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How to make the United Nations fit for purpose in a new globalised era

The United Nations gets a rough ride, and not just from Donald Trump. The sheer magnitude of the problems the world faces, combined with the scale of activities the UN undertakes, means that there will always be failures even if those are vastly outweighed by successes. And failures make more exciting headlines.

The UN addresses global problems that might range from human rights to controlling diseases or implementing technology. In truth, however, if we could re-imagine the UN for our fragile, globalised world, it would look rather different to the organisation that stands before us now. It is no surprise that one of the themes of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos asks participants to consider how we might enable better systems for global cooperation.

In 1945, the countries that created the UN sought to prevent another world war. The main powers were given to the Security Council, comprising the five countries deemed to be the victors in the Second World War. All have a veto on UN action which has caused paralysis on issues directly related to their political interests, as we have seen in relation to Syria.

Recovering belongings in Aleppo, Syria. EPA/ALI MUSTAFA

Peace out

Currently, the strongest weapons in the UN’s peace and security arsenal are coercive measures and peacekeeping, both of which are deployed regularly but which have deep flaws.

Sanctions and other coercive measures are problematic when trying to deal with threats to international peace and security. Leaders of rogue states, like Iran and North Korea, are rarely affected; the suffering inflicted is on their subjugated populations.

UN Peacekeepers may only be deployed if a country allows them to enter its land. In many conflicts, countries simply refuse to allow the UN access. The 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, among others, dissuaded countries in the global north from committing their troops to peacekeeping missions. This has now become a rather lucrative business for states in the global south who get more than $1,000 per soldier from the UN while paying out far less in salaries. There are too many stories of poor training or failure to engage.

Peacekeepers on parade. EPA/FRANCIS R. MALASIG

Without a “standing army” (which the UN creators had envisaged), there is little more that the UN can do. Perhaps the best way forward would be to scrap the veto powers of Security Council permanent members, to expand membership to be more representative, and to create a global peacekeeping force that can enter any territory without requiring consent. But in reality those are pipe dreams. Any such proposals would be vetoed at the Council – a Catch 22 if ever there was one.

Rights and wrongs

Beyond peace and security, the UN’s two other pillars – human rights and development have problems of their own. The great hope from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 was that states would no longer be able to oppress or subjugate their citizens. It was a great idea, but one that remains out of reach. While most countries have signed up to the human rights project, violations continue everywhere. UN human rights guidance and information is taken on board by states that want to comply. But without enforcement powers, countries that care little about human rights simply ignore those mechanisms.

The one intergovernmental human rights body – the Human Rights Council – can do little more than shout from the sidelines given its status as a subsidiary body with no powers, and not even a direct reporting line to the Security Council or Secretary-General.

Development goals

Development activities have similarly been based on strong ideals rather than concrete outcomes. With little oversight from member states, there is significant duplication between different UN activities. The UN Development Programme, in particular, has become so bloated that it is difficult to justify its existence in its current form. The Millennium Development Goals fell rather flat, and the Sustainable Development Goals are likely to go a similar way.

The themes are too broad, and there are too few concrete aims that can be implemented and monitored. The best work that country-teams undertake is in supporting and strengthening local organisations, but there are too many situations like Haiti where the UN has been in the country for far too long, and with far too little success.

Kofi Annan pictured in 2012. United States Mission Geneva/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Redesigning a system that would give powers to external human rights bodies is something that was mooted and rejected a decade ago during Kofi Annan’s reformist agenda. But a reformed UN, fit for purpose would have more streamlined and prominent human rights and development bodies.

We know that human rights and development contribute significantly to international security. And we know that UN activities have produced mid- and long-term results – education is a good example. But too much money and time is wasted through grandiose ideas, duplicated work, and a bloated system that ends up creating dependencies in places like Haiti or Somalia. A review and improvement process would identify the gaps and duplications. It might upset those who want to hang onto their piece of the pie, but it would result in a leaner and fitter UN.


Then, of course, we have the question of accountability when harm is caused, as we have seen in sexual violence by peacekeepers or when a UN peacekeeping operation caused a cholera epidemic in Haiti. The UN desperately requires mechanisms that enable individuals to seek redress and to hold accountable those who caused harm.

That extends to whether member states should be accountable. The relationship between members and the UN remains somewhat fuzzy, despite attempts to clarify the laws. Yet the credibility and legitimacy of the UN hinges upon accountability issues being handled in clear and systematic ways.

Some of this may be wishful thinking. And let’s face it, if nothing changes we still want and need the UN to exist, even in its current form. Ultimately, it has succeeded in preventing another world war, in advancing human rights, and in aiding development. But our world has changed and there are now clear reforms that would enable the UN to operate closer to its full potential.

This piece has been published in cooperation with the World Economic Forum to coincide with its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. You can read more here.

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