Reforming the United Nations

By Keith, Suter | Contemporary Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Reforming the United Nations


Keith, Suter, Contemporary Review


In October, the UN will turn 54. It has outlasted its predecessor the League of Nations but it has not lived up to the vision that some of its architects very ambitiously held for it. It was crippled, for example, by the Cold War. It has been troubled throughout its existence by a lack of funds and an unwillingness of countries to live up to their international obligations. The purpose of this article is to survey some of the ideas for reforming the UN. There is no shortage of ideas for reforming it - only a lack of political will to do so.

Options about reforming the UN may be divided into 'micro-reform' proposals (not requiring an amendment to the UN Charter) and 'macro-reforms' (requiring an amendment to the UN Charter). I have coined the distinction between micro- and macro-reforms because amending the UN Charter is very difficult. There has been no substantial amendment to the Charter since it was written in 1945. Amendments have to be adopted by a vote of two thirds of the General Assembly and ratified in accordance with the respective constitutional processes. The Permanent 5 (P5) - US, Russia, China, France and the UK - can each veto any proposed amendment. Since 1945, the only changes have been to the number of member-nations on UN bodies; these changes have arisen because of the increase in the UN's overall membership. For example, the UN Security Council's membership was increased in 1965 from 11 to 15.

All micro-reform proposals could be introduced immediately. Here are some suggestions, not in any order of priority.

Governments should pay their UN dues on time. The UK is one of the few governments to be prompt in doing so. The US by contrast is the largest single debtor, owing about US$1 billion. This sounds a great deal of money until it is recalled that this works out at US$4 per American per year - about the cost of a hamburger and French fries. Additionally, the US's annual expenditure in Vietnam for the year 1970 was (in today's terms) over US$100 billion. The US - like so many other governments - can find money for war but not for peace.

It is hardly a novel idea to suggest that governments pay subscriptions on time. Individuals who belong to clubs or associations know that their continued membership depends partly on paying their subscriptions. But UN member-states are slow to pay and show no remorse for their lateness.

It is worth emphasizing that the UN has a small budget and so the amounts required from governments are not onerous. The budget of the City Council of New York is much larger than the UN's. The advantage that the New York City Council has over the UN is that it can obtain revenue more easily than the UN. About two-thirds of the UN's membership at any one time are in arrears.

More women should be appointed to senior positions. The senior level of the UN has traditionally had none or only a few women. This was similar to the lack of women as heads of national delegations. However, just as some countries are now making more of an effort to ensure equal opportunity at the head of delegation level, so the UN's own employment practices could reflect that same determination. The UN Secretary-General has little leverage over countries (such as in the slow payment of their dues) but the Secretary-General does have much greater scope for action in employing women in the Secretariat's senior level.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the world's main legal body. But attendance at it is not compulsory. Only about a third of the UN's membership accept its jurisdiction. Much greater use generally could be made of international arbitration - rather than recourse to war.

The Secretary-General could be appointed for only one, seven-year term. The present arrangement is for the person to have five-year terms, with the understanding that only two terms will be served. There is a temptation to use the end of the first term as an election campaign to get re-appointed. …

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