In public as well as private life, human beings like to mark anniversaries with round numbers. In 1995, an ambitious brainstorm was launched on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, with the intention of proposing reforms of the UN that were both necessary and feasible. The world of 1995 was very different from that of 1945, it was said: it is high time for change! Many parliaments and governments set up expert teams, organised hearings and published memoranda. Some of these were even quite interesting.
And by January 1996, it was all over.
But at least one clear finding did emerge from the process. Any potentially useful debate on UN reform needs to stay in what establishment figures like to call the real world, and this has very defined coordinates: abandoning any pretence that the UN is fine as it is (its failures in the post-1989 era alone indicate the self-evident need for reform) while recognising the impossibility of a world government (this is far too remote in practice even if it may be a good idea in principle).
The discussion of United Nations reform should never forget the context of the organisations creation in 1944-45: the terrible climax and immediate aftermath of the most destructive war in history. It is also important to recall that its key architects had as their recent reference-point the pre-second world war League of Nations. These influences helped create an overwhelming international consensus on two central issues that shaped the character of the UN to this day.
First, there was a consensus among the 1945 victors that was proportional to the wars terrible scale and momentous outcome. This consensus seemed genuine at the time, but it was full of contradictions that became evident within two or three years. The advent of the cold war reminded everyone of the deep polarisation between former allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective satellites. The result was a bipolar world and the subsequent paralysis of the UN.
Second, there was a consensus in 1945 about what not to do. That is, not to reproduce the formally impeccable scheme of the League of Nations, whose experience had revealed all the contradictions inherent in international law culminating in the dark decade of the 1930 with its series of imperial invasions and expansions which the League could do nothing to stop.
The architecture of UN reform
Against this essential background, the two current issues that dominate UN reform (though there are many others) are what to do about the Security Council and the General Assembly, and how to delineate the relationship between the two bodies.
The General Assembly pretends to be the equivalent of a chamber of a national parliament representative of nation states (rather than individuals) but without a parliaments law making capacity.
There are two important qualifications to this. First, the change from the 51 founding states of 1945 to the 191 in 2004 is qualitative as well as quantitative.
Second, the General Assembly representation is only very imperfectly democratic. Why should China (with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants) and Andorra (with 65,000) have the same weight? Yet if population size were made a principle of reform as, for example, George Monbiot has argued - China and India could form a coalition and decide on virtually everything (with minor alliances here and there). And if budget contributions were the test, Japan and other rich countries (including some far less populated) would be in charge, as in liberal democracy before universal suffrage.
In short, the equivalent of one person, one vote at the decision-making level in the UN is something we - even those of us who are strong critics of the current situation are not sure about.
These uncertainties are reflected in the position of the Security Council. The veto power possessed by the five permanent members (China, Britain, France, Russia and the United States) gives them far greater power than other member-states. A formally impeccable structure, mindful of the equal worth of nation-states in international law, would eliminate the veto. But this would entail a return to the free-for-all of the League of Nations.
Meanwhile, the enlargement of the Security Council - by adding either more permanent members without veto power, or non-permanent members for longer than the current two-year term - is a regular favourite of discussion. The UN High Level Panel proposes two options under which this might take place. But it is simply not foreseeable that five permanent members will either surrender their own veto power or grant it to others.
Another possible reform would be to give the General Assembly greater weight - either by making some of its resolutions binding, or at least forcing the Security Council to overcome it with a special procedure that provides for exceptional circumstances.
Say, for example, the General Assembly votes a resolution by two thirds or three quarters, then the Security Council would be obliged to turn this into a Resolution. Or, to overturn a Resolution, two thirds or three quarters of the Security Council would need to vote against it. This is the only way I see to breach the absolute veto power, while making this possible in very exceptional cases. The figures or proportions to break the absolute veto power could be different, but the idea is to introduce an exception.
The world is unpleasant, violent, and full of injustice. This condition is not the fault of the UN. It is the fault of its member-states - in particular, those whose power makes them capable (if they wished) of changing not only the UN but international law.
Law, to be efficient, relies on two conditions: equality before law, and universal enforceability. We are very far from that, but it is frivolous to pretend that the world would be a better place if the UN had never existed or were brought to an end.