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UN Reform: Why? What? How?

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


Malcolm Harper - Director, UNA

Simon Maxwell - Director, ODI


Rob Fielding - Treasurer, UNA

1) The first meeting in the series was held on Thursday 29 April 2004. The meeting was chaired by Rod Fielding. The two speakers were Malcolm Harper (Director of UNA) and Simon Maxwell (Director of ODI).

2) Malcolm Harper provided an overview of UN reform efforts. He said it has proved very difficult to re-write the UN Charter, so that reform efforts had taken place within a framework of interpretation and reinterpretation. There had been significant progress - for example, Kofi Anan's internal reforms - but some issues were intractable and there was much to do.

3) With regard to the Security Council, there were as many proposals as there were members of the General Assembly. Malcolm Harper said he was somewhat cynical about the membership aspirations of many countries. 

4) With regard to peace-keeping, the UN had launched an initiative on this with the Agenda for Peace document in 1992. However, this had had little impact. The Brahimi Report of 2000 had been more influential, particularly in terms of helping to define a more robust mandate for UN intervention. The charter did not provide any right of intervention, but it was possible to reinterpret the principles to focus on issues like violence against civilians. There had, of course, been many examples of UN intervention before Brahimi, for example in Cambodia, Somalia, the Balkans and Haiti. Following Brahimi, intervention had not taken place under UN auspices in Afghanistan, because the organisation lacked the resources. However, there had been successful operations in DRC and Liberia.

5) With respect to human rights, Malcolm Harper pointed to the strengthening of the Office of the High Commissioner, and to the creation of international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court. He noted that strengthening the UN in this area had benefited greatly from the quantity and quality of NGO advocacy on the issue. There had also been gradual acceptance of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights.

6) He noted that there were many other issues on the agenda, for example the reform of ECOSOC and the relationship of the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO to the UN.

7) Simon Maxwell spoke to the question "UN Reform: How?” He noted that there was no lack of vision about UN reform, and referred to the many initiatives taken by the UN itself and by groups of governments during the last decade. A number of current initiatives would be discussed during the meeting series, including the work of the high-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, and the Helsinki Process. There would also be a session on financing the UN, building on the Swedish Goverment initiative in this area. A background paper is available from ODI, summarising UN reform efforts.

8) Associated with the various statements of vision, there was no lack of principles to be followed in UN reform. These ranged from respect for life, liberty and justice, to matters like the sovereign equality of states and the right of self-determination, as well as more instrumental principles like impartiality and efficiency on the development side.

9) There was also no lack of specific proposals for reform. These included expanded membership of the Security Council, reforms to ECOSOC and the Trusteeship Council, and a set of practical reforms to the humanitarian and development architecture.

10) Notwithstanding this variety of ideas and initiatives, Kofi Anan had observed in September 2003 that there needed to be radical reform. Simon Maxwell suggested that the problem lay not so much with the "Why? or What?" but with the "How?" - And proposed that collective action theory could be a useful way in to this discussion. He referred the audience to an ODI Working Paper written on this topic written by Sarah Gillinson

11) Insights on collective action could be developed from many different disciplines. Synthesising these, Simon Maxwell identified sixteen conditions necessary for successful cooperation, noting that many did not apply in the real world of international relations. Was this why UN reform was so difficult?

12) For example, cooperation worked best when: individual and collective interests were aligned; there was a high degree of trust; parties were relatively equal; the costs of defection were high; and when social norms fostered cooperation. If it were true that these conditions did not apply, then the literature suggested that it would be necessary to modify the incentive structure in order to induce cooperation. Simon Maxwell suggested that the application of selective incentives was indeed a critical question.

13) There were a number of ways to approach the question of inducing greater cooperation. It would be relatively easy to take measures to build social capital and to build institutions for cooperation. It would be more difficult to tackle free-riding and raise the costs of defection. It was particularly difficult to induce greater cooperation when power was asymmetrically distributed. It was necessary for the smaller players to consider how they might approach the question.

14) The model could be applied to many different fields - war and peace, trade, environment, justice, aid architecture, etc. Simon Maxwell concluded by making a number of practical suggestions, including the importance of supporting civil society movements, strengthening parliamentary scrutiny, and building structures for reciprocal accountability. Focusing particularly on the development functions of the UN, he examined a number of options for increasing coherence and coordination, through the more targeted use of donor funding. For example, he had previously suggested providing a large trust fund to the Secretary-General in order to empower him to incentivise cooperation among the UN agencies.

15) Many of these points were taken up in the discussion:

·         On the intervention and peace-keeping side, there was an important debate about whether or not the UN could work alone, or whether it needed to work in partnership with other large political and military blocs like NATO and the EU. There were obviously important possibilities for collaboration in the area of logistics. More difficult questions arose if the UN as a collective and the big blocs disagreed about courses of action. There had been some work (e.g. a 2000 Report from the Canadian Government) about how human rights abuses might provide an "imperative" for action, over and above considerations of sovereignty.

·         On the question of applications of collective action theory, the value of dispute settlement procedures was emphasised (as in the case of the WTO). There was also a discussion about how to empower the smaller players - the actions of the G20 Plus in Cancun was cited as an example of the benefits of cooperative endeavour by developing countries.

·         Other topics raised, including the wider remit of the Security Council, disarmament, and parliamentary scrutiny. 


This event, the first in the UN reform: Why? What? How? series, was an opportunity to open up the discussion around UN reform. Malcolm Harper and Simon Maxwell discussed the various areas of the UN where reform may be needed and what outlined the many obstacles lying in the way of such reform.

Committee Room 10