United Nations: whither reform?

Nicole Brangwin, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Key Issue
Issues of UN reform remain unresolved and contentious despite various efforts to pursue substantive changes.

The United Nations provides a platform for Member States, both large and small, to have a voice. UN membership has grown from its original 51 members in 1945 to 193 members in 2011, with the newly formed state of South Sudan becoming the most recent member.

Membership and the work of the UN are guided by its Charter drafted in 1945. Amendments to the Charter can be made by ‘a vote of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly’, which has occurred on three occasions (1963, 1968 and 1971). Predictably, many Member States have argued that UN structures—its Charter—are outdated. While it is widely accepted that changes are needed, reforming the UN is no easy matter—although not impossible. Reforming the UN has in fact been debated since its formation. Nevertheless, while it is an imperfect system, the work of the UN remains vital for many people in need around the world.

Australia has a long history of active involvement in the UN: as a founding member in 1946, to various stints as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Successive Australian governments have placed varying degrees of importance on the UN system and its subsidiary organs, but continuously support reform.

Revitalising the UN: glacial pace of reform

In the 71 years since the UN’s formation, the organisation’s structure and operations have been subject to significant scrutiny. Despite this, reforms have been slow or difficult to implement. The use of veto by the Permanent Five (P5) members of the UN Security Council remains a particularly contentious issue. Numerous proposals for reform have been put forward. Some of these have been accepted, including a resolution adopted on 3 October 1995 by the UN General Assembly on strengthening the UN system. This resolution noted the work already underway at that time by numerous working groups on specific reform topics.

Two years later, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, presented a report to the UN General Assembly, Renewing the United Nations: a Programme for Reform: Report of the Secretary-General, that sought to build on the work of these working groups and transform the leadership and management structure of the UN. Annan’s aim was to ‘renew the confidence of Member States in the relevance and effectiveness of the Organization and revitalize the spirit and commitment of its staff’.

Many of Annan’s proposals were adopted in UN General Assembly Resolution 52/12 of November 1997, which included:

  • establishing the Deputy Secretary-General position
  • revitalising the working methods of the General Assembly
  • prescribing a time frame for concluding status-of-forces agreements between the UN and the host government for peacekeeping operations
  • revising the work undertaken by the Disarmament Commission and the First Committee of the General Assembly with the intent of updating, rationalising and streamlining and
  • discontinuing the High-level Advisory Board on Sustainable Development.

Resolution 52/12 recognised the need for ongoing UN reform and invited the Secretary-General to present further proposals.

At the 2005 World Summit, Annan presented his most ambitious report, In Larger Freedom: towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All, which contained broad proposals for reforming many aspects of the UN’s work. Some of the key proposals included expanding membership of the Security Council, replacing the Commission on Human Rights with a standing Human Rights Council and overhauling the Secretariat.

Many of Annan’s proposals were adopted at the World Summit and some have been implemented, including the creation in 2006 of the Human Rights Council. However, Security Council reform remains a major hurdle.

Efforts to reform the UN are not only internal. For some prominent people, UN reform remains a key issue. For example, in July 2005, former foreign ministers from Canada, Italy, Spain, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States, wrote an open letter to the Wall Street Journal calling for UN reform. The letter supported the establishment of the Human Rights Council, acceptance of the Secretary-General’s definition of ‘terrorism’, recognition of the ‘Responsibility to protect’, better support for the Community of Democracies (an international organisation comprising the government, civil society and private sector to promote democracy) and a greater commitment of aid from developed countries.

Each year since the 2005 World Summit, the UN General Assembly has continued to support the Ad Hoc Working Group on the revitalisation of the General Assembly. This has produced numerous changes that are mostly administrative in nature.  

In November 2015, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, remarked on the program to revitalise the work of the UN General Assembly, noting in particular, improvements to the functions of the Office of the UN General Assembly President following allegations of corruption against the President of the 68th Session. Moon called for greater transparency and accountability arguing that ‘the United Nations should embody the highest level of integrity and ethical standards’. He acknowledged the work already achieved under the revitalisation program and welcomed the General Assembly’s involvement of civil society and others ‘whose voices and actions can add great value to our work’. Part of the revitalisation program includes measures for selecting and appointing future UN secretaries-general.

Who will be the new UN Secretary-General?

The position of UN Secretary-General will be vacated by Ban Ki-Moon on 31 December 2016. It is expected that the next Secretary-General will be appointed no later than one month before this date. The selection process was initiated via a joint letter issued on 15 December 2015, signed by the presidents of the Security Council and General Assembly, which outlines the process to be undertaken. The letter specifies that candidates present:

...proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.

While the letter ‘invites’ Member States to present candidates, there is no explicit rule about who can nominate a candidate. However, UN processes tend to follow convention and the twelve candidates nominated to date have all been endorsed by their respective governments.

The joint letter also emphasised gender considerations and noted ‘regional diversity in the selection of previous Secretaries-General’. This has been interpreted by many commentators, including the Security Council Report, to mean preference might be given to a woman and/or a candidate from the Eastern European regional group.

Since the UN’s formation, eight men have served as Secretary General: three from Western Europe, two from Asia, two from Africa, and one from Latin America.

In the past, very few women have been considered for the role. According to the Security Council Report, Appointing the UN Secretary-General: the Challenge for the Security Council, female candidates were ‘seriously considered’ in 1953 (Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit from India), 1991 (Gro Harlem Brundtland from Norway) and 2006 (Vaira Vike-Freiberga from Latvia). Half of the candidates currently being considered are women:

  • Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia)
  • Vesna Pusić (Croatia)
  • Igor Lukšić (Montenegro)
  • Danilo Türk (Slovenia)
  • Irina Bokova (Bulgaria)
  • Natalia Gherman (Moldova)
  • António Guterres (Portugal)
  • Helen Clark (New Zealand)
  • Vuk Jeremić (Serbia)
  • Susana Malcorra (Argentina)
  • Miroslav Lajčák (Slovak Republic)
  • Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica)

For the first time, candidates are undergoing an informal public dialogue, which also involves participation by civil society groups. The first nine candidates took part in this process from 12 to 14 April 2016. Two more candidates took part on 7 June. The twelfth candidate was nominated on 7 July and participated in an informal dialogue on 14 July.

The first informal ‘straw poll’ was held by the Security Council on 21 July 2016 which considered all 12 official candidates. Straw polls are traditionally held in secret and take place prior to the formal ballot in order to assess the viability of candidates. The straw polls will ‘continue until there is a majority candidate without a single veto from a permanent member of the Council’. Polling outcomes are not publicly communicated—a decision that has drawn criticism about the lack of ‘openness and transparency’, including from the current President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft.

In July 2016, former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, sought government support for UN Secretary-General nomination. On 29 July, the government announced that it ‘will not be nominating any person’ for this position.

Security Council reform

Security Council reform has been one of the most persistent and contentious UN reform issues over the last 70-odd years. The use of the veto power by the Permanent Five (P5) members of the Security Council and proposals for expanding the Council’s membership (permanent and/or non-permanent seats) remain the main points of debate.

Substantial pressure to reform the Security Council has been building in recent years, with reform proposals being promoted by groups such as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GlobalR2P) and The Elders (an influential group founded by Nelson Mandela and currently chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan).

In May 2013, under the GlobalR2P umbrella, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group was formed, with 27 small and mid-sized countries promoting UN Security Council reform. In July 2015, the ACT Group circulated a Code of Conduct that called on Security Council members ‘to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities’. On 7 February 2015, The Elders adopted a statement on strengthening the UN.

In an unprecedented move, two P5 members, France and the UK, recently demonstrated their willingness to promote veto restraint in cases where genocide or mass atrocities are being reported.

In September 2013, the Government of France put forward a proposal to regulate the P5 veto. France proposed that the P5 ‘would voluntarily and collectively undertake not to use the veto where a mass atrocity has been ascertained. Being a voluntary measure, it would not require a revision of the United Nations Charter’. The Government of Mexico supports France’s position on veto restraint. In August 2015, France and Mexico launched their Political Declaration on Suspension of Veto Powers in Cases of Mass Atrocities which seeks to secure voluntary restraint of the P5’s use of veto.

On 1 October 2015, the UK Permanent Representative to the UN announced the UK’s support for the ACT Group’s Code of Conduct and explicitly promised the UK ‘will never vote against credible Security Council action to stop mass atrocities and crimes against humanity’. The UK also supports expanding the Security Council’s membership to include Brazil, Germany, India, Japan and more African nations. The ACT Code of Conduct was officially launched in the UN General Assembly on 23 October 2015.

Russia opposes any attempt to restrain its use of the veto. The Security Council Report notes that in September 2015, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN stated that the veto is ‘a tool which allows the Security Council to produce balanced decisions’ and that ‘sometimes the absence of veto can produce disaster’.

Saudi Arabia made a bold statement about Security Council reform in October 2013 when it declined its seat as a non-permanent member for 2014–15. The Saudi Arabian Government stated it would not accept membership until the Council was reformed. The Saudi representative to the UN accused the Security Council of double standards in relation to mandating peace and security in the Middle East and asserted that reforms of the Security Council’s working methods were needed.

In July 2015, the Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council Reform released text that proposed options to improve the Council’s membership categories; the use of the veto; acceptable regional representation; the size and working methods of the Security Council and the relationship between the Security Council and the General Assembly. 

Australia has served as a non-permanent member of the Security Council on five occasions (most recently in 2013–14) and publicly supports UN Security Council reform.

Further reading

Security Council Report, Appointing the UN Secretary-General: the challenge for the Security Council, Research report, 30 June 2016.

Security Council Report, The veto, Research report, 19 October 2015.


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