February 2024

Reform or rupture

A recent panel debate hosted by The Democracy Forum examined the current role and legitimacy of the UN in a shifting global environment

The United Nations continues to have a significant global purpose, despite the world’s geopolitical landscape being vastly different from when the organisation was first formed. This was among the views expressed by a panel of experts at a recent Democracy Forum webinar, titled ‘The UN: Retaining relevance in a conflict-ridden world’.

In his introductory comments, TDF President Lord Bruce referenced a recent warning by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that, in a changing world, international institutions have not kept pace and may become part of the problem rather than the solution, so they need to ‘reform or rupture’. While fundamental reform of the UN remains unlikely, said Lord Bruce, there is real risk that the inequitable concentration of power in the hands of the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council will continue to threaten its perceived legitimacy. Indeed, he added, it is powerless when a P5 member explicitly contravenes the UN Charter then exercises the veto to protect itself, as Russia did after invading Ukraine. The willingness by permanent members to block multilateral action on crises in Syria, Myanmar, Israel and Palestine has caused harm and reinforced the Security Council’s reputation as simply a forum for great power interests.

Lord Bruce also highlighted the US’s unique ability to buttress multilateralism, and President Biden’s six key proposals to reinforce responsible behaviour of Security Council members and hence improve UN legitimacy, which he advanced at the United Nations General Assembly in September last year, However, addressing the same session of the UNGA, China’s Vice-President Han Zheng offered a contrary view of the role of multilateralism at the UN, reiterating his opposition to the use of human rights and democracy as a political tool to interfere in other countries. But since Xi Jinping announced the Global Development Initiative in 2021, China appears to be harnessing the multilateral flexibility of the UN membership unequivocally to its own advantage, said Lord Bruce, and, together with the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative, it represents Beijing’s boldest move yet to garner support from the global south to increase its profile in the UN. Additionally, developing countries with authoritarian regimes, particularly those in conflict with the US and other democracies, are finding that China’s new order is beneficial to their domestic rule and foreign policy, and some commentators warn that China will attempt to harness these relationships in UN votes or debates to support and underline how well-accepted China’s positions are within the UN system. Lord Bruce also considered how as many as 70 UN member states – just over a third – have joined the Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiative, established by Xi Jinping in 2020, with at least 20 also being debtor states of the BRI whose voting alignment with China in the UNGA reaps rich rewards in aid and credit from Beijing. With the world today at a crossroads, Lord Bruce concluded, UN member sought to prioritise reigniting meaningful global solidarity, though it is not clear if this ambition will be realised soon.

the democracy forum webinar
Panellists at TDF’s Jan. 17 webinar on the UN

There is real risk that the inequitable concentration of power in the hands of the P5 will continue to threaten its perceived legitimacy

Stressing the need to be mindful of the inherent structural limitations of the UN, Richard Caplan, Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, underscored the importance of managing, without necessarily lowering, our expectations of what it can achieve.By design, the organisation relies for its effectiveness on cooperation among member states, he said, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, who have the power to veto measures proposed in response to threats to peace. That cooperation was evident when, for example, imposing sanctions on North Korea in 2006 or establishing a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 to protect civilians, but was markedly lacking more recently in response to, for example, the Syrian civil war and Israel’s war in Gaza. But, even given the very different nature of security threats today than when the UN was first formed, Caplan believed there is some scope for mitigating Security Council deadlock, and for the UNGA to act through resolutions such as Uniting for Peace. When an overwhelming majority of the GA condemns a country’s actions, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it loses its standing within the international community. Caplan also spoke of the impact of the SG invoking Article 99 vis-à-vis calls for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, and the GA’s adoption of a resolution in April 2022 that aims to hold P5 members accountable for their use of the veto – so there is some scope for institutional innovation that may help to strengthen the effectiveness of the UN in dealing with the challenges of violent conflict, though ultimately, the organisation can only be as effective as its members states will allow.

When an overwhelming majority of the GA condemns a country’s actions, it loses its standing within the international community

While Caplan favoured expansion of the UNSC to make it more representative, he said it remains a pipe dream, and would not necessarily make it more effective regarding conflict management. A change of national leadership in certain nations could help, though the UN cannot and should not orchestrate such changes. And, he noted, it was not a lack of consensus that made problems such as Somalia so intractable – it is the landscape, with more rebel groups that are more connected through technology, making it harder to suppress them, What the UN does well, stressed Caplan, is conflict prevention and conflict mediation. These do not make headline news, as they are non-events, but the UN has played an important role in damping down many potential conflicts.

Dr Joel Ng, Research Fellow and Deputy Head of the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, addressed two central questions: how the UNSC is to function amid increasing great power rivalry, and the possible implications of this for small states. The world is being restructured into a more power-based system, said Ng, and this growing inequality and hierarchical structure will lead to a more conflict-ridden world. If we want to avoid conflict, we need to work towards a more multilateral rules-based system, he argued, and this must have the UN at its core. When the UN was first formed, it instituted putative equality among member states in the UNGA, where each gets a single vote, regardless of size. This notion of equality set the world on a better path than previously, and was followed up through economic development and a shrinking of inequalities between the developed and developing worlds.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
UN SG Antonio Guterres said that international institutions need to ‘reform or rupture’

However, this began to change with the 2008 global financial crisis, when the liberal international order started weakening and things have become increasingly power-based. Constructing an order that is favourable to rising powers, particularly China and Russia, requires a more hierarchical system as they are authoritarian regimes that have not subscribed to notions of equality and want structures that mirror their own domestic political systems, and put them at the centre of new networks, such as China’s Belt & Road Initiative.  China and Russia are creating new structures, said Ng, where the powerful hold more sway, the rhetoric of equality among nations states is diminished and smaller powers should understand the dangers of a power-based system meaning that big powers will eventually trampleon them. He also spoke of the importance of consistency among member states when calling out bad practices from friend and foe alike, as well as how the UN is the only institution in international law that enjoys universal consensus among nation states, so it is more relevant today than ever. Amid current conflicts and crises, concluded Ng, the UN still retains its role as a provider of a rules-based system and a centre for new reform in the international system.

Examining UN reform and the organisation’s relevance from a broader historical perspective was Dr Alynna J. Lyon, Professor of Political Science at the University of New Hampshire. This notion of relevance has emerged time and again over the decades, but Lyon argued that the UN has never been more relevant than it is today – for, in addition to its mandate of conflict resolution, it also deals with global problems such as poverty, climate change and immigration issues. So, there are two United Nations, said Lyon: one as an arena for great power politics, and one that tries to manage the world’s problems. She spoke of the expectations gap, in which the world expects the UN to fix wars, poverty, climate issues, which it cannot do. Yet it is far from ineffectual – there are UN staff across the world providing vaccines, alleviating famine and poverty, ensuring ocean protection. These are far less politicised elements of the UN’s work, but they are still vital

Lyon pointed to the fact that there is nothing in the UN’s charter to hold great powers to account for rules violation, and addressed the paucity of tools it has with which to deal with them. She also highlighted the organisation’s massive underfunding, with operating costs of $10 bn, compared to $20 bn for the City of London. On the subject of UN reform, she said that, over the last 80 years, the UN has undertaken ‘tinkering’ rather than any dramatic reform, and this slow progress is frustrating, though the organisation is doing work on increasing inclusivity and other issues. In conclusion, Lyon was convinced that the UN is still incredibly relevant, as it does hugely significant work, even with few resources. This is not the time to ‘break the table’.

Issues of UNSC reform and the increased vocalness of the global south were focal points for Maya Ungar, a UN Project Officer at International Crisis Group. At its core, she said the UN is shaped by the needs and desires of its member states, and is therefore only as relevant as its members will allow. There have been many global shocks in recent times, such as Covid, Ukraine, Gaza, etc, which have challenged the legitimacy and relevance of the UN. A number of run-off effects from these shocks have included diminution of trust in the institution’s peace-keeping capacity, funding of humanitarian appeals, etc, challenges that can lessen the strength of the UN. However, these shocks have also created a new momentum for reform and a shift in the balance of power, argued Ungar, as smaller member states, especially those in the global south, recognise an opening in the political space and become more vocal in pushing their priorities, and more powerful states – which had once really dominated the UN conversation – bidding for the votes of smaller ones on a number of issues in a quid pro quo situation.

Ungar also spoke of the ‘inflection point’ in the newworld order, which might demand a new vision for the role of the United Nations, and said it is important to not be naïve about the feasibility of member states’ ability to agree on reform.  The UN will only continue to be relevant, she concluded, if it evolves and adapts to what smaller member states want, in line with their national interests

TDF Chair Barry Gardiner MP closed the discussion with comments on how, with so much in the world order changing, arguments abound about the membership of the P5, its adequacy to function, andwhether or not it will be changed. The UN has created so manyavenues for humanity to exercise commonsense, said Gardiner, and it keeps on having to exercise or create more avenues, because we get halfway up one and we don’t exercise commonsense; the power element of the powerful state breaks down that common sense and cooperation. This does not mean we should deny the progress we’ve made, he added, whether in terms of famine relief, climate change or sustainable development goals. But we must constantly seek to help the UN evolve and adapt if we are actually to see common sense break out in the world.

MJ Akbar is the author of several books, including Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj, and Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns