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Current UN reform initiatives and the politics of change

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:00


His Excellency, Mr Julian Hunte - President of the UN General Assembly


Tony Colman MP - United Nations Association

1. The last meeting in the series was a presentation by the President of the General Assembly, HE Mr. Julian R. Hunte, Minister of External Affairs and International Trade of St Lucia. The meeting was chaired by Tony Colman MP.

2. Julian Hunte began by reminding the audience that the debate about UN reform was currently very active. There was a widespread view that the UN was not an effectively functioning organisation and that it fell short of expectations. A key turning point had been when the Security Council had shown itself to be unable either to approve or deter the invasion of Iraq. The General Assembly had been unable even to decide to meet to discuss the issue.

3. Member states were generally agreed that the ideals of the Charter remained valid - and that the world's problems (including poverty, terrorism, HIV/AIDS and the challenge of globalisation) were pressing. However, they diverged somewhat on their reasoning as to what reforms should deliver. The constitutional amendments some advocated might enhance the role of some member states. Others were more concerned with reforming the various organs of the UN. For the majority, the key issues were democratisation, majority rule and greater transparency. Two key issues were the revitalisation of the General Assembly and reform of the Security Council.

4. With regard to the General Assembly, Julian Hunte noted a widespread feeling that the authority of the General Assembly had been eroded and that the Security Council had increasingly been taking up issues which were best placed in the General Assembly. Some felt that the Security Council was "sucking the oxygen out of the General Assembly". The General Assembly did have formal authority to lead on policy-making, as confirmed by the Millennium Declaration, but it needed to regain authority.

5. Some steps had been taken, particularly through General Assembly Resolution 58/126 of 19 December 2003, on revitalisation of the General Assembly. It had been agreed that there would be monthly meetings between the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council, that the Presidents of the General Assembly, the Security Council and ECOSOC would meet, that the President of the General Assembly would be provided with a support staff, and that there would be a transition office for incoming Presidents. These were small but important steps. Other steps being considered included more interactive debates, a shorter agenda and less paperwork. There might be two sessions per annum.

6. With regard to the Security Council, those favouring the status quo had argued that the small Security Council worked better, and that the experience since the end of the Cold War was positive. On the other hand, many felt that the Security Council was neither representative nor transparent, and that reform was needed.

7. The problem was that discussion on Security Council Reform over more than a decade had produced no tangible result. It seemed that member states took positions, re-stated them in public, and left no room for manoeuvre.

8. If there was going to be progress, the answer might be to focus on particular issues like the size of the Council, where it seemed that change might be possible. Taking a decision to enlarge the Council might kick-start other changes.

9. Dealing with other issues, Julian Hunte noted that ECOSOC reform was critical. ECOSOC occupied an uneasy space between the General Assembly and its own subsidiary bodies which were recognised for their substantive role. It needed greater support and needed to be better equipped to fulfil its key role of supervision on development issues.

10. He thought that the 60th anniversary in 2005 provided an important opportunity to make progress. It was certainly the case that fundamental interests of member states could constrain collective action, and that there were serious bureaucratic obstacles to reform. For these reasons, major constitutional reform, for example amendment of the Charter, was unlikely in the short term - although Security Council membership might be taken on. Instead, there was likely to be a continuing emphasis on incremental reform rather than a grand design.

11. A number of points were raised in the discussion:

·         It was proposed that the Commonwealth could take a role in brokering a deal on UN reform.

·         The role of parliaments was emphasised, particularly a possible role for the Inter Parliamentary Union in democratising the UN.

·         The importance of bringing in new voices was emphasised, for example by bringing more young people into the delegations in the General Assembly.

·         The importance of increasing the level of media coverage of the UN, particularly the General Assembly was discussed. The decision to close UN Information Centres in Europe was described as incomprehensible.

·         There was a discussion about whether any lessons could be learned from the European Union, both about the substance of inter-governmental arrangements and about the process. For example, should the UN be considering qualified majority voting, or a democratically elected Assembly like the European Parliament?

·         Finally, the question of the US was raised. It was recognised that the US was a special case, as the only superpower, and that it did exercise its power. There had been some shift in its position recently, as the latest Resolution on Iraq demonstrated, allowing more of a role for the UN.

·         In general, however, it was important to realise that the UN was a body which brought member states together. States did have interests, which they defended. The richer states, which funded the UN, also had effectively a de facto veto on its operations. These realities would be difficult to change. However, one option might be to look at a more secure and more equitable funding base for the organisation.


This event, the last of the UN reform: Why? What? How? seires, saw His Excellency, Mr Julian Hunt give an overview debates around potential UN reform, particularly focussing on discussions around reform of the UN security council.

Committee Room 6