THE BLOG
09/13/2016 09:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

As the UN Gathers for the General Assembly, It's in Real Trouble. But It Can Be Fixed.

Sergei Guneyev via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Last month, the United Nations Secretary General's Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, suspended a meeting of humanitarian agencies at U.N. headquarters in Geneva barely eight minutes after it began. De Mistura did so in protest at the absolute impotence of the international community in bringing about a Syrian ceasefire. In his view, the absence of an enforceable ceasefire made any effective humanitarian action redundant.

The only problem was that practically nobody noticed, so jaded had we become with the ongoing slaughter of the innocents in Syria. We greet news of the latest atrocities there with a collective shrug of international shoulders. History, justifiably, will judge us harshly for this five-year-long obscenity. Rwanda, Srebrenica, now Syria -- all in a matter of a little more than 20 years. And each followed with its own solemn proclamations of "never again."

De Mistura had the moral courage to take responsibility for the international diplomatic failure that is Syria. "The task force failed the people of Darayya," he said, "we all failed the people of Darayya, I failed them." But in truth, it is not de Mistura's failure. He has worked tirelessly for years on an almost impossible mission. The Syrian war has been a failure of the U.N. system itself, most particularly the Security Council. More broadly, it is symptomatic of the U.N.'s diminishing authority and effectiveness in acting on the core challenges to international peace and security for which the institution was created over 70 years ago. And we all wait in hope to see whether the latest peace agreement forged by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will become a lasting reality on the ground.

The Syrian war is a failure of the U.N. system itself.

We are seeing the gradual fracturing of the global order through growing tensions in great power relations, the rise of terrorism and the positive and negative impacts of globalization. The international community needs a strong U.N. more than ever before. But rarely has the U.N. been weaker.

As a foundation of the post-war order, the U.N. actually matters because if it were to crumble or be removed, it would bring into question much of the rest of the order for which the normative and institutional framework of the U.N. remains fundamental. The problem we face is that the international community now takes the U.N. for granted, allowing the institution to slowly drift into irrelevance. And while it is not broken, it is in trouble, particularly as we see countries around the world increasingly going around it, seeking solutions to major global problems elsewhere and often seeing the U.N. as a polite diplomatic afterthought or at best, a final recourse to international legitimacy.

Despite this, the U.N. is capable of reinventing itself. But reform is now urgent and no longer optional. The core principle for U.N. reform must be to redesign its functions, structure and finances to ensure it remains fit for the demands of effective global governance of the 21st century. And it must do so by re-entrenching the principle of multilateralism as the foundation of the international system; by implementing a comprehensive doctrine of preventive rather than simply reactive diplomacy; and by developing a new doctrine for delivering real, measurable results for peace and security, sustainable development and humanitarian engagement, rather than simply contenting itself with the setting of global norms.

staffan de mistura

De Mistura at a news conference in Geneva on April 28. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

What are the core principles of U.N. reform?

U.N. reform must be driven by a number of core principles, including 12 I'll describe here:

  1. Through a second San Francisco Conference on the U.N.'s 75th anniversary in 2020, the political reaffirmation by member states at the summit level of the fundamental principles of multilateralism. This reaffirmation would be designed to prevent the further erosion of multilateralism and underscore the critical advantages effective multilateralism delivers to individual states, rather than entrenching an emerging view that the multilateral system is simply a burden to be borne.
  2. The role of the U.N. in building bridges between the great powers themselves, particularly at a time of rising great power tension, just when great power cooperation is needed to enable the U.N. to deliver results for the wider international community.
  3. The role of a U.N. secretary-general prepared to take initiatives under Article 99 of the Charter, even when such initiatives may not be guaranteed of success, but where challenges to the provisions of the Charter make global leadership necessary.
  4. The adoption, inculcation and implementation of a comprehensive doctrine of prevention across the U.N. system -- as opposed to the prevailing culture of reaction -- one that is directly reflected in the organization's leadership, organization, resource allocation and culture. Relatedly, the development of a robust U.N. policy planning capability, looking several years out into the future, not just at the crises of the day, and critical to the effective deployment of preventive diplomacy.
  5. The effective implementation and measurement of existing major U.N. global initiatives. Most particularly, this requires the urgent establishment of effective implementation machinery for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its goals and targets. If this does not happen, the Sustainable Development Goals run the risk of becoming an indictment of the hollowness of the U.N.'s normative agenda. Effective implementation will require a new Global Compact between the U.N., global and regional development banks and private finance to deploy the necessary funding. The same logic applies to the implementation of the Paris agreement on climate change and the investment needed for the energy transformations necessary to keep global temperature rise between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius.
  6. The effective anticipation of and response to new, emerging, critical global policy agendas of the future, not just those of the past, including effectively countering terrorism and violent extremism, enhancing cyber security, constraining lethal autonomous weapons systems, elevating the absolute priority of enforcing international humanitarian law for the wars of the future and developing a comprehensive approach to global boundaries beyond climate change -- particularly for our oceans.
  7. The structural integration of the U.N.'s peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian agendas as a strategic continuum, rather than leaving them as the rigid, self-contained, institutional silos of the past.
  8. The development of a "Team U.N." in the field that finally resolves the problem of rigid institutional silos by moving increasingly to integrated, multidisciplinary teams to deal with specific challenges on the ground, guided by fully integrated, common mandates across all U.N. agencies and under the leadership of fully empowered directors of U.N. operations in each country.
  9. The full integration of women at the center and across the totality of the U.N. agenda, not just in discrete parts of it, because to fail to do so will further undermine peace, security, development and human rights. The full employment of women, to the level of men's participation rate, would significantly boost flagging global economic growth.
  10. A new approach to global youth so that their voices are heard at the center of the U.N.'s councils and not simply as a paternalistic afterthought, so that global youth can help shape their own future. As the global youth bulge, new policies are needed, given that current approaches to youth unemployment are failing.
  11. The development of a U.N. whose culture is driven by the prioritization of operations in the field rather than at headquarters; the implementation of U.N. reports, rather than the proliferation of the writing of such reports; the rigorous measurement of results on the ground, not just the number of conferences held; and the introduction of a reward structure for staff that reflects all this.
  12. The capacity of the U.N. to efficiently, effectively and flexibly act within the reality imposed by ongoing budgetary constraints, rather than hoping that the fiscal heavens will one day magically reopen. They won't.

Beyond these generic principles for U.N. reform, the incoming secretary-general should turn her or his mind to a number of specific recommendations for institutional change as well. In peace and security, these include the appointment of a new deputy secretary-general who is responsible for preventive diplomacy, including countering terrorism and violent extremism; placing U.N. peacekeeping operations in the field under a civilian director of operations; and increasing the resources available for the Department of Political Affairs for preventive political missions.

The U.N. also needs to establish an appointment mechanism for a panel of prospective special envoys who represent a balance of area and functional skills, which will replace current ad-hoc arrangements.

Next, the U.N. must enhance its arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation capabilities to deal with the North Korea nuclear weapons challenge, terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction and new generations of weapons systems (like armed artificial intelligence systems). The U.N. should also be playing a central role in the negotiation of a new global regime on cyber security.

On the U.N.'s sustainable development agenda, the new secretary-general might also consider the appointment of a deputy secretary-general for sustainable development to be ultimately responsible for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs; the establishment of a U.N.-World Bank joint operational commission between the secretary-general and the president of the World Bank for collaboration on the SDGs; and making the U.N. Economic and Social Council the deliberative body responsible for the political oversight and periodic measurement of SDG implementation on the ground.

united nations peacekeepers

U.N. peacekeepers from Rwanda in Juba, South Sudan on Sept. 2. (AP Photo/Justin Lynch)

Furthermore, the U.N. can partner with the World Bank, other development banks and private financial institutions to develop a new Global Compact. This is needed to develop new financial products to fund the global infrastructure required to make the 2030 Agenda a reality. The U.N. can also facilitate the negotiation of individual national plans for the implementation of the SDGs on the ground and the parallel development of fully integrated U.N. mandates, including all relevant U.N. agencies, and with fully empowered directors of operations responsible for the local delivery of the 2030 Agenda.

Beyond the SDGs, the U.N. should also establish an international planetary boundaries commission to develop a scientific framework around limits to the biosphere beyond climate change. The time has also come, given the major impact oceans have on global climate and global protein supply, for the creation of a U.N. oceans commission to enhance global governance over the roughly 70 percent of the Earth's surface that the oceans cover.

As for its humanitarian engagements, the U.N. should also consider appointing a deputy secretary-general for humanitarian support to boost the powers of effective coordination of humanitarian responses from within and beyond the U.N. It should also develop protocols with international nongovernmental organizations on joint needs assessments in the face of humanitarian disasters, as well as clarify the operational interrelationship between humanitarian and development agencies on the ground.

As the case of Syria demonstrates, there is real urgency in negotiating a new global agreement on asylum seekers and refugees, given that the current system is both broke and broken. This agreement must comprehensively deal with the separate but related challenges of source, neighboring, transit and resettlement countries, including a proper system of global burden sharing. The whole system also needs to be refinanced. The International Organization of Migration should be formally affiliated with the U.N. system, giving the IOM a new role in the separate but related area of global migration policy cooperation while recognizing that nations will ultimately set their own rules that meet their respective national requirements.

Reform is now urgent and no longer optional.

On human rights, there is a need for enhanced coordination and implementation of the U.N.'s "Human Rights up Front" initiative, as well as reaching agreement on a definition of non-cooperating states within the processes of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

On gender equality, women in all four U.N. capitals should hold 50 percent of all U.N. executive positions by 2030. In the U.N.'s field operations, women should hold either the director or deputy director positions. Further, a U.N. trust fund should be established to assist women in education, employment and enterprise.

As for youth, the secretary-general should consider the establishment of U.N. Youth, a modestly staffed organization within the Secretariat with all staff under 39, to provide direct advice to the secretary-general on effective policy responses to the global youth employment crisis.

Finally, on budget, personnel, management and communications, we need to see the re-establishment of a permanent international civil service with less scope for arbitrary political appointments; the establishment of a new high-level management structure where decision-making powers are exercised by an executive leadership team, rather than the private office of the secretary-general; and a new director of strategic communications to get the good news out on the U.N.'s positive achievements, not just responses to its failings.

unemployed youth

Protestors hold a "communist youth movement" flag and a banner that reads "unemployed people, artists and entertainment workers fighting." June 2, Toulouse, France. (AFP/Getty)

In the end, the success or failure of any effort at fundamental U.N. reform hangs on two fundamental questions: Can the U.N.'s deliberative bodies make the big decisions the global governance deficit of the 21st century demands? And can the U.N.'s institutional machinery effectively implement these decisions? The answers to these questions will determine whether the U.N. is fit for the challenges of the century ahead.

With sufficient political will, with strong institutional leadership and with a clear program of reform driven by a results-orientated culture, the U.N. can indeed prevail as a continuing pillar of a stable, just and sustainable global order. The alternative is benign neglect, institutional decay and, as a result, declining relevance to the great challenges of our time, leading to an increasingly unstable world for us all.

There is nothing in the history of international relations that guarantees order. In fact, history tells us that order is the exception rather than the rule and that the institutions of global order have a very recent history indeed.

The fact that de Mistura's eight-minute meeting last month was held in Geneva's Palais de Nations should give us further pause. This was once the grand monumental home to the last attempt at global governance after a great conflagration -- the ill-fated League of Nations; it, too, simply became an eerie and hollow shell, where meetings continued to be held but real decisions were made elsewhere, ultimately with disastrous consequences for all humankind. The League offers a cautionary tale for us all.

Earlier on WorldPost:

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