Opinion: A step forward in reforming the UN

United Nations complexWe Liberal Democrats do like a challenge. From taking on Labour/Conservatives in entrenched local authorities to being the smaller party in an austerity coalition, we’ve fought the good fight for liberal values and policies.

Whatever the difficulties in national and local politics, international issues are often more intractable. Conflicts and disputes, whether frozen, like Northern Cyprus, or persistently violent, like Israel/Palestine, linger on for decades. These different problems require different solutions, but I do think that better global governance would help things along.

The UN security council is still dominated by those who won a war that ended nearly seventy years ago. It is still an important institution, but the UN is badly in need of reform if it is maintain its legitimacy and relevance.

Looking back at Libdem policy papers (35, 74, 86) over the years , shows we have been pretty good on this, as summed up by our pre-manifesto

We will… work to engage with and strengthen multilateral institutions worldwide including global bodies such as the UN and regional groupings.

Such change will not be easy. What we need is an achievable reform that does not directly affect the veto powers of the permanent members of the security council. The United Nations Association (UK) has, with other organisations, launched a campaign to reform the way the UN Secretary-General is chosen (next due in 2016). The process by which he (or possibly she) is chosen has not changed much since the UN was created in 1945. The Security Council propose a shortlist of one and, of course, the five permanent members hold a veto. There are now 193 member states and the need for more transparent and inclusive processes is obvious.

The 1 for 7 billion campaign are arguing that selection process for the next UN Secretary-General should be:

  • Focused on producing the best possible candidate
  • Held in a timely and structured manner
  • Based on formal criteria and qualifications
  • Designed to promote gender parity and grounded in best practice on equality and diversity
  • Transparent to the wider UN membership
  • Transparent to civil society, the general public and media
  • Inclusive for all members of the General Assembly and open to input from civil society.

You can sign their petition here.


* Tad Jones is a Liberal Democrat member in Nottingham and a member of ALDES. He writes in a personal capacity.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Geoffrey Payne 8th Dec '14 - 12:52pm

    I signed the petition. However I think we need to consider that if the US government believes that this lessens their power in deciding the new UN Secretary General then that would increase the likelihood that the US will leave the UN as many in the Republican Party already want to do.

  • Does the UN Secretary-General actually have any powers?

    If not, does it matter who holds the post and how they are chosen?

  • Lawrence Fullick 8th Dec '14 - 1:26pm

    The 1 for 7 billion campaign is supported by the World Federalist Movement WFM to which Federal Union is affiliated. Join Federal Union http://www.federalunion.org.uk . I would have e mailed Tad Jones if I knew his address; LF treasurer, Federal union, ex CHair Lib Dem European group

  • Tsar Nicolas 8th Dec '14 - 1:29pm

    “Dav 8th Dec ’14 – 1:01pm

    Does the UN Secretary-General actually have any powers?”

    Yes, if/she is approved of and supported by the United States.

    If not, well consider Dag Hammerskjold.

  • Yes, if/she is approved of and supported by the United States.

    So if the Secretary-General has no power to set the agenda of the UN, and the UN itself has no power to enforce its own resolutions, then isn’t the Secretary-General doubly impotent and again, why does anyone care how this utterly powerless figurehead is selected?

  • Dav – the Security Council’s resolutions are binding on all members (Article 25),

    De jure, yes, but in reality?

    and the Council can order various sanctions (41) or military action (42) if it feels it necessary

    Article 41 says the Security Council can ‘call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures’.

    It can’t ‘order’ sanctions, it can only ‘call upon’ members to apply sanctions. if the members don’t feel like applying sanctions, there’s nothing the UN as a body can do about it, correct?

    And as for military action, the UN has less than 100,000 troops, all of whom are primarily members of their own national forces and only on secondment to the UN. How far will that get you in militarily enforcing decisions on reluctant member states?

    Well, you can see that by seeing exactly how successful the enforcement of, say, the resolutions concerning North Korea’s nuclear tests have been, can’t you?

    The UN can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) order its member states to do anything. It’s a talking shop, and talking shops are good in view of the superiority over war-war of jaw-jaw; but it doesn’t really matter who is in charge of the talking shop, does it?

    Not it the way it matters who wields actual power.

  • I seem to recall there was a little fuss over Kuwait a few years ago which may have involved these powers being used

    I didn’t realise that was a case of the UN ordering member states to invade Kuwait. Is that really what happened? The US, UK, etc were told by the UN Security Council to invade Kuwait and complied with the order?

    Again, I refer you to Article 25 of the Charter; “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter.”

    Yes I know what it says but in practice if a member simply decided to ignore a decision (like Korth Norea regarding nuclear tests, just to pick a hypothetical country) what, exactly, could the UN in reality do to force it to comply?

    Not what do the treaties say but what in reality could the UN practically, with the resources at its disposal, actually do?

    The language in 41 reflects that the Council -may- decide to use these powers, rather than these measures being optional to member states

    If that is the case, if it’s not optional, why is the article not worded that ‘The Security Council […] may require the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures’?

    That would be the normal word to use in English when compliance is not optional.

    That it is not used seems to imply that in fact compliance is optional, does it not?

    The UN -can- order member states to do something

    So is there an example of a case where the UN has ordered a member state to do something, the member state has refused, and the UN has enforced its decision with its own military power (ie, not by authorising members states to take action they were already willing to take, but by ordering member states to commit forces whether they wanted to or not)?

    I’m not aware of such an example but there might be one.

  • Julian Tisi 8th Dec '14 - 5:53pm

    “Such change will not be easy. What we need is an achievable reform that does not directly affect the veto powers of the permanent members of the security council.”

    Therein I’m afraid lies the real problem and the real thing that needs to be addressed by the UN. The way that the Secretary General is chosen is a very minor side-issue.

    Yes, it will be difficult to change the make-up and voting in the Security Council but that’s what needs to change. Until it does, the Permanent members will each remain effectively above international law as they each hold a veto power on any Security Council resolution. So Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukriane is never going to be condemned by the UN Security Council because Russia itself has a veto.

    One suggestion – is that rather than any one member having a veto, it might just be possible at some point in the future to change this to any 2 Permanent members combined holding a veto. Even this minor change is I fully acknowledge unlikely, but surely not impossible to achieve.

  • Tsar Nicolas 8th Dec '14 - 6:35pm

    “Tim Oliver 8th Dec ’14 – 4:00pm

    Tsar Nicholas – Dag Hammarskjöld is widely considered to be a benchmark for an effective Secretary-General, so I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

    Yes, he was effective and independent of the ruling elite of the United States. That’s why he died in a plane crash in mysterious circumstances – echoes of Patrice Lumumba, and indeed of President Kennedy himself two years later.

  • Lawrence Fullick
    Thanks, will take a look at the Federal Union website.

  • Jenny Barnes 9th Dec '14 - 8:37am

    The existing UN is rather like the US Senate, in that there are roughly the same number of representatives per state. It would be good to address the democratic deficit, with a democratically elected house, say one rep per 20 million people. By my calculations that’s 300 -350 reps. There would, of course, be more for the very populous states like India & China than for the “West”

  • Jenny Barnes

    There would, of course, be more for the very populous states like India & China than for the “West”

    The last thing the UN needs is more power for countries with abysmal human rights records that actively suppress democracy, and those where corruption is institutionalised at astounding levels from top to bottom.

    We need to shape the UN in the West’s image, one with concern for human rights, freedoms of expression and social problems. However imperfect the West and its democracy may be, it offers a better future for its citizenry than any other form of administration.

  • Jenny Barnes, in theory your idea is great. Then one thnks through the consequences of a UN run by a combination of reps from the present governments of China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangla Desh.

    I have not checked the arithmetic but I am guessing if those six clubbed together they would have a permanent majority.
    Not sure if that would necessarily address the “democratic deficit”.

  • The UN Security Council (UNSC) ordered Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Iraq refused; the UNSC authorised a coalition of states to go in and remove the occupying Iraqi forces. Member states were bound to respect the decision of the UN, even if they didn’t necessarily participate in the action themselves.

    What does ‘bound to respect the decision of the UN’ mean, then? If it didn’t mean they had to help.

    Imagien if the only way a government could deal with law-breakers was to ‘authorise’ a posse of individuals to go and arrest them, but it didn’t actually have any police it could order to do the job.

    Would you suggest such a government had any power? Would you care who was thehead of such an ineffectual government?

    Of course, military power is only one option for enforcing rules in international society. Member states generally do what the UN says; indeed, Louis Henkin reminded us that “the vast majority of international law is obeyed by the vast majority of states the vast majority of the time.”

    Well, yes, and the vast majority of people obey the vast majority of the law the vast majority of the time, when it doesn’t get in their way.

    The question is whether you can effectively deal with the ones who don’t.

    Again, I am aware it is not perfect; but the UN is the best we have. I am yet to hear a better, workable suggestion for helping to organise the international society. Perhaps you have one?

    Au contraire, I think the UN is a great way to organise the international community: a toothless talking shop is exactly what is needed at that level.

    If the UN had power, its own troops, etc, then it might decide to impinge on Britain’s sovereignty, and that would never do.

    No, an organisation which is itself utterly powerless, but provides a venue in which jaw-jaw can happen instead of war-war, where states can make their melodramatic demonstrations by flouncing out of a chamber instead of invading their neighbours, has got to be a good thing.

    But given that its point is to be itself ineffectual, I just don’t see why anybody cares who the meaningless figurehead at the top of the whole thing is and how they are selected.

    It’s almost as if people want to treat the Un as if it were some kind of uber-world government, and therefore its head as some kind of President of Earth.

    But the UN isn’t a government, and the Secretary-General has no power. So who cares who gets the job, as long as they can do the job that heading up a talking-shop requires of them (which basically means being diplomatic enough to keep parties in dispute in a room for long enough that they won’t actually go to war with each other).

  • nvelope2003 9th Dec '14 - 10:20am

    g: India is a parliamentary democracy where corruption is institutionalised at astounding levels from top to bottom which I am told by those who remember was not so when the British ruled it as the Imperial power so democracy does not stop corruption and foreign rule does not encourage it. We had corruption here on an epic scale until harsh laws put a stop to it. The Prevention of Corruption Acts of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. You have to catch them and put them in gaol for a long time.

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Dec '14 - 10:45am

    How do you define corruption?

    I don’t like the way that people with money seem to be able to buy influence. I don’t like the way big business ( including private health companies gives donations to fund MPs offices etc. I don’t like the cosy relationship that seems to exists between the powerful in society.

  • Tsar Nicolas 9th Dec '14 - 11:11am

    Jayne Mansfield

    “How do you define corruption? ”

    With difficulty, but I would say that the attitude of the prosecutors and regulators with regard to financial crime by banks amounts to corruption.

    By that I mean not punishing by terms of imprisonment for bankers such crimes as laundering money from drug cartels and terrorists, manipulating interest and foreign exchange rates, and the like, and then sitting back and letting these corporations take a financial hit which is dwarfed by the extra profits they made form their corrupt activities.

    ‘Too big to jail,’ both here and in the US, is corruption.

  • Jayne Mansfield

    Corruption is like an elephant.
    I could not write you the recipe to make an elephant, but I would know if there was one in my kitchen.

  • jayne mansfield etc: Corruption is all of those things but for most ordinary people it means having to give money which you can ill afford to a public official to get a service in a reasonable period of time for a service which you are entitled to. Of course it also means rich people giving bribes to those public officials to get things they are either not entitled to or to jump the queue. When I was young I was told that if you wanted a council house you had to give “the man” a gift. What would you call that ?

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