The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

The United Nations are seen as a key potential actor in addressing today’s pressing challenges. However, the institution is seemingly incapable of taking appropriate action to solve ongoing crises around the world. What would allow the UN to better face the challenges of this century? Positive steps forward would include improving structures for collective decision-making, and empowering the Secretary-General to demonstrate and exert effective global leadership.

In a world facing many grave challenges across many spheres, people look to the United Nations to play a key role in resolving them.

Yet there is broad appreciation that the UN is failing in vital areas, not least on peace and security. It is at its best in the development and humanitarian spheres, where it works with and for people and gets results. But when today’s protracted crises have driven untold human misery, including the forced displacement of an unprecedented 65.6 million people, its seeming inability to act to end those is an indictment of the organisation. The UN badly needs structures and ways of working which will address the crises of this century, not those of 1945.

Some of the issues arise from structural constraints. An important one is the veto power on the Security Council given to five nations when the Charter was written in 1945. That prevents effective action on peace and security – even when an overwhelming majority of the Council itself and of Member States wants it. That veto should be removed, and replaced by a qualified voting system which allows for, at the least, decisions to be taken on a near unanimous basis.

That should be coupled with fairer representation on the Security Council. The Security Council is in effect the executive board for the UN on peace and security matters, and Europe is clearly overrepresented, while other regions are correspondingly underrepresented. This is a long-term source of grievance, and undermines the UN’s legitimacy.

The UN badly needs structures and ways of working which will address the crises of this century, not those of 1945.

The requirement for a range of key agreements to be reached unanimously is another structural element that is holding our world back. If the climate negotiations in Bali in 2007, for example, had been able to forge ahead, leaving a minority of dissenters behind, there would be much greater confidence that we can avoid reaching the tipping point in global warming at which irreversible and catastrophic change in the climate ecosystem occurs.

In addition to those structural limitations to collective decision-making, there are the many constraints placed on a Secretary General’s ability to lead. The Secretariat is subjected to micro management by Member States through various committees of the General Assembly. There is little appreciation of the need for a clear line to be drawn between management and governance.

The Secretary General should have the power to take bold initiatives and run the organisation as an effective leader and chief executive must. International organisations need leaders empowered to act. Yes, there must be systems of accountability, but when they hamper action on everything from courageous diplomacy for peace to streamlining management, as they do now, they become counterproductive. Worse, they can leave a Secretary General looking weak, indecisive, and hamstrung because of fear to offend Member States.

So, Member States must ease up, and give the Secretary General and their managers the space to act decisively. Coupled with that, there should be only one term served by a Secretary-General to avoid the over-caution which is inherent in aiming to secure a second mandate from the day the first one begins.

If steps like those I’ve outlined aren’t taken, then the UN will continue to diminish in relevance. The world needs an effective UN. The current limitations on its capacity to lead and act need to be addressed urgently.

Helen Clark

Helen Clark is a former Prime Minster of New Zealand (1999-2008) and most recently head of the UNDP (2009-2017). She also served as Minister for Conservation, Minister for Housing, Minister for Health, Minister for Labour, Minister for Arts, Culture, and Heritage, Minister in charge of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Minister responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau, Minister for Ministerial Services and Deputy Prime Minister in the New Zealand Government. She has won many awards for her long career in public life, including the Danish Peace Prize for her work on nuclear disarmament, and is a member of the Club of Madrid and the Council of World Women Leaders.