The United Nations is in trouble

Source: Carne Ross (Independent Diplomat) on openDemocracy

The financial crisis has triggered calls for renovation if not replacement of the world’s outdated financial institutions. But there is another crisis – where the damage is measured in terms of real blood shed, not dollars or mortgages lost – that shouts out the need for change: this time at the United Nations, the world body charged with international peace and security.

It’s time to say it loud and clear: the UN is in trouble. Here are the problems. The Security Council is divided or unable to agree effective action on many crucial peace and security issues: Darfur, Iran, Somalia, Burma…the list goes on. Frustration and anger within and against the council – in particular its five permanent, veto-wielding members (known as the P5) – is at an all-time high. Today, one can hardly talk to a UN ambassador outside the P5 – including the ten non-permanent (or elected) members of the council – without hearing a litany of complaint against the P5′s behaviour.

Rather than discussing and producing real political measures to tackle the world’s many crises, the Security Council is proliferating forms of expression, unnecessarily complicating its already-opaque communication with the world.

Thanks in part to the sclerosis on the council, discussion of many other issues at the UN – such as reform of the UN bodies dealing with the crisis facing the environment (an urgent matter you might think) – is impeded. The G77 bloc of so-called “developing” countries (a now-outdated grouping of more than 130 countries, ranging from China to Tuvalu) takes the chance to push back against what it sees as the arrogance of “the west”.

And slowly but surely, this poison is spreading, including to parts of the UN that were hitherto seen as more effective, such as the humanitarian agencies. Here too, G77 anger has blocked important efforts to reform things like recruitment and management practices in the UN, which is still beset by inefficiency at best, and downright incompetence and corruption at worst. Any frank and honest UN official will quickly agree.

Leadership that can offer a way out of this quagmire is all but impossible to find. The P5 themselves – France, the United States, Russia, China and the United Kingdom – exhibit little appetite and energy for addressing this malaise. The secretary-general is clearly a decent man, but has proven unwilling to admit the crisis, and demand (not merely encourage) action to resolve it: “back change or sack me”, he should say, but he won’t. The secretariat view is a feeble one – the crisis is for member-states to resolve. This of course is true, but is also an abrogation of the secretariat’s own responsibility to provide a way forward when member-states have so abjectly failed to do so.

Outside the council, big countries like Brazil, India, Japan and Germany content themselves with rote demands for enlargement of the Security Council – to include themselves as new permanent members. Clothing their blatant self-interest with calls for more “legitimacy”, such states have become excited by the recent agreement to start so-called “intergovernmental negotiations” on council reform. But discussion will inevitably return to zero-sum-game rows about enlargement formulae that merely reflect states’ self-interest rather than a genuine effort to reform discredited methods of decision-making. It is naive to believe that enlargement will by itself make the council work.

The UN needs drastic renovation. The council should be more representative of the 21st century, true, but it must also be made more open and accessible to those affected by its decisions. 80% of the conflicts on the council’s agenda now involve non-state actors, reflecting the shift in warfare from between states to inside them. Yet such actors are invisible and unheard at the council and indeed at the UN, a bastion (one of the last, in my guess) of governments.

It is depressing how little creative thinking goes on at the UN to remedy its many deficits. Diplomats posted to the UN tend to come and go for three or four-year tours making little impression, and often leave demoralised and defeated by the UN’s absurd and seemingly intractable conundrums. Most UN member-states are small, and have commensurately small diplomatic missions, and most of these admit that are completely overwhelmed with the number and complexity of committees and processes they must keep up with; many barely comprehend them at all (pity the rest of us). Staff in the deeply-hierarchical secretariat are discouraged from action, fearful that their next posting will be to Congo rather than up the greasy, corrupt pole that is the promotion system in the UN. Note, by the way, how virtually no senior staff member is under 50, a clear indicator that subservience is valued higher than competence.

The only solution is a severe jolt of electricity. Some say that only a war will at last trigger the energy for change. But there already is one, in fact many. The leading states should agree to have a conference with the goal of nothing less than a renovated and revivified UN. Take discussion away from the corridors and stale arguments of the New York UN complex. Set an ambitious agenda and aim high, but for something simple and ideal.


This article originally appeared on under a Creative Commons licence. To read the article in its entirety, please click here.

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