Politically, the United Nations has largely been described as a monumental failure —with little or no progress in resolving some of the world’s past and ongoing military conflicts and civil wars, including Palestine, Western Sahara, Kashmir, and more recently, Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan and Myanmar, among others
Still, to give the devil its due, the UN has made some remarkable progress providing food, shelter and medical care to millions of people caught in military conflicts, including in Ukraine, Sudan, Syria, Libya and Somalia. Has the UN been gradually transformed into a humanitarian aid organization - diplomats without borders? How fair are these characterizations?
Meanwhile, during the high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly beginning September 18, some of the world’s political leaders, representing four of the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council, were MIAs (missing in action): Prime Minister Rushi Sunak of UK, President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China.
The only P5 member present was US President Joe Biden. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, a country described as one of the world’s rising political and economic powers willing to lead the Global South, was also missing. Is there a hidden message here for the UN? And is the UN beginning to outlive its usefulness–politically?
Asked about the absence of four P-5 members of the Security Council, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was blunt when he told reporters: “I don’t think it is because we have or we have not a leader of a country that the high-level week is more relevant or less relevant. What’s important is the commitments that Governments are ready to make in relation to the SDGs, in relation to many other aspects of this week. So, this is not a vanity fair… What matters is not the presence of this or that leader. What matters is the commitment of the respective government in relation to the objectives of the summit.
Meanwhile, the reform of the UN - including the revitalization of the General Assembly, the increase in the number of permanent members of the Security Council and the lack of gender empowerment at the highest echelons of the UN hierarchy, with nine all-male Secretaries-General and only 4 women out of 78 presidents of the General Assembly - has been discussed for decades. But still these issues have never got off the ground. Or will they ever?
In an interview with IPS, Natalie Samarasinghe, Global Director, Advocacy, Open Society Foundations, said change is challenging at the UN.
The organization is predicated on balancing principle with politics - and the former prevails only when it can be aligned with the latter. It has been subversive, supporting the fight against colonialism and apartheid, and helping the marginalized to advance their cause through development and human rights. At the same time, it has helped to maintain the power structures of 1945. That is reflected in the UN’s priorities, programming and personnel. And this formula seems weaker now, with the UN now seemingly peripheral in the peace and security realm, and struggling to coordinate global responses to the shocks of recent years.
This does not mean the organization cannot change. Today’s UN would be unrecognisable to its founders: with its strong focus on sustainable development, nearly four times the number of member states, and bodies devoted to almost every dimension of human endeavour.
The UN’s charter does not mention the iconic blue helmets or UNICEF - perhaps the organization’s best-known ‘brand’, nor does it allude to the role of the Secretary-General as the world’s top diplomat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and GAVI, the multistakeholder vaccine alliance - inconceivable seven decades ago - are further examples of the UN’s ability to adapt to new realities.
Yet, other parts of the organization seem frozen in time, most obviously the Security Council. So, is change possible? It is depressing that the prospect of a female Secretary-General still feels remote, or that only four of the 78 presidents of the General Assembly have been women. This should not be our ceiling for reform but our floor. We have regional rotation for positions. Why not gender rotation? This is surely as achievable a change as it is necessary.
The Security Council, meanwhile, is probably the least likely area of movement. But its gridlock - on substance and reform - has increased the appetite for the General Assembly to act as a counterweight to exclusive clubs.
The closest thing we have to a world parliament, the importance of the Assembly has grown as lower-income countries become increasingly frustrated at shouldering the brunt of global shocks without any real say in solutions.
This is part of a broader trend. At the UN, it encompasses improvements to the Secretary-General selection process in 2016, Liechtenstein’s success in ensuring that a Council veto automatically triggers a debate in the Assembly, and the Syria investigative mechanism.
But the real action is likely to be outside the New York. Leaders like Biden and Macron seem to have taken up the calls to reform the international financial architecture. The G20 in New Delhi echoed language in the Bridgetown Initiative and V20 Agenda on issues such as debt and access to capital. All of this shows that we may have finally reached a point where smaller, more vulnerable countries can no longer tolerate the status quo, and where larger, richer countries realise that interdependence is not just a concept.
Natalie Samarasinghe, who served as CEO of the UN Association – UK, was the first woman to that role; she was speechwriter to the 73rd President of the General Assembly; and chief of strategy for the UN’s 75th-anniversary initiative. She has edited publications on sustainable development, climate change and conflict and written on human rights. She has also supported a number of civil society coalitions to improve the Secretary-General selection process, which she co-founded. She points out many issues the UN has to face answering to some questions.
Q: At a press conference last month, Barbara Woodward, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, emphasized the “UK’s ambition to drive forward reform of the multilateral system,” saying, “We want to see expansion of the Council’s permanent seats to include India, Brazil, Germany, Japan and African representation.” But even if this proposal is adopted by the GA and the UNSC, it has to be followed up with an amendment to the UN charter. How arduous and long-drawn-out is the process of amending the charter?
Natalie Samarasinghe: Even in 1945, the composition of the Security Council was a compromise, with permanent membership and vetoes intended to encourage the five powers of the time to serve as guardians of the international order. That illusion was shattered before the ink had dried on the charter, as the Cold War cut short the organization’s honeymoon.
Today, our multipolar and polarised world is better described as a hot mess. Longstanding conflicts such as Palestine and Kashmir remain intractable, while crises pile up: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine.
Some argue that Russia’s aggression is not the first time one of the five permanent members (P5) has invaded a country. Others adopt a reductionist view of the Council’s role: preventing conflict between the P5 rather than maintaining peace and security of the world. But after 18 months of war, it’s hard not to see it as emblematic of the UN’s failures and constraints.
Even areas where the UN previously banked successes are flagging. Most people go back two decades to Liberia or Sierra Leone when asked to cite successful peace operations. Until its collapse, the Black Sea grain deal was a rare example of mediation gone right. Invariably, debates on how to strengthen the UN’s peace and security capacity focus on the Security Council. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, states including the US have been more vocal on the need for change. Yet renewed interest has not made reform more likely.
Procedurally, reform requires amending the UN charter. This needs approval by two-thirds of the General Assembly’s members and ratification by their legislatures, including the all of the P5. It has happened only once in relation to the Council (in 1965, when the number of members was raised from 11 to 15, and the voting threshold increased accordingly). Politically, one of the biggest hurdles is the lack of agreement within regions on who should get a seat. Council reform is a prize worth pursuing - and one that merits more creativity, on the role of regional organisations, for instance. But it may be better to channel this energy into how to leverage the collective power of the UN system as a whole.
From sanctions to investigations, there is much more the General Assembly could do on peace and security. The Peacebuilding Commission, too, could become more central, for example by bringing in actors such as the international financial institutions. And it is worth looking at how mediation could be done differently, with more resources and a more diverse pool of negotiators.
Q: Civil society organizations (CSOs) have played a significant role in the UN’s mandate to provide international peace and security, protect human rights and deliver humanitarian aid. Has the UN given CSOs, their rightful place?
Natalie Samarasinghe: Over 200 civil society organisations were at the birth of the UN. Their presence helped to secure references in the Charter to human rights, gender equality and social justice. Seventy-eight years on, thousands came to New York for the opening of the General Assembly. Even more work with the UN every day, as its development and humanitarian activities have mushroomed. These areas now account for over 70 percent of its funds and roughly two-thirds of its staff.
But many CSOs engage from the side-lines. Only a fraction will be allowed into UN Headquarters, while those on the ground often face steep barriers to cooperation. For all the talk about partnerships, a similar situation exists for other actors, from local governments to business.
This ignores that perhaps the most profound transformation of the ‘‘international community’ in recent decades has not been geopolitical realignment but the rise of non-state actors. We live in a world where private sector profits eclipse GDP (Gross Domestic Product), where social movements can mobilise millions of people, and influencers can wipe out billions with a single post; and where a girl sitting outside her school with a sign can change the global conversation. And yet the international system remains stubbornly state-centric.
Instead, partnerships should be the norm. CSOs are critical to achieving the SDGs and addressing climate change. They provide essential assistance in humanitarian crises and step into the breach in conflict zones. They stand up for those who are ignored and abused, serving both as the UN’s partners and its conscience.
Their contributions should be valued and harnessed, through a high-level champion for civil society, greater resourcing of grassroots groups; and an overarching strategy for engagement. As concerns around legitimacy and power grow, this strategy should include a gradual transfer of the UN’s development and humanitarian functions to local partners. This would foster a greater sense of ownership, agency and accountability.
It could also breathe new life into the SDGs. From the UN’s vantage point, it would help to alleviate the unsustainable growth in its workload, free up limited resources and mitigate the incompatibility on the ground of various functions it is expected to perform – political, humanitarian, development and human rights.
Such a move is likely to meet with considerable resistance, including from inside the UN. It is easier to cite the number schools built or refugees rescued as evidence of success, especially when geopolitical tensions make advances in areas such as norm-setting and mediation more challenging. But it is precisely in those areas where the UN is most needed: functions that cannot easily be fulfilled by others - even with two regional organisations on board, the G20 is not the G193; and where it is uniquely placed to make a difference - from emergency coordination to global solidarity. That should be the guiding spirit leading up to next year’s Summit of the Future: a realistic task list for the UN, greater responsibility for partners, and higher ambition for the world’s people.