The UN must swap living in the past for the real world

April 4, 2003

The United Nations failed spectacularly over the Iraq war. This crisis could be the best time to reform it and make it relevant, argues Meghnad Desai

On the day after the first anniversary of 9/11, US president George W. Bush went to the United Nations to address the security council.

He posed the challenge of disarming Saddam Hussein by multilateral action.

Six months of diplomatic activity climaxed in a final fortnight of intense debate and then frustration.

The UN security council had never been under greater scrutiny. Its arcane voting procedure and its two-tier membership of permanent and non-permanent members with rotating chairmanship were in the spotlight. The dark side of diplomatic bargaining, bribery and blackmail was exposed. At the end, although the desirability of a second (or indeed, 18th) security council resolution became absolute for those who opposed war, they also knew that any majority that could have been assembled by the US and the UK would command little moral approbation.

The UN has failed spectacularly over the Iraq war. For the anti-war camp, it could not prevent the war. For those who supported the war, it failed because the security council did not back up its threats with action. There is a quarrel about the war's legality in international law. Learned lawyers disagree on the interpretation of security council resolutions 678, 687 and others all the way up to 1,441. The legalists put the UN and its charter and procedures on a pedestal, while the politicians use these as handy tools for a job they want done, to be thrown away if they become costly.

UN failure should not surprise us. Although its charter still receives ritual obeisance, every country - especially every permanent security council member - has defied it and invoked it against an enemy when it has suited. Strictly speaking, Article 2, Section 4 rules out the use of force in international disputes except in self-defence or as a result of security council authorisation for collective defence. Force cannot be used even for humanitarian purposes. But this injunction is somewhat like prohibition law in the US - honoured in its breach more than in its observance. Thus India's intervention in 1971 to rescue Bangladeshi liberation fighters defied the charter, as did Tanzania's ousting of Idi Amin from Uganda in 1979. In 1999, the Nato countries - 19 democracies representing 798 million people and including three permanent security council members - defied the UN charter in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe. Over the past 58 years, the charter has been violated more than 200 times.

Both the UN and its charter need reform. This was clear a decade ago. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the UN, an unofficial commission co-chaired by Sweden's former prime minister, Ingvar Carlson, and the Commonwealth secretary, Srinath Ramphal, proposed changes. Nothing happened. There is a legendary committee inside the UN whose unending business is UN reform. But reforms are never best done by insiders. And although this may seem the worst time to propose reform, since it looks like the hidden agenda of the Bush administration, a crisis is the best moment to seek a cure. Otherwise, when things are back to normal, we may forget the depth of the malaise.

Reforms are needed because the world for which the UN was created - that of 1945 and just after - no longer exists. It was possible to believe at the end of the second world war that a consortium of great powers would ensure collective security and police the world against war. For this reason, veto powers were bestowed on the permanent members. The security council was placed above the general assembly, enshrining both the democracy of "one country, one vote" in the general assembly and the elitism of veto in the security council. The principle of national sovereignty was given absolute status in Article 51. Even genocide could be committed by a state against its people.

But the world has moved on. During the cold war, the rigidity and absurdity of UN voting procedures did not matter because vital vetoes by the US and the USSR stopped the security council from acting. Once the cold war was over, the UN was free to act, but its machinery showed how rarely it could.

It acted in the Gulf war of 1991 but failed in Rwanda and Kosovo. Only the Asian economic crisis weakened Indonesia enough to allow East Timor to become independent.

Globalisation has constrained economic sovereignty. The World Trade Organisation regulates trade matters and forces even the US to change its ways sometimes. Yet every country is guaranteed political sovereignty, including the right to violate its citizens' human rights. This absurdity must end.

The UN must redefine Article 2, Section 4 and expand the grounds under which it will allow force to be used. This is essential to prevent gross violations of human rights and avoid humanitarian crises like those in Somalia, Serbia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. It must activate Article 43, which allows the security council to have a collective UN force to prevent crises.

But the UN must also change its veto system and introduce qualified majority voting. Countries are unequal in terms of power, income and population. This has to be recognised while preventing a country from acting unilaterally. Each country needs to be given a vote proportional to its economic, demographic and territorial size. Thus the US could have ten votes, China and Russia six each, France and the UK three each, for example. Today, it is absurd that the UK and France have the same status as the US, or even Russia and China. Countries such as Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Indonesia need to have a permanent seat. Their voting allocation needs to be fixed to allow for speedy and firm decision-making in the security council.

We could go further and challenge the notion that governments represent their people in all matters. The UN charter starts with a preamble about "We the Peoples", but the UN is an organisation of governments not of people. There is no reason why a second chamber cannot be added to the UN general assembly, with members elected directly, and not via their governments. If this is thought to be too elaborate, we could have indirect elections from national parliaments. The Inter Parliamentary Union, which was founded in 1888, still exists and gets delegations from parliaments. It can easily be harnessed into the UN process after some adjustments.

The UN needs reform to make it more relevant. Paradoxically, it needs to acknowledge the inequality of power and make itself more democratic. It needs to relax its absolute prohibition of the use of force in order to make use of force less frequent. It needs to be more realistic to fulfil the ideals cherished by its founders and by many people today.

Lord Desai is director, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs