UN reform remains an elusive task
As the eyes of the world turn to the UN General Assembly in New York this week, one must hope that the organization’s 77th gathering will yield a bit more international cooperation, pave the way for some reorganization of the world’s priorities that might cement peace, deal with the challenges to prosperity, and realign objectives to protect the environment. But above all it must re-instill trust — a core deficiency in today’s world that is making multilateral action redundant in many dangerous files.
Clearly, the UN has in recent years become a mere talking shop, though it is increasingly also clear that its members have become polarized to the point that no one is prepared to listen. For years, I have covered the annual meeting in New York and, though the organization has always moved at a snail’s pace, many pressing issues received enough global attention to become the subject of new initiatives, conferences and peace talks, lessening the impact of various crises.
Fast forward to today and one notices that discord has become so high and trust between key nations so low that the organization’s executive tool, the Security Council, has become redundant, leaving us in a leaderless world with enough polarization and fragmentation that, if left unremedied, could spell danger for all nations, rich and poor, and from the Global North and Global South alike.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s opening remarks painted a grim picture of a planet grappling with rising prices, a warming environment and ever-present deadly conflicts. Guterres warned that “a winter of global discontent” is on the horizon, as “trust is crumbling, inequalities are exploding, our planet is burning, and people are hurting.”
Unable to criticize world powers and their below-par leadership or their ability to convene to discuss existential problems and propose remedies, the secretary-general instead lashed out at fossil fuel companies. “Let’s tell it like it is: Our world is addicted to fossil fuels. It is time for an intervention. We need to hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account,” Guterres said. He added that polluters must pay and that developed nations must tax profits from fossil fuels and dedicate the funds both to compensate for the damage caused by climate change and to help people struggling with the high price of basic commodities.
Discord has become so high and trust between key nations so low that the organization’s executive tool, the Security Council, has become redundant
I am sure Guterres is speaking from the heart, but singling out the fossil fuel industries as the only culprit does not send the right signal. In our interdependent world, unfortunately, COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have revealed a broken system of global governance that desperately needs to alter its compass, its ethos and its adherence to international laws as a basis for limiting the adversities facing us all. It also needs to re-instill certainty in societies and economies to help drive the transition to protect the planet, which should be our single most important priority.
If that means reforming the UN or the Security Council — adding new members or revisiting parts of its covenant to reduce any dangerous stalemates in our world — then maybe that is not a bad idea. But history has shown that reforming the UN to make its multilateralism more effective has been elusive to all secretary-generals before Guterres.
Few issues have been as constant at the UN as hearing grievances about its structure and how it should not merely be a global employer, but also be effective at executing its mandate. Hence the calls for reforming its Security Council, which have been advocated for by friends of the organization and its foes alike.
The stalemate witnessed in the Security Council after Russia invaded Ukraine led to renewed calls to reform its membership and mandate, this time from an unlikely source — the US. The Security Council has shown its limits to the world since February, when diplomats resorted to reading prepared statements from their capitals as they discussed Ukraine, demonstrating the council’s impotence amid a breakdown in communication between the permanent five members, who talked at each other rather than with one another.
Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, this month voiced support for “sensible and credible proposals” to expand the council’s membership from its current 15 states. She said that member states should not defend an unsustainable and outdated status quo and should demonstrate their willingness to compromise in the name of greater credibility and legitimacy, without delving into specifics.
Previously, the only serious effort to reform the Security Council came on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2005, when Brazil, Germany, India and Japan launched a joint bid for permanent seats. Then, China opposed a seat for its neighbor Japan, which is the third-largest contributor to the UN.
The veto-wielding permanent five — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — have been forfeiting their special responsibilities to uphold standards and only use the veto in rare situations. Washington has used it four times since 2009, all but one to support Israel, while Moscow has used its veto power 26 times in the same period. Many believe that all nations share the concerns about the Security Council’s dysfunction, but also point out that the renewed call for reform in the context of the ongoing Ukraine war might not yield any results.
At its 77th session, surely the UN craves an overhaul, especially to its Security Council, its mandate and the organization’s administration, budget and operation. The world has evolved beyond the memories that led to the UN’s inception in 1945. However, for successful reform to take place, the influential member states must talk and listen to each other and then align their priorities. That is the only way the wider world can hope to see the interests of the planet and its people put first, with the transition to a cleaner environment and ending war and hunger prioritized over various countries’ narrow geostrategic calculations.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant, and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs, and diplomacy.