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Reforming the UN system after Covid-19

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

When the United Nations (UN) was conceptualized during the Second World War to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, its two major objectives were to secure and to sustain international peace and security. Among the six principal organs of the UN, the UN Security Council (UNSC) was mandated by all signatory states of the UN Charter with the “primary responsibility” for securing international peace and security. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) was entrusted with sustaining international cooperation to achieve socio-economic progress, including upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. As the UN commemorates the 75th anniversary of its establishment in September 2020, it is apparent that the implementation of this holistic vision of the UN Charter has been fragmented. That is the basis for calls for reform of the UN.

On the positive side, the ECOSOC and the UN General Assembly have succeeded in responding to the single biggest change in international relations since the end of the Second World War. Decolonization enabled hundreds of millions of people in former colonies to be integrated into the UN system based on freedom and equality. Their aspirations have become the focus of the work of the UN and its specialized agencies.

In the past four decades, these two organs of the UN have succeeded in creating a vibrant framework for upholding human rights. They have converged the twin objectives of climate change and accelerated development into Agenda 2030, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Adopted unanimously by world leaders in September 2015, Agenda 2030 is the first multi-stakeholder universally agreed global framework for socio-economic progress. The adoption of Agenda 2030 signaled an awakened hope in ordinary people for better health, education, infrastructure, employment, and equality of opportunity.

A crucial sentence in the Preamble of Agenda 2030 encapsulates the inter-linked nature of the global challenges of the 21st century. World leaders unanimously agreed that “there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development”. This can only be ensured if there is a supportive global environment of peace and security, which requires an effective UNSC.

However, the UNSC’s ineffectiveness in responding to challenges to international peace and security has become a major factor behind the fragmentation of international cooperation. Such challenges include the increased recourse to unilateral policies by its five permanent members (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, known as the P5), the increasing number of intra-state conflicts within UN member-states, the unfettered activities of designated terrorist entities and individuals, and the lack of a coherent political direction by the UNSC to support the UN’s response to global challenges, including the current Covid-19 pandemic. More than 70 million people across the five continents are currently impacted by the breakdown of international peace and security. This is the largest such number since the Second World War ended. The responsibility for this disaster lies squarely with the UNSC.

The main reason for the UNSC’s ineffectiveness is the ‘veto’ provision of the P5 applied to decision-making by the Council. Although used in public as a measure of last resort during voting on a UNSC resolution, the P5 have consistently leveraged their ‘veto’ power to pursue their increasingly narrow self-interest. Most recently, China used this power during its Presidency of the UNSC in March 2020 to prevent any discussion on the impact of Covid-19 on international peace, security, and sustainable development. The United States used this power to prevent the adoption of a UNSC resolution supporting an all-of-UN response to Covid-19 on 8 May 2020.

Fifteen years ago, at the 60th anniversary of the UN in 2005, world leaders had unanimously agreed that a malfunctioning UNSC needed to undergo early reform. They mandated such reform to make the UNSC “more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and thus to further enhance its effectiveness and the legitimacy and implementation of its decisions.” In 2007, the UNGA unanimously agreed to establish an inter-governmental negotiating platform to implement this mandate. In 2008 the UNGA unanimously agreed on five specific areas for reform of the UNSC including the question of the veto. In 2015, the UNGA unanimously agreed to use written proposals by over 120 member-states on these five areas to negotiate a resolution to amend the UN Charter.

Since then, the momentum in the negotiations has been stymied by the P5, led by China. At the core of the status quo position of the P5 is their shared interest in keeping intact the provision of Article 27.3 of the UN Charter that confers on each of them the power to ‘veto’ substantive decisions of the UNSC. Historically, the ‘veto’ provision was agreed upon between the United States, United Kingdom and USSR at Yalta in February 1945. Despite calls to discuss this provision during the San Francisco Conference held between April-June 1945, the permanent members resisted any attempt to reopen the Yalta agreement on the veto.

Participating countries at the San Francisco Conference eventually acquiesced with the P5’s veto provision in the expectation that this would ensure a supportive framework of peace and security for their reconstruction and development after the war. Their view was facilitated by the understanding, contained in Article 109 of the UN Charter, that the provisions of the treaty would be reviewed ten years after the Charter was ratified (i.e. by 1955) by a General Conference of the UN.

Despite this provision, such a General Conference has never been convened. The last major opportunity for the UN to do so was following its 60th anniversary Summit in 2005. In the Summit declaration, world leaders had unanimously agreed to amend provisions of the UN Charter to delete references to “enemy state” (Germany, Japan and Italy), the Trusteeship Council (which had “no remaining functions”) and UNSC reforms.

Since 2005, the UN has undertaken significant activities which need to be integrated into the provisions of its Charter. These include the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council (2006), the creation of UN Women for gender equality and the empowerment of women (2010), the agreement on Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development (2015), a coordinated approach to countering terrorism through a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (2006) and Office of Counter-Terrorism (2017), and the ongoing impact of digital technologies on peace, security and development. Only a General Conference can enable a review of the provisions of the 1945 UN Charter to bring these initiatives into the context of making the UN “fit for purpose” in the 21st century.

During the last decade, any initiative to implement Article 109 of the UN Charter and convene a General Conference has been deflected by pointing to the ongoing inter-governmental negotiations on UNSC reforms, which were expected to result in amending provisions of the UN Charter. Today, the hard reality is that these inter-governmental negotiations on UNSC reform are deadlocked with no end in sight.

World leaders meeting at the UN’s 75th anniversary Summit on 21 September 2020 therefore must address this paradoxical situation, which holds the key to any reform of the UN. To do so, they must agree to convene the General Conference provided for in Article 109 of the UN Charter. Any proposal to hold such a Conference can be put on the agenda of the UNGA “if so decided by a majority vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any seven members of the Security Council.”

The current global crisis demands global leadership. This is a major opportunity for India, together with a coalition of member-states whose national aspirations in a post-Covid19 world depend on effective international cooperation, to rise to the challenge.

(Ambassador Asoke Mukerji served in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 37 years, retiring as India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York in December 2015).

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