A 21st century mission? The UN high-level panel report

Johanna Mendelson Forman D Austin Hare
25 November 2004

The United Nations has reached a crisis of mission. Created from the vision of second world war leadership, the grand bargain of 1945 provided a forum that all governments could participate in even if not as equal partners. The notion of collective security embodied at the core of the UN charter not only served as an important deterrent to nuclear destruction in the cold war, but also laid the foundation to address the threats that emerged after the world lost its bipolar superpower system.

Also in openDemocracy on the UN’s search for a new global role:

  • Simona Milio & Francesco Grillo, “The mother of all questions: how to reform global governance” (May 2003)
  • Kofi Annan, “America, the United Nations, and the world: a triple challenge” (June 2004)
  • Paul Kingsnorth (with responses from Frances Stewart, James Putzel, and Johanna Mendelson Forman), “How to save the world: poverty, security, and nation–building” June 2004)
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The events of 11 September 2001 created a new international reality coloured by terrorism, and the flexing of United States muscle in response. The UN immediately stepped up to the challenge of 9/11 through Security Council resolutions committing the UN to fight terrorism and support a legal framework that would facilitate the capture or neutralisation of the perpetrators of such acts. And the UN supported the war in Afghanistan to go after the Taliban and its agents who had harboured and trained terrorists.

But when rumours of war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq emerged, a key difference emerged: the UN sought process (the continuation of inspections to find weapons of mass destruction) – while the US wanted action (a war to prevent a possible nuclear holocaust).

The result was a confrontation of wills between the US and members of the Security Council in February 2003 when that body refused to support a collective action against Iraq. The war that followed, conducted without the blessing of UN action, but by a “coalition of the willing”, led to what the UN secretary–general Kofi Annan ultimately described as a “fork in the road

It was this point of decision that created the circumstances for the appointment of a High–Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change – a commission of sixteen eminent persons that would assess the global threats of the new millennium and propose bold recommendations for action that international institutions might take to effectively respond to those threats.

In addition to the fallout over Iraq, two other factors influenced Kofi Annan’s creation of this panel: his concern for the welfare of people in the developing world whose survival is menaced by disease, environmental degradation, and extreme poverty as well as by war; and the need to set an ambitious agenda for conferences that will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations in 2005.

What’s on the agenda, and what’s not

The high–level panel (HLP) has identified six categories of global threats (see box). These will be addressed, reportedly without prioritisation, in the panel’s final report, due to appear on 2 December 2oo4. This panel seeks to issue strong policy recommendations that build on the knowledge base of commissions past and provide operational utility.

The UN High–Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change has identified six kinds of global threats that need concerted action by the international community. These are:

  • poverty, infectious disease, and environmental factors
  • conflict within states
  • conflict between states
  • terrorism
  • organised crime
  • proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and arms proliferation generally

The panel issues its final report on 2 December 2004.

In order to maximise the United Nations’ capacity to respond to these various threats, the panel’s report is expected to propose various institutional and procedural reforms. Among the stumbling–blocks the panel is considering are: the limited role and effectiveness of the general assembly; the cumbrous nature of its economic organs; and, most controversially, the lack of representativeness that many states perceive in the Security Council.

Debates about expanding the council to accommodate more permanent members are nearly as old as the institution itself. The most vocal current contenders for a permanent seat are Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan. It is not clear what specific recommendations the panel will issue, nor whether augmenting the number of permanent seats on the council would necessarily entail a commensurate extension of the coveted veto. What is clear is that the permanent five (“P5” – Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) have not shown an inkling of support for any such measure – and their support is required for the amendment of the UN charter that this would entail.

The scope of panel deliberations is not limited just to the UN apparatus and its possible reform. It also reaches to international financial institutions and regional organisations, such as Nato, the European Union, and the African Union. The panel is charged to determine what further contributions these might make to sustaining international peace and security, particularly in the areas of failed states and global economic threats.

When to intervene, and how

One of the most controversial issues before the HLP, and one that promises to be a focus of the report, is the question of when a state can legitimately use force against another.

Sharp public divisions over this issue – how, when, in what form and under whose authorisation one state may take arms against another – have endured since the US government first announced its intention to invade Iraq and depose its leader. In the context of what now appears to be a shared transatlantic interest in reconciliation, this debate may soon resume.

There is also severe dispute over the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention; that is, whether states can intervene in the affairs of other states who fail to ensure the security of their own citizens. People who answer yes to this question argue that when a state’s citizens suffer serious harm without the state’s own attempt to redress this – as a result of civil conflict, state–sponsored repression, or state failure – the state’s interest in preserving its sovereignty is outweighed by an international “responsibility to protect ” its citizens.

States’ failure to intervene in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide that killed around 800,000 people in four months proved so devastating that it created a new groundswell of support within the international community for humanitarian intervention. By contrast, the intervention launched by the international community in Kosovo in 1999 provoked many observers within the same circles to question its legitimacy – on the grounds that intervention had not been conducted under Nato leadership rather than UN authority, that the interveners had fallen prey to the sectarian interests of secessionists, or that the abuses had not reached the level required to provide “just cause” for intervention.

The US diplomatic campaign to convince allies of the need to intervene in Iraq, which culminated in US secretary of state Colin Powell’s presentation to the Security Council in February 2003 concerning Iraq’s supposed nuclear arsenal, only magnified concerns about the use of pretexts to launch interventions without UN sanction. Those who would reserve to the United Nations exclusive authority to approve armed interventions contend that the UN lends legitimacy and transparency by virtue of the inevitable bargaining that takes place in order for consensus to be reached. However, those who take this position also concede that the UN is not itself capable of conducting such missions.

The question over intervention also raises the issue of post–conflict peacebuilding? The HLP might recommend a more coherent way to mobilise the UN’s capacity to help rebuild war–torn societies in a way that moves beyond reconstruction to address support for the political development that so often is essential to ensure progress in promoting a more stable and secure environment. Resolving internal conflicts and implementing post–conflict settlements will require a comprehensive approach to peacebuilding that draws together the more than fifteen UN agencies engaged in these fields.

Terrorism, poverty and… democracy

The panel report will also address terrorism, and in economic and political as well as tactical terms. There is a clear lack in this field of comprehensive understanding of “root causes”: that is, the social and historical frameworks within which terrorists operate and the impetuses for “terrorist ideologies”.

The attacks of 19 August 2003 on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and of 11 March 2004 on commuter trains in Madrid, emphasised the willingness of terrorists to strike in pursuit of defined political objectives, not just (as on 9/11) against potent symbols of the prevailing international order. Consequently, the international community has become more alert to the proliferating terrorist networks witnessed in nearly every corner of the globe, conducting joint efforts to track, foil, and capture their operatives.

Among the primary security concerns of many nations is the potential for terrorists or rogue states to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. While the United Nations has not traditionally been a central player in the area of nuclear–arms control, it has played a significant role in preventing nuclear–arms proliferation. The current challenge for the UN is to build on progress made with the establishment of international arms–control mechanisms such as the Nuclear Non– Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, to articulate stronger standards and develop more credible enforcement mechanisms.

Again, such hard–security issues that appear to demand a collective response to threats equally raise the role of conflict prevention as an essential ingredient in promoting development and alleviating poverty. Many people around the world perceive an unjust social and economic order imposed on them by forces that are, at best, indifferent to their development needs. Hence, the high–level panel may propose a new “bargain” involving an exchange of commitments between the global north (which urgently requires cooperation from the south on counter–terrorism) and the global south (which needs increased support from the north on development objectives).

On openDemocracy, Johanna Mendelson Forman tracks the critical situation facing the United Nations between 9/11, Iraq, and the next global political order:

  • “Things Kofi Annan can do now” (April 2003)
  • “From the ashes: a multilateral mission?” (August 2003)
  • “The UN in 2003: a year of living dangerously” (December 2003)
  • “The nation–building trap: Haiti after Aristide” (March 2004)

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Developing states seek to obtain affirmation from industrialised states that economics and security are mutually dependent, and accordingly, to negotiate policies that encourage investments in their economies. Such investments, they argue, would bolster employment, reduce conflict, and improve state capacity to respond to health and environmental crises. Likewise, developing–world democracies point out that reinforcing good governance has been a key element in resolving some of the world’s fiercest conflicts. Democratic governance will be of scant value and of uncertain sustainability, however, if economic conditions continue to deteriorate at the rapid rate witnessed in many corners of the world – particularly in Africa, but also in Latin America and south Asia.

Can the panel evoke a new “grand bargain” for the 21st century that will ensure that north and south together reinforce the security demands of the rich while addressing the development deficits of the poor? Can a group of sixteen eminent leaders speak for the consensus of nations at a time when there is only one superpower whose direction appears to veer more toward unilateral approaches to global solutions than to multilateralism?

The answers will become clear on and after 2 December. What is already evident is that as the United Nations approaches its sixtieth year, the political timeliness of this report, the interest it has already generated, and the enormity of the issues it addresses, all suggest that the high–level panel’s effort will be widely discussed as a potential roadmap for action to repair a fractured world.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not represent the programme or policy of the UN Foundation.

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