In a period of large-scale international transformation, is the United Nations able to help resolve the current and emerging challenges of the twenty-first century? Ten core principles should guide practical reform of the UN to ensure it remains relevant and a core part of the global order.
We are living through a period of great and rapid change in international relations. Underpinning this change is a deep feeling of uncertainty and pessimism. The world as we knew it at the beginning of 2016 is completely different to where we find ourselves in 2017.
Many ask whether the global institutions that were formed after the carnage of the Second World War are ‘fit for purpose’, and indeed whether they will survive at all. And is the United Nations, at the core of these post-war multilateral institutions, able to help resolve the current and emerging challenges of the twenty-first century? The answer must be yes – but not without practical reform, beginning now.
The reform of such a vital institution is easier said than done. The United Nations is an enormously complex organization with obvious flaws. And Secretary-General Guterres has many urgent challenges ahead of him, the most immediate being how to retain US engagement and funding of the UN under the Trump Administration. But those of us who care about the future of the UN must remain firmly focused on making sure it remains an integral part of modern global life, not an artefact of a distant age.
In order to achieve this we must undertake a comprehensive reform program. The Independent Commission on Multilateralism, which I chaired, consulted member states widely from 2014-16 to develop a practical reform agenda that could be accepted, rejected, or modified by the Secretary-General and member states as they chose. The report proposes ten principles to guide practical reform of the UN. A further 55 specific recommendations can be found in the ICM’s full report. The core ten principles follow.
“Change can happen. It is another matter entirely whether it will.”
lf the world, but receive far less than half the world’s resources and opportunities. This must change, and a first step is to mainstream gender equality across the UN system.
Ninth, a new formal platform for global youth is needed within the UN system, recognizing the explosion of structural youth unemployment across many parts of the world. The three billion people under 25 can’t be an afterthought; they should be heard in the corridors of power.
Finally, UN member states should reaffirm their commitment to multilateralism at a Second San Francisco Conference in 2020, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the UN. This would help underscore the advantages the multilateral system delivers to its member states. It is not simply a burden to be borne.
Having outlined these practical steps, there is the question of how rapidly they can be implemented. The answer to this lies not only with the UN itself, but with its constituent member states. Change can happen. It is another matter entirely whether it will. It must also be noted that these reform proposals aren’t static. They should be part of an active process of the UN’s continual reinvention. This is the only way the UN can keep up with the pace of global change.
If we do not reform the UN as a matter of urgency, we risk the established liberal order slipping even further into disorder and possibly conflict. That tragic end is one that we must all work to avoid.