Our Global Neighborhood

Report of the Commission on Global Governance

Chapter Five -- Reforming the United Nations

Chapter Five of Our Global Neighbourhood

Global governance is about a varied cast of actors: people acting together in formal and informal ways, in communities and countries, within sectors and across them, in non governmental bodies and citizens' movements, and both nationally and internationally, as a global civil society. And it is through people that other actors play their roles: states and governments of states, regions and alliances in formal or informal garb. But we also noted that a vital and central role in global governance falls to people coming together in the United Nations, aspiring to fulfil some of their highest goals through its potential for common action.

This chapter deals with the UN and its potential, but always--and sometimes specifically so--within the framework of our wider perspectives of global governance. This issue of the potential for common action has been central to our deliberations.

We, the Peoples

When governments or people speak of reform of the United Nations, they address a process of change that has to begin in national behaviour.

'Quot homines, tot sententiae': As many persons, so many opinions. This would not be an inappropriate aphorism to describe how the UN is viewed nearly fifty years after its creation. But there is one thread common to these many opinions; none looks to the UN with any sense of ownership. The Charter was proclaimed in the name of the people of the world: 'WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS....' The assertion that it was the people of the world who were creating a world body was little more than a rhetorical flourish. But the proclamation was symbolic of the hopes of the founders of the UN for what they were creating.

As it turned out, the hopes were not to be fulfilled. Save for rare glimpses of what might be--as during Dag Hammarskjöld's Secretary Generalship--the people of the world never developed a sense that the UN was theirs. It did not belong to them. It belonged, if to anyone, to governments--and then only to a few of those. It was the domain of high politics. It touched the lives of people in ultimate, not proximate, ways. A sense of ownership did emerge for a time as the many millions who were only notionally part of 'WE THE PEOPLES' in 1945 ceased to be subjects of European empires and became citizens of new states who saw a seat in the United Nations as a seal on their independence. Yet even for them, as for most of the people of the founder nations, the UN remained a thing apart.

It was only slightly different for governments. The United Nations was there to be used, and not infrequently abused; to be an instrument of national interest where it could be; and to be bypassed where it could not be made to serve that interest. During the cold war, it became the instrument of collective enforcement action only rarely.

The newer countries tried to place the UN centre stage, but the majorities they mustered in the General Assembly could only recommend, not determine. Too often the 'new majority' mistook voting power for decision making power, with inevitable frustration. They simply could not prevail over the minority that exercised power in the Security Council or in the world economy. In time, even they lost hope. And the UN bureaucracy, once fired with imagination and zeal, became frustrated and disillusioned.

Fifty years after San Francisco, the United Nations is viewed predominantly, by both people and governments, as a global third party--belonging to itself, owned by no one except its own officials, and even, to an extent, dispensable. In many capitals, the United Nations is seen--particularly during international crises involving those countries--as 'them', not 'us'. And that is how it is often treated.

The UN is 'Us'

Yet the UN is 'us'. Although the membership consists of states represented by governments, these governments are increasingly accountable to people for their international actions; and governments, like the UN, are gradually becoming more open to international civil society organizations and other non governmental voices. The UN is a complex collectivity, but in essence it is made and maintained by its members. The UN is 'us' because its systems, its policies, its practices are those that member states have ordained. Its decisions are decisions taken or declined by its members. Some aspects of management are in the Secretary General's keeping; but, save for that, the UN is its members. When they disown it, they repudiate themselves.

More to the point in relation to this report, when governments or people speak of reform of the United Nations, they address a process of change that has to begin in national behaviour, not on the banks of the East River in New York. National behaviour is a product of national decision making and national policies: it is here that strengthening of the UN must begin. Worthwhile reforms of UN structures ought to be pursued, and we propose several in this report, but the greatest failings of the UN have not been structural: they have been collective failings of the member states. This is true of the failure of the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to fulfil the aims of the Charter, and of the failure of the Security Council to implement an effective global security system based on the Charter scheme. When we deplore how far the world body has fallen short of the Charter's promise of economic and social advancement for all peoples, it is not the failures of some monolithic supranational entity that we lament, but the lapses of members of the United Nations--of governments and, to some degree at least, people. The point cannot be made too emphatically.

There are unquestionably many achievements of the United Nations that ought to be acknowledged. For these, the member states deserve credit, as do the other relevant UN actors. Among the successes must be counted the containment of conflict, particularly of some regional conflicts during the cold war. Decolonization, the advancement of human rights, the Law of the Sea, and the contributions made by the great global conferences on issues ranging from the position of women to the environment also rank among the successes. And high on the list are some of the action oriented UN programmes--ones that translate a substantial global consensus for action into the reality of 'doing'. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are good examples of these practical, universally acclaimed elements of the UN system. They represent what is best in international co operation. They must not be taken for granted, for although they work well, they need enhanced support if their work is to be sustained, let alone enlarged.

The same is true of other UN activity in, for example, the fields of agriculture, health, meteorology, and labour. In all cases, organizational effectiveness depends on leadership: both from the international community, in terms of commitment to the programmes and financial support, and from the institution itself, particularly the person heading it-- the Director General or Secretary General.

International leadership is discussed further later. Here we stress that while good institutional leadership makes a great difference to the quality of international effort, it cannot make up for the absence or decline of support for that effort from the world community. Neighbourhood action is in the end only as effective as neighbourhood commitment and resources allow it to be.

In addition to these successes, however, there are many-- all too many--failures. They are to a large extent matters for reproach of the UN's membership. The founding states in San Francisco did not endow the United Nations with powers and capacities beyond the control of its membership. They were right not to do so, and those powers and capacities remain with member states. To improve the United Nations system, the world must essentially look to the exercise of those powers and capacities residing in member states. It is an exercise that depends on the will of member states. 'WE THE PEOPLES', through our governments and through our own new empowerments, must be the principal agents of change of the United Nations and of international institutions generally.

In that process of reform, it will be important to reflect the realities of change discussed in Chapter One. The period ahead will not be like the immediate post-San Francisco period, during which the United Nations was almost the exclusive international actor beyond governments. Already that exclusivity has gone, and internationalism will be the stronger for the new roles that fall to global civil society. The UN system will still be at the centre of international action, as nation states will remain the main international actors, but two kinds of accommodation must now be made for global civil society. The first is facilitation of practical contributions by elements of civil society within a reformed UN system--not just the allocation of space within its reconstructed structures. The second is acknowledgement of the relevance of the roles that will be played by civil society outside the UN system. This Chapter's discussion of UN reform includes the need to offer new opportunities for civil society to contribute to global governance.

Many factors have contributed to the failures of the United Nations. But there are two important respects in which the Charter and the system of internationalism it ushered in were severely disabled virtually from the outset. The first disjuncture came with nuclear weapons; the second, with the cold war.

Even as the Charter was being negotiated and signed at San Francisco, the atomic bomb was being developed in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a thousand miles away. Few in San Francisco, including most of those who would play the role of founders, knew of this development. The Charter they were negotiating was for a world from which the scourge of war would be removed by 'collective action'--a world in which 'armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest'. The first atomic bomb was exploded over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, just forty one days after the Charter was signed. By the time the United Nations was established, on 24 October 1945, the world that it was to serve had changed in fundamental ways.

An effort was soon made to return to the premises of San Francisco. The very first resolution of the General Assembly requested specific proposals 'for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction', and also to ensure the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only. Moved by the United Kingdom and co sponsored by the United States, the Soviet Union, and France, it was passed unanimously.

In the Atomic Energy Commission established by that resolution, the United States suggested a set of wide ranging measures (known as the Baruch Plan) for bringing all nuclear activity, from uranium mining to power generation, under international control and for destroying its still minuscule stockpile of atomic bombs. The Soviet Union saw this as a ploy to prevent it from developing its own nuclear capability. It delayed the proceedings in the Commission for three years--until in 1949 it had tested its own weapons. Within the first five years of the founding of the United Nations, the nuclear arms race was under way. It was to last for most of the UN's first fifty years, transforming the world for which the Charter was designed in San Francisco.

The ramifications of the cold war cracked and weakened the very foundations of the Charter. To appreciate how far this state of affairs departed from the goals marked out in San Francisco, recall the aims to which the founding nations pledged themselves in the Preamble to the Charter:

  • to practise tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours;

  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security;

  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest; and

  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.

In large measure, this report is a composite proposal for fulfilling those goals, but they were hardly the aims that dominated the post war era.

Given that the United Nations system was so hobbled from the outset, it is remarkable that it accomplished so much in so many areas of international co operation. That achievement is in large measure a tribute to the ability and dedication of UN staff--particularly the early generation of UN officials, who brought to their work a rare measure of zeal and a belief in the United Nations not yet overlaid by cynicism.

The international public service--the staff of the United Nations system--has not been fairly judged. Many of its members have been selfless servants of all the member states of the United Nations and have devoted their lives to furthering the aims of the Charter. As in all bureaucracies or corporations, some individuals have been less efficient, less committed, less effective than others. Some of these have been foisted on the United Nations by their governments. Overall, however, the international community has reason to be grateful to the men and women who have worked at UN headquarters and in the specialized agencies and programmes. These traditions of dedicated international service are now endangered, and there has been concern that the system is functioning at less than its optimum level. The UN needs to set the highest standards of efficiency at all levels of its operations. Later in this chapter we suggest some measures to remedy the situation.

Credit is also due to the diplomatic foot soldiers of member governments--the staff of Permanent Missions to the UN and in capitals, through whom governments participate in the United Nations system. These officials deserve more appreciation than is generally given for their role in making the UN system work. Sometimes theirs is a very difficult task (it took more than twenty years to agree on the definition of 'aggression', for example), and even the smallest achievements contribute to the progress of the organization and the advancement of its aims. Many of these officials have, as a result of their work with the UN, become its champions. They are part of a world wide constituency that speaks up for the United Nations, placing the responsibility for its failures where it mainly belongs--with the member states.

The Option of Renewal

The UN Charter bears the stamp of its time, and a half century later it needs adjustment. We address the 'constitutional' issues, such as the reform of the Security Council, that we believe are crucial to better global governance. And we do so frankly. But we have believed from the outset, and our work in the Commission has further convinced us, that these changes apart, a primary need is for the world community to make greater, more imaginative, more creative use of existing provisions of the Charter.

Certainly, we do not subscribe to the notion that the UN should be dismantled to make way for a new architecture of global governance. Since it is not the Charter that has failed but the policies and practices of its members, much of the necessary reform of the system can be effected without amending the Charter--provided that governments have the will to inaugurate real change. The few amendments we propose will themselves help create an environment favourable to a return to the spirit of the Charter. As member states celebrate the UN's fiftieth anniversary, they should be animated by the spirit of the Charter in seeking change.

The world now has a real opportunity to improve on the record of the past and to respond effectively to the current challenges of global governance. The Commission believes that this can be done through a process of reform--more remodelling and refurbishment than tearing down and rebuilding. But the renovation must be more than cosmetic, and it must be accompanied by new ways of living in our global neighbourhood.

  • Cover page
  • Chapter 1 A New World
  • Chapter 2 Values for a Global Neighborhood
  • Chapter 3 Promoting Security
  • Chapter 4 Managing Economic Interdependence
  • Chapter 5 Reforming the United Nations
  • Chapter 6 Strengthening the Rule of Law World-Wide
  • Chapter 7 A Call to Action