United Nations in trouble: time for another San Francisco

Carne Ross
13 November 2008

The financial crisis has triggered calls for renovation if not replacement of the world's outdated financial institutions.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.

Carne Ross served in the United Kingdom mission to the United Nations  from 1998-2002. After resigning from the foreign office over the Iraq war, he founded and now directs Independent Diplomat, the world's first non-profit diplomatic advisory group

Also by Carne Ross in openDemocracy:

"The United Nations and genocide" (1 November 2006)

"Music in the Security Council" (26 February 2007)

The slow-burn genocide of Darfur, the raging disasters in Somalia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the intractable political impasses in Burma and the Western Sahara are not, of course, solely the failure of the UN; but, like the financial crisis, the absence of competent, legitimate global institutions to deal with such horrors has hindered an effective global response.

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. Criticisms range from the P5's unwillingness to discuss draft texts with other members before demanding they vote on them, to crude threats from P5 members to veto discussion of issues (such as like Palestine, Chechnya or Tibet) that make them uncomfortable. 

The hard reality

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. There are now no less than four different forms of council expression - resolutions, presidential statements, press statements and "remarks to the press"; distinctions which are unintelligible to all but the cognoscenti.  Meanwhile, the council busies itself agreeing new formats in which to meet, one of which requires non-council UN states to apply - in writing - to the president of the council to attend misnamed "open" or public meetings of the council. 

So nugatory and trivial is this fiddling-while-Rome-burns-type behaviour that it escapes international attention and concern. Journalists still write about the Security Council as if it is a serious body, even though the dwindling UN press corps and even diplomats inside the council despair at the ineffectiveness and absurdities of a body charged with nothing less than preventing war and promoting peace. The world may be distracted by the credit-crunch, Afghanistan or Iraq, but it doesn't mean that the neglected UN is working any better. Its decline is no less serious for being unnoticed.

Also in openDemocracy about global governance:

David Held, "Global challenges: accountability and effectiveness" (17 January 2008)

Ann Pettifor, "The G8 in a global mess: 1920s and 1980s lessons" (7 July 2008)

Paul Rogers, "A world in flux: crisis to agency" (16 October 2008)

Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change" (10 November 2008)

Simon Maxwell & Dirk Messner, "A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008)  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.

The closed door

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. 

This is one reason why Independent Diplomat, the advisory group I head, has called for all affected actors to be given the "universal right of address" to speak to the council of their concerns. This is but one idea; there should be many others. Senior UN appointments should not be, as they are today, a function of under-the-table national pressure for jobs, an odious internationalised version of "buggins' turn" in which even the most pious UN members (including the UK) indulge. The secretary-general must be free to invite applications from qualified candidates worldwide, and to hire on merit. That such an obvious proposal should seem so radical at the UN is an indication of the depth of the crisis.

Also in openDemocracy about United Nations reform:

Kofi Annan, "America, the United Nations, and the world: a triple challenge" (16 June 2004)

Johanna Mendelson Forman & D Austin Hare, "A 21st century mission? The UN high-level panel report" (25 November 2004)

Phyllis Bennis, "Reform or die: the United Nations as second superpower" (16 December 2004)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, "In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan's challenge" (23 March 2005)

Dan Plesch, "The hidden history of the United Nations" (17 April 2005)

Shashi Tharoor, "A United Nations for a fairer, safer world" (14 September 2005)

Tony Millett, "The UN's real history: a response to Dan Plesch" (22 November 2005)

Fred Halliday, "The United Nations vs the United States" (13 January 2006)

The only remedy

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.  

These days, the Europeans, including the UK, tend to leave such ambition to the US. But any new administration will have its hands full with the residue of George W Bush's maladministration. Taking on the UN is never an appealing prospect in Washington, even for Democrats, and in any case the American brand is a sure invitation to hostility in UN discussion.  Such an initiative certainly won't come from China, Russia or those stuck with their own repetitious and self-seeking demands for permanent membership. So here is a chance for the UK, perhaps in partnership with France, and ideally the whole European Union - a potentially powerful force at the UN - to show some leadership. San Francisco? Why not Bordeaux, or even Brighton? 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData