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Monday, 18 January, 2016

Almost one year on from launching our initiative to strengthen the United Nations, Martti Ahtisaari delivers a keynote address at the Sciences Po Youth & Leaders Summit in Paris calling for leadership by governments and the next Secretary-General in modernising the UN. This is an excerpt from the speech.


Martti Ahtisaari is joined by Enrico Letta, Emmanuel Macron and Irina Bokova at Sciences Po Youth & Leaders Summit 2016 on 18 January.

As some in this audience may know, I am a member of The Elders, the organisation founded by Nelson Mandela and currently chaired by Kofi Annan. A year ago, at the Munich Security Conference, we launched a new initiative to strengthen the United Nations in its core task of preserving peace and security around the world. At the risk of sounding immodest, the response we have heard to our proposals – from governments, civil society and academic experts on the UN – has exceeded our expectations and encouraged us to persist.

We have called for three steps to be taken that are relatively easily. (I stress relatively because UN reform is always complicated and difficult given the competing interests at work.) In addition, we have identified one addition step that will be very difficult to do - but is nevertheless essential, if the UN is to maintain its credibility and legitimacy.

The first reform is in an area where the French Government has shown real leadership. This concerns the need for the Security Council to act decisively and in unity whenever mass atrocities – ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or genocide – are threatened. In practice this means tackling abuse of the P5 countries’ veto powers which, as we have seen in the case of Syria and elsewhere, have only prolonged conflict and human suffering. The Elders’ proposal differs from that of France and the Code of Conduct proposed by the ACT group of states in that it puts the onus on the veto-casting country and other Council members to overcome their differences and find alternative solutions.

The second measure concerns the need in today’s interconnected world to find ways to strengthen the voice of civil society in crisis-affected countries in the deliberations of the Security Council. The current Arria-formula meetings of the Council are useful but, in The Elders’ opinion, do not go far enough. More needs to be done to make sure those most directly affected can help shape the response from the international community. The challenge however is how to determine which civil society groups are representative and legitimate actors.

The third proposal we have made as the Elders, is to open up the process of selecting the Secretary-General, currently controlled by the P5. Speaking from experience, it is absolutely essential that the Secretary-General has the confidence of the permanent members; but, at the same time, he – or she, and I think it is high time the post should be held by a woman - should not be their poodle. The Elders have argued for the system of regional rotation of the post to be put aside in favour of the candidate’s merit. We have also suggested that the Council put forward more than one name to the General Assembly, to give it a real choice. We also suggest that the term in office be changed to a single seven-year period. Added together, we believe these changes would strengthen the authority and independence of the Secretary-General.

Our final proposal deals with the self-evident need to change the composition of the Security Council to make it more representative of today’s world without losing its effectiveness. We have proposed the creation of a new category of semi- permanent members who would serve a term of, say, seven years and could be re-elected by the General Assembly indefinitely. They would not have veto powers. That is a bridge too far in our opinion. But in other respects their Council membership would be tantamount to that of the existing P5. The number of countries in this category could be between six and eight, thus enlarging the Council to up to 23 members. To our pleasant surprise, some of those who aspire to permanent membership have privately indicated their interest in exploring further The Elders’ proposal. But what is clear, is that in this area in particular, no real change will happen unless the next Secretary-General takes the lead and makes Security Council reform her or his top priority. This is precisely why we need to find a courageous and independent-minded leader who can take the helm in New York next year.

This is an excerpt of the keynote speech delivered at Sciences Po's Youth & Leaders Summit 2016 on 18 January.

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