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70 years on, a stronger UN is more vital than ever

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Marking the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, The Elders' Policy and Advocacy Director Andrew Whitley explains why and how the UN needs to be strengthened to remain robust in responding to today's world.

Uncomfortable though it may be for some European leaders, there is a clear – and scarcely deniable – link between the latest meeting in Brussels of EU heads of government last week, to discuss the Mediterranean migrants crisis, and a fateful decision taken four years ago by France and the UK to seek a UN Security Council resolution that would authorise the use of force against Colonel Qadhafi’s Libya.

At the time UNSC Resolution 1973 (SCR 1973) was passed, the prevailing sentiment in the West was that this was a triumph for the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. With political cover from the Arab League, the UK and France would lead the fight to protect Libya’s rebels and civilian population facing a typically unpleasant fate at the hands of Qadhafi’s forces. Since then it has become clear that, from the outset, the endgame was privately envisaged as the overthrow of the quixotic Libyan leader and his replacement by a more democratic regime.

With hindsight, the results should have been predictable: the splitting of the country into warring factions, the rise of jihadi fanatics linked to Islamic State, and the chaos that has led to Libya’s pristine beaches becoming the favoured embarkation point for people smuggling boats heading to Italy packed with illegal migrants sitting next to desperate refugees from war-torn countries to the east.

What should have been equally obvious to experienced UN-watchers, but was either ignored or overlooked, was the likely reaction of Russia and China when they belatedly realised that they had been misled into backing SCR 1973 on ostensibly humanitarian grounds, when the real objective was political. The tragic consequence was continued deadlock at the Security Council when it later came to discuss the Syrian uprising and the untold miseries that have been heaped on the Syrian people ever since.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco, and as talk grows of finding ways to strengthen the UN’s capacity to respond more effectively to the recurrent crises that challenge its duty to uphold peace and security worldwide, the Elders have been debating among themselves about what is desirable – and, more to the point, what is politically feasible by way of reform in today’s charged international environment.

The four proposals put forward by The Elders at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015 will look modest in the extreme to many who do not inhabit the world of the United Nations. But, at least these ideas have the merit of being doable, with a modicum of political will as well as the leadership of progressive states such as those in the ACT (Accountability, Coherence and Transparency) group. The Elders will participate in the ACT panel debate at the UN in New York this week to press their case for early action on a few key priorities.

Expansion of the Security Council, to include new powers such as Brazil, Germany, India and Japan and, in the process, to loosen the dominance of the “Big Five” victors of World War II, may seem an obvious step. What The Elders have proposed in this regard is that a new category of semi-permanent members be created. Like US Senators, they could hold their seats indefinitely, provided their tenure was endorsed periodically by their electorate: the General Assembly. It would be a more democratic and accountable system, and could – for now – satisfy unrealisable demands for permanent seats. Even if this proposal cannot be realised immediately, it should be left on the table as a workable option; in time it will be seen as a realistic compromise between other incompatible competing proposals.

Variations on a French initiative to restrain the P5 in the use of their veto powers when mass atrocities are feared, so that effective and timely action can be taken by the UN to save civilians at risk of their lives, are also under discussion, including among The Elders. Our proposal would require the search for consensus in the Security Council to continue after a veto had been cast. Instead of scoring points off each other and sticking rigidly to entrenched national positions, surely the interests of the victims should be paramount? To make progress, the UK and US need to find common ground with France, allowing the P3 to present Russia and China with a moral challenge they would - hopefully - find hard to refuse.

But, in the short term, the reform proposal that appears to us today to stand the most chance of making progress this year concerns the selection process for the Secretary-General and his (or her) term of office. Even though Ban Ki-moon’s term does not end for another 18 months, member states and civil society are already gearing up to try and ensure that, this time, a deal on who should head the UN for the next 10 years is not stitched-up in secrecy by the P5.

What is being proposed by The Elders is quite straightforward. As with most other top jobs – whether in business or the public sector – there should be an open call for candidates and a public process of nominations and hearings in the General Assembly. The Security Council will still retain its prerogative to recommend candidates to the wider membership, but the GA should be given a choice of more than one person, rather than being asked to rubber-stamp one, often barely-known, person selected in secret in the capitals of the P5.

What would then dramatically alter the dynamics of the relationship between the UN Secretariat and member states, strengthening the ability of the former to recommend the right course of action to the Security Council, would be if the Secretary-General were then to serve only a single seven-year term. This proposal is not new. It has been advocated by UN insiders painfully aware of the organisation’s limitations for the past quarter century.

As the UN marks the start of its eighth decade, it’s high time for the P5 to put aside their selfish pursuit of their own national interests and recall the opening lines of the UN Charter, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights….”

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