, along with the Peacebuilding Commission, probably the best news of the entire summit was the leaders’ endorsement of the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’, something very dear to my heart personally as one of the original architects of this concept. The issue here – probably the biggest one in international relations during the 90s with the Balkan wars and Rwanda - is how to respond effectively to genocide, ethnic cleansing and similar massive human rights violations within states – the issue of so called ‘humanitarian intervention’.

The core idea which endorsed by the leaders – but only after a fierce rearguard action from a a small group of developing countries, joined by Russia, who basically refused to concede any kind of limitation on the full and untrammelled exercise of state sovereignty, however irresponsible that exercise might be - is that state sovereignty carries with it responsibilities as well as rights, and that while the primary responsibility for protecting its own people from avoidable man-made catastrophe rests with the sovereign state itself, if that responsibility is abdicated, through incapacity or ill-will, it shifts to the wider international community – which then has the responsibility to react including (but only as a last resort) by military intervention authorised by the Security Council. Getting acceptance of this as, in effect, a new accepted international norm, should be hugely helpful in generating consensus for action when some new Rwanda, Bosnia or Kosovo situation comes along, as it all too inevitably will.

Institutional Architecture. In addition to the Peacebuilding Commission and Human Rights Council issues I have already mentioned, there were three other particularly crucial institutional reform areas on the table for the Summit .

The first was administrative reform, focusing on the Secretariat but also in the UN system generally. The central issues here were empowerment and accountability – the Secretary-General, presently probably the most impossibly micro-managed chief executive in the world, needs much more freedom of action to choose and deploy resources where and when they are needed, subject to fully explaining and justifying what he has done. Change here cannot happen without member states allowing and encouraging it, and unfortunately the crucial change issues lost their way, caught, as Kofi Annan said rather ruefully recently, in the crossfire ‘between uncritical lovers and unloving critics’. The passion of the US to achieve far-reaching change at almost any cost, and the passion of some NAM critics at the other extreme to resist almost any change at all, is inhibited any real momentum developing for basic, sensible change to make the system work better.

The second institutional issue was reforming the debating chambers: ECOSOC and the General Assembly. Both these crucial institutions, whose role should be norm-setting and direction-setting as well as providing debating chambers for the great global issues of the day, have become conspicuously dysfunctional, and must be restored to pre-eminence. Much of that would achievable simply through better agenda and process management, and the outcome document essentially ended up paying lipservice to just that. The trick, as always, will be to translate the rhetoric into effective operational reality.

The remaining major institutional issue was of course reconstruction of the Security Council, which almost everyone acknowledges needs to be restructured to reflect the world of the 21 st century, not the middle of the last. But here the prospect of reform has for the time being completely collapsed. The chances until recently seemed quite strong that the first of the two alternative models proposed by the High Level Panel and Secretay General – for 6 new permanent members, though with no change to the existing veto arrangements – would in fact command the necessary 2/3 support. There was a reasonable body of support emerging for Japan , India , Brazil and Germany taking four of those seats, with the Africans themselves choosing another two. But that fell apart, essentially because of intra-African politics - anxiety among other sub-Saharan Africans at the prospect of Nigeria and South Africa permanently ascending to heaven, and resistance by all of them to the prospect of Egypt taking one of the two African seats potentially on offer: with no consensus for change within Africa, any hope of the necessary overall majority disappeared.

It may be that some attention will now be paid to the alternative model of renewable non-permanent seats, which would enable the key aspirant countries to remain more or less permanently on the Council, but without formal permanent status. But don’t hold your breath.

What went wrong?

The basic answer is that politics has usual prevailed – not enough of the key players were prepared to look at the larger picture, as distinct from their own immediate interests; and there has been an absence of leadership in devising a process which might have made it possible for some kind of reasonable product two emerge.

Good policy was esssentially crushed in a pincer movement between two forces, while a large majority of other states stood either passively or impotently by, allowing practically everything of substance to be ground down from either one of these forces or the other, in a process which made it a miracle that there was any ultimate agreed solution.

  • The US, which – while rightly determined to make the UN system more efficient and accountable, and to reform the human rights side of the house - was insufficiently sensitive to, or interested in, or (worse) outright hostile to a number of other issues, including on the development agenda, which have been of immense concern to others : apparently not able or wanting understand that the rest of the world is not quite persuaded that US interests are indistinguishable from collective interests, and that US values indistinguishable from global values. Obviously the atmospherics were not helped by either the style or substantive contribution of the new US Ambassador: putting so many amendments on the table so late in the process unleashed a flood of other spoiling amendments from others. There have been some conciliatory noises from Washington in the last week - they clearly didn’t want, in the aftermath of all their other problems with Katrina, to be blamed for a zero outcome – but it was all too little too late.
  • There was a hard core group of developing country members, led by Pakistan and Egypt (and increasingly India), who – while rightly emphasising the need for a genuinely multilateral and collective approach to security, and for the most part knowing perfectly well that the world has moved on from the 50s and 60s, that state sovereignty can no longer be unchallengeable, and that quotas and cronyism are no substitute for effective management - nonetheless found grounds for opposing specific movement forward in nearly every single one of the areas under debate. Two explanatory factors stand out – their unhappiness with the non-movement on Security Council reform (which seems to be the key factor underlying India’s robust spoiling role on a multitude of issues) and their even deeper unhappiness with the proposed new Human Rights Council – leading them to lay down poison pills in multiple other areas to secure their own objectives here.

Sixty year olds – as I can personally testify, being a year past that age myself – are notoriously unreformable. They are also, notoriously, not always the first to appreciate signs of their own decay.

There are plenty who are justifiably sceptical now that the UN and its member states will ever be capable responding to the challenge of reform, not just on the Security Council issue, but all those with which we have been wrestling this year.

But we have no alternative but to keep on trying. As the world learned, very much to its cost, when League of Nations fell apart in the 1930s, if we did not have an effective global collective security institution, we would simply have to reinvent one all over again. We have now more than the makings of such a security institution, and an excellent global development system and human rights protection system, but a number of elements across all of them remain in desperate need of fundamental change.

We missed the UN reform party ten years ago, and now we have just about completely missed it again. I really fear that this 60 th birthday year may have been the last big anniversary occasion to work the necessary change before irretrievable senility sets in. It’s a depressing prospect.

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