Global Policy Forum

Reform the United Nations Now: Commentary

People Daily
December 3, 2003

The topic of UN reform is not new. But with the US-led war against a sovereign country, Iraq, without UN authorization and Washington's stubborn position of sidelining the world body's role in Iraq's post-war construction, it is more urgent than ever for it to carry out needed reforms to survive in increasingly complicated world situations.

The topic of United Nations (UN) reform is not new. Members have been singing this tune almost from the day the world body was established. Its inefficiency in the face of the confrontation between the United States and the former Soviet Union in the Cold War era and failure to restrain the US unilateralist behaviours in the post-Cold War period made it necessary for the world body to make systematic and structural self-improvements.

In fact, the UN has faced a constant barrage of management studies, policy reviews, reform proposals and even actual reforms since the 1950s. The reform initiatives launched by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in February 1992 at the beginning of his term opened the first round of UN reform in the post-Cold War era. He fired 14 top UN administrators and abolished a dozen operating units.

But with the US-led war against a sovereign country, Iraq, without UN authorization and Washington's stubborn position of sidelining the world body's role in Iraq's post-war construction, it is more urgent than ever for it to carry out needed reforms to survive in increasingly complicated world situations. Whether the time for reforms is right or not, the UN should take some action. The world body cannot afford to waste any more precious time with useless squabbling This has been recognized by the current UN chief Kofi Annan, as well as ordinary people who are concerned about the prospects of the UN and who are looking forward to its role in bringing about world peace and security.

On November 6, the UN secretary general appointed a 16-member panel to look into threats and challenges to global peace, and security, as well as ways to reform the world body. The High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change includes some renowned personages, such as Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun as the chair, Secretary General of the Arab League Amer Moussa, former US National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and former Chinese Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.

Annan said the panel is entrusted to examine the major threats and challenges the world faces in peace and security, and make recommendations for UN reform. The group is to submit a report to him before the convention of the next UN general assembly.

It is understandable that the UN chief's reform determination is firmer than ever. The past year has been no less than a nightmare for the world's largest multilateral mechanism. The US war in Iraq has undoubtedly set a dangerous precedent for the international community.

The world will surely become more dangerous and more turbulent if all its members disrespect the UN's legitimacy and feel they can use force unilaterally and pre-emptively against others. The pre-emptive military strategy has in fact constituted a serious breach of the UN principle that a war can only be waged for self-defence or after getting UN authorization. The application of the strategy, no matter what the excuse, will inevitably lead to the rampant proliferation of unilateral force.

It has also broken the UN charter that obliges member states to refrain from the threat or use of force and to settle their international disputes by peaceful means. The principle of sovereignty, the bedrock of the UN, is also at risk of collapse. Without effective reforms and improvements, the world body may possibly repeat the fate of the League of Nations.

The establishment of a think-tank including influential celebrities from various countries to offer expertise for UN reform is undoubtedly a wise move. However, reforming the world body is by no means an easy task to complete overnight. It is complicated and divisive work given that it has to address the interests of all the world's representatives within its ranks. It is even difficult for the UN to form an agreed set of guidelines for its reform programmes, not to mention establishing a powerful organ to bolster its authority.

How to deal with its relations with the United States, the world's sole superpower, will always be a great challenge to the world body. In his speech in London on November 19, US President George W. Bush said both the credibility of the world body and its relevance depended on "a willingness to keep its word and to act when action is required." Obviously, Bush's words pointed to his views on the UN's non-compliance on the Iraq issue.

Richard Perle, a leading neo-conservative working as an advisor to the Pentagon, has even questioned whether a "coalition of liberal democracies" would not be better able to confer legitimacy on military action than the UN.

The core concern about UN reform is reforming its 15-member Security Council. Disputes exist among the world members about whether the powerful council should be expanded and, if so, how. The UN Security Council is composed of five permanent members with veto rights - the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain - and 10 elected rotating members without a veto.

With the UN members increasing, it has become a common consensus that the Security Council should absorb new members to make it a more representative body. But there exists a serious controversy about who should possess permanent seats in the body and who should possess non-permanent seats. Besides, whether the new permanent members should enjoy a veto power is still an arguable topic among the world members. Still, it is of great concern that an enlarged Security Council is likely to produce even greater discordance.

Despite some imperfections, the role of the UN is irreplaceable in maintaining world peace and security and providing humanitarian aid to countries that need it. History has proved this again and again. There are good reasons for all members to keep the world body in place, safe from emerging threats and challenges. Reform itself is progress. But no matter what reforms are made, the UN's authority must be strengthened, not weakened.

More Information on UN Reform
More Information on UN Reform Topics


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.