Why reform of the UN matters to all of us

Yesterday in an address to the European Parliament, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, praised the “values of multilateralism”. New French President Macron also welcomed Guterres and promised to work to “defend the UN”.

Yet during a recent lunch at the White House, Donald Trump euphemistically called the UN an ‘underperformer’ and confirmed his intention to scrap the United States’ contribution to its budget.

We don’t know how the chocolate cake was that day but it would have tasted bitter for the newly appointed UN Secretary General. This is a serious threat to the UN given that the US makes up 25% of the entire budget, and almost 28% of the cost of peacekeeping.

Losing US financial and political support clearly damages the former Portuguese Prime Minister’s chances of reestablishing global UN leadership.

The announcement should not have come as a surprise though. And it is not necessarily bad news.

Large-scale collective action by the international community is – by virtue of their contribution – largely conditional on whether the US leads the initiative. It is possible this move could herald the beginning of an era of UN emancipation from its host country and main donor, a necessary step towards genuine multilateralism.

Yet the UN has other hurdles to overcome if it wants to regain prominence.

In recent years we have witnessed the emergence, or resurgence, of strong regional powers keen to take over a leading role in their direct spheres of influence, creating a new de facto oligopoly of states in international affairs.

In this environment, upholding a common legal frame of reference, namely international law, as well as promoting a true spirit of dialogue and cooperation to settle conflicts has proven difficult. The temptation for regional powers to solve crises on their own terms has reduced the UN to playing second fiddle. Frightened of becoming embroiled in diplomatic and regional quarrels, the UN has had no choice but to acquiesce and resign itself to playing the role of a “souped-up NGO”.

Multilateralism was set aside and thus not able to facilitate any sustainable settlement in several long lasting and bloody conflicts, be it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan or in the wider Middle East.  We may have seen the UN shouting from the parapets to condemn violence, but also eventually sidelined and deprived of any means for acting effectively either against terrorism or mass executions.

So how can the UN make itself relevant in this new world?

Most experts say the loss of credibility and efficiency of the UN is largely due to the abuse of the veto right by permanent Members of the Security Council that has often resulted in diplomatic dead-ends. Among the serious reforms needed to restore its image, an essential one concerns the Security Council (UNSC) being understood that all attempts to change its role, status or composition have so far failed, systematically perceived by the permanent members or regional powers as a potential threat to their influence.

To break this deadlock, the “Elders”, a group of independent international leaders, including a former UN Secretary General, have suggested a few modest but concrete steps which ought to be acceptable to the Council’s members.

They notably suggested members be obliged not to use, or threaten to use, their veto, without providing a genuine alternative course of action. They also suggested making the Council more democratic and representative of the world’s demographic and geopolitical evolution, by electing a new category of membership. Some heavyweights like India or Brazil would be given a longer term than the two years served for the moment by the non-permanent members, and could be re-elected immediately when that term expires. These are simple and realistic measures which could help the UN regain both efficiency and legitimacy, one being necessary for the other.

The UN’s capacity to act effectively also relies on its credibility. The UN and its different bodies should always make sure that their objectivity and expertise is cast-iron and irrefutable. In recent years, the fixation of the UNHRC (Human Rights Council) to single out and condemn Israel has not always been understood and has cast doubt on the organisation’s objectivity, notably in the new US administration. The Council’s decision to make Israel a permanent agenda item of every session has created a precedent and a troubling double-standard when comparing to the treatment received by other dubious countries.

This obsession with one country, together with the questionable election of Saudi Arabia as UNHRC member last year, revealed some political bias in the choices made by regional groups that put in doubt the impartiality of the organisation.

The recent votes in the US, France and the UK provide ample evidence that the world is more and more divided. Reinforcing political institutions supposed to incarnate and enforce our common values has become increasingly necessary. The UN’s credibility and efficiency should not be a mere UN issue but needs to become a common goal.