A UN fit for purpose

The UN needs fundamental changes to remain relevant in the 21st century. We work to build a stronger, fairer and more transparent UN system.

  • Four recommendations

    The UN was founded in 1945 “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, and over the decades it has served the people well. But is it fit for purpose in the 21st century?

    In Ukraine, in South Sudan, in the Middle East, to name but a few places – far too many people live in grief and suffering, caused by conflict and deliberate violence. The use of the veto by some P5 members has allowed militant groups to further their causes with impunity.

    The world’s peoples yearn for a fairer, more peaceful world, where new generations can grow up in confidence. They want a stronger, more agile UN. They do not want to see the UN wither into irrelevance, as the League of Nations did in the 1930s.

    We believe timely changes are needed in the composition and working of the UN Security Council, to make it more democratic, more representative of the world of today, and more effective in its mission of preventing and addressing armed conflict.

    To that end The Elders launched these four new proposals at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015. Read the full statement.

  • A new category of members

    In principle, the existing permanent members claim to be ready to welcome new members. But their sincerity has not been tested, because the rest of the membership cannot agree on essential points: which countries, and how many, should be new permanent members, and should they, like the existing ones, be given a veto over the Council’s substantive divisions? In the view of many, the use or abuse of the veto is responsible for some of the Council’s most conspicuous failures, when it does not intervene in time, or with sufficient force, to protect the victims of genocide and other comparable crimes. Those states are understandably reluctant to give yet more powers the right of veto.

    We therefore propose a compromise. Let the states which aspire to permanent membership accept instead, at least for the time being, election to a new category of membership, which would give them a much longer term than the two years served by the non-permanent members, and to which they could be immediately re-elected when that term expires. This would enable them to become de facto permanent members, but in a more democratic way, since it would depend on them continuing to enjoy the confidence of other member states. By making the Council more democratic, this change would increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the world, thereby enhancing its authority and so also making it more effective.

  • A pledge from permanent members

    As already noted, on too many issues the Security Council is deadlocked by the failure of its permanent members to agree on a course of action, with the result that millions of people are left to suffer while great powers score debating points off each other. As the UN’s founders understood, without the united support of the permanent members, both material and moral, the Council cannot act.

    None of us has forgotten the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Saddam Hussein’s campaign against Iraq’s Kurds, or the killing fields of Cambodia. No part of the world has been spared these horrors. So the political will must be summoned to prevent, or at least limit, their repetition.

    We therefore call on the five existing permanent members to pledge themselves to greater and more persistent efforts to find common ground, especially in crises where populations are being subjected to, or threatened with, genocide or other atrocity crimes.

    States making this pledge will undertake not to use, or threaten to use, their veto in such crises without explaining, clearly and in public, what alternative course of action they propose, as a credible and efficient way to protect the populations in question. This explanation must refer to international peace and security, and not to the national interest of the state casting the veto, since any state casting a veto simply to protect its national interests is abusing the privilege of permanent membership.

    And when one or more permanent members do feel obliged to cast a veto, and do provide such an explanation, the others must undertake not to abandon the search for common ground but to make even greater efforts to agree on an effective course of action.

  • A voice for civil society

    When they can agree, the permanent members too often deliberate behind closed doors, without listening to the voices of those most directly affected by their decisions, and present their elected colleagues with ready-made resolutions leaving little room for debate. To remedy this, we call on all members of the Security Council to make more regular and systematic use of the “Arria formula” (under which, in the last two decades, Security Council members have had meetings with a wide variety of civil society organisations), to give groups representing people in zones of conflict the greatest possible opportunity to inform and influence Council decisions.

    At present, meetings under the Arria formula are too often attended only by junior officials, whose reports can easily be ignored. In future, we call on the heads of the delegations of all countries serving on the Security Council, including the permanent members, to attend all meetings held under this formula in person. Members of the Council must use such meetings to ensure that their decisions are informed by full and clear knowledge of the conditions in the country or region concerned, and of the views of those most directly affected.

  • A more independent Secretary-General

    At the United Nations, it is the Secretary-General who has to uphold the interests and aspirations of all the world’s peoples. This role requires leadership of the highest calibre. Yet until 2016, the holder of this post had effectively been chosen by the five permanent members of the Security Council, who negotiated among themselves in almost total secrecy. The rest of the world was told little about the process by which candidates were identified, let alone the criteria by which they were judged. This barely followed the letter, and certainly not the spirit, of the UN Charter, which says the Secretary-General should be appointed by the General Assembly, and only on the recommendation of the Security Council.

    To remedy this, in February 2015 we called on the General Assembly to insist that the Security Council recommend more than one candidate for appointment as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, after a timely, equitable and transparent search for the best qualified candidates, irrespective of gender or regional origin.

    We suggested that the next Secretary-General be appointed for a single, non-renewable term of seven years, in order to strengthen his or her independence and avoid the perception that he or she was guided by electoral concerns. We also emphasised that Secretaries-General should never be under pressure, either before or after being appointed, to give posts in the Secretariat to people of any particular nationality in return for political support, since this is clearly contrary to the spirit of the Charter.

    With the efforts of supportive organisations and governments, some of The Elders’ recommendations were adopted by the UN as part of the process to select the new Secretary-General in 2016. For the first time, the names of candidates for the position of Secretary-General were publicly circulated, and all declared candidates participated in public hearings in the General Assembly. These changes led to a notable increase in the transparency of the selection process.

    More fundamental changes to the selection of the Secretary-General, such as the appointment of the Secretary-General to a single seven year term, or to give the General Assembly a choice of more than one candidate, were not adopted in 2016. However, it was encouraging that many governments considered these recommendations seriously, and The Elders hope these and other changes aimed at making merit the sole consideration for selection of the head of the UN Secretariat, thus strengthening its autonomy, will be adopted in future.

    The Elders will continue to make the case for reform of the Security Council, both in its composition and working methods, to increase its effectiveness and global legitimacy.

View all articles about A UN fit for purpose

Read the full statement

Press release The Elders call for strengthening of the United Nations

Fit for purpose in the 21st century