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Ethical leadership & multilateral cooperation

The UN at 70: Has our global experiment worked?

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On 9 October, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Hina Jilani marked the seventieth anniversary of the UN, with its High Commissioner for Human Rights at an event hosted by the United Nations Association - UK in London’s historic Guildhall.


Gro Harlem Brundtland and Hina Jilani visited London on 9 October for an event hosted by UNA-UK and the City of London Corporation at the Guildhall to assess the record, relevance and future of the United Nations in its 70th anniversary year.

The event also featured a powerful keynote address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who then engaged in conversation with UNA-UK Chair Jeremy Greenstock, the UK’s former Ambassador to the UN in New York.

Gro Harlem Brundtland highlighted the upcoming challenge of how to select the next UN Secretary-General and urged greater transparency and a fixed single term to allow for greater independence.

“The biggest problem with the selection of the Secretary-General is that it has remained a highly secretive process. The Secretary-General is seen as a representative of all the world’s people and this must be reflected in the way the selection is made,” she said.

Hina Jilani focused on the need for veto restraint among the permanent members of the UN Security Council to prevent mass atrocity crimes.

“There is often a tendency for permanent members to view the veto as an inalienable right… instead, this power should be seen as a privilege, which has to be used responsibly – to promote peace and the upholding of international law,” she said.

Following their remarks, both Elders took part in a lively Q&A with UNA-UK’s Executive Director, Natalie Samarasinghe, and the 700-strong audience in the Guildhall.

Questions referred to the specifics of The Elders’ UN initiative as well as broader themes. Gro Harlem Brundtland was asked whether an enlarged Security Council would be feasible and answered that it was essential if the UNSC is to remain relevant: “if people feel it is not representing the world, they will not listen to the conclusions it reaches.”

The ongoing conflict in Syria and the inability of the international community to agree on a united and effective response prompted much debate. Hina Jilani argued that the concept of “regime change” as previously championed by some P5 powers needed to be rethought and that there are other ways of securing peace.

“It is natural for governments to think about national interests. But when civilian lives are at stake, that becomes unacceptable” she added.

A key element of The Elders’ initiative is a greater voice for civil society in the workings of the UN.

“It is very important that we find ways to make sure the voices of civil society groups in conflict-affected countries get the chance to be heard in the Security Council,” Hina Jilani said. “In the UN Charter, it starts ‘We the peoples…’ and then the people disappear!”

The debate was followed by a keynote speech by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein which was striking for its robust defence of international human rights and the responsibilities of all states in upholding peace and justice.

The event was part of a year-long Elders initiative to focus international attention on modernising the UN in its 70th anniversary year.

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