Nicole Brangwin, Foreign
Affairs, Defence and Security
Issues of UN reform remain unresolved and contentious despite various efforts to pursue substantive changes.
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
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structures—its Charter—are outdated.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
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
- revitalising the working methods of the General
- prescribing a time frame for concluding
status-of-forces agreements between the UN and the host government for
- 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
Resolution 52/12 recognised
the need for ongoing UN reform and invited the Secretary-General to present
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.
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
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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
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.
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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