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UN Reform: Why? What? How?

Time (GMT +01) 00:00 23:59

1. ODI organised a series of eight public meetings in April - June 2004, jointly with the UNA and the All Party Parliamentary Group on the UN. Speakers included Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at DfID, Ambassador Julian Hunte, President of the General Assembly, Lord Hannay, former UK Ambassador to the UN, and Nitin Desai, former Under-Secretary General of the UN in New York.

2. The starting point was that there had been and was no shortage of vision about the future of the UN, nor a shortage of principles, nor a shortage of practical proposals, nor a shortage of commissions and initiatives. The why and the what were relatively easy. Yet, the future of the UN remained highly problematic, despite attempts to patch up differences after Iraq. The real problem was 'How?'. Kofin Annan had called in September 2003 for a new and radical reform of the UN. What, then, were the practical politics?

3. The core proposition of the series was that the answer to the question of 'how' to reform the UN lay in thinking more strategically about collective action. If the conditions for cooperation could be understood, then ways to increase the likelihood of cooperation could be sought: specifically, measures could be taken to build a culture of cooperation, plus the incentive structure could be modified to increase both the rewards for cooperation and the cost of defection.

4. Simon Maxwell expanded on this idea. He identified conditions for successful collective action and showed that many of them were not met. The conditions included a high degree of trust, shared interests, a long-time scale, high pay-offs for powerful members, high costs of defection from the collective, and a culture of compliance ('why did no-one steal the tea-bags in the office kitchen?'). The conditions were particularly difficult to establish when some players were much weaker than others - guppy fish in the shark pool.

5. Later meetings tackled the issue from different perspectives and dealt with different components of the UN (political, development and humanitarian). There was discussion of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, of financing reform, of the Helsinki Process, and of reform in the humanitarian sector, among others. The President of the General Assembly (Julian Hunte) reported on efforts to reform the Security Council and the General Assembly. Key ideas included:

Constitutional reform (e.g. amending the charter) was extremely difficult, and it was more sensible to work with a framework of interpretation of existing statutes (Malcolm Harper, Julian Hunte).

On the other hand, the 'framework' was evolving. For example, there was greater acceptance than a generation ago of the idea that abuse of human rights provided an imperative for action which trumped considerations of sovereignty (Malcolm Harper). The end of the Cold War also changed the terms of engagement and made it easier to take initiatives within the UN (Lord Hannay).

Furthermore, the context was changing. The old cold war threats had all but disappeared, but there were new ones: terror, state failure, weapons of mass destruction, HIV/AIDS, and the wider problems of poverty (Adele Harmer, Lord Hannay, Julian Hunte). 'Human security' was an over-arching concern (Lord Hannay).

Initiatives were certainly needed. On the political side, the institutional architecture had not been thought through, the UN had too few resources, it depended too often on 'coalitions of the willing', and risked being marginalised (Lord Hannay). On the development and humanitarian sides, the system was beset by competition between agencies, poor organisation, insecure and inadequate funding, and, in some cases, confusion between 'standard-bearing', regulatory and operational functions (Adele Harmer, Randolph Kent, Andrew Rogerson, Percy Mistry).

Change could be achieved, and should be undertaken collectively by all parties, including the US. Lord Hannay in particular, cautioned against attempts to bind the US into international agreements against its will: he described this as a 'Gulliver Strategy'. Others noted that the big powers did have interests and were robust in pursuing them: the fact that they were the main funders of the system gave them de-facto veto power (Julian Hunte).

The best way to 'kick-start' the reform might be with one or two specific changes, like enlarged membership of the Security Council (Julian Hunte).

A number of specific reforms were emphasised, and some of these were new: providing for reciprocal accountability of rich countries to poor ones, as well as vice versa (c.f. the Cotonou Convention) (Simon Maxwell, Nitin Desai); creating a trust fund for the Secretary General to help drive reform of the specialised agencies (Simon Maxwell, Simon Burrall); a humanitarian dialogue with the G77 (Adele Harmer); a review of the Inter Agency Standing Committee and of GA Resolution 46/182 on humanitarian issues (Randolph Kent); 'double-hatting' military advice to both the Secretary General and the Security Council (Lord Hannay); enlarging the G8 to bring in large developing countries (Lord Hannay, Nitin Desai); creating a single, new UN aid agency, UN-AID (Percy Mistry); replenishment funding of UN funds and programmes (Percy Mistry, Andrew Rogerson); a 'Fund of Funds', incorporating the UN plus the global funds (Andrew Rogerson); greater investment in research (Richard Jolly, John Toye); intensification of harmonisation efforts (Gareth Thomas); transparency in recruitment of senior management (Gareth Thomas); a Helsinki Charter on global democracy (Nitin Desai); greater involvement of parliaments, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union (Tony Colman, Julian Hunte).

6. What were the practical implications?

A key issue was about the limits of incremental change. Many felt that the emphasis on in-country coordination, greater harmonisation and results-based approaches had delivered benefits - but that it was now essential to tackle issues of institutional architecture, mandate overlap, poorly organised funding, and overall coherence.

This task needed to involve all three of the political, development and humanitarian 'spheres' of the UN. The new security and human security agendas meant that the three were inseperable, in weak and failing states, but also more generally.

Trust-building measures, including opportunities for discussion and debate were important means to the achievement of change. The Helsinki process was useful, for example, because it provided a neutral space for this purpose (Nitin Desai). The Canadian G-20 initiative had a similar character.

Civil society was important, in developing ideas but also in bringing pressure to bear for change (Nitin Desai).

Parliamentary scrutiny and action was also an essential driver of change (Nitin Desai, Simon Burrall).

It was important to think strategically about change, and the collective action framework did provide a useful starting point for discussion.

However, it was also important to remember that change took time. An important lesson was to 'build in the virus of good governance' from the beginning, in order to help kick-start a long-term change process (Simon Burrall).

Simon Maxwell
June 2004


UN reform is once again on the agenda, stimulated by debates over the role of the UN in Iraq, but also by the focus on achieving the Millennium Development Goals. There are some high-profile political initiatives, including the Secretary General's High Level Panel, the Millennium Project and the Helsinki Process. What are these trying to achieve? Are they likely to be successful? What should be the UK position?