How would you reform the United Nations?

The UN logo

The United Nations isn’t perfect. So in a perfect world, how would you change it? This was the question I asked myself recently, after someone at our local Amnesty International group meeting suggested a particular reform.

Before you answer that question, it is best to understand the complexities of getting any reform agreed. The United Nations is governed by the UN Security Council.

  • It is made up of member states, each of which has one vote. However, there are five “permanent” member states that have a veto. This means that if any one of those five members doesn’t like something, they can vote against it and the motion fails. As those five are the USA, UK, China, France, and Russia, it means the various political and geographical divisions that exist between those states, often leads to stalemate.
  • The five permanent members are broadly speaking the major powers at the end of World War Two, and were all fighting against Germany and Japan. So as victors they enjoyed special status. And of course the UN is far from being a purely humanitarian body. Member states often look after their own interests first, with ambassadors appointed by their government.

The idea raised at our meeting was to replace the current five permanent members with five other members that were elected by the other members. An admirable idea maybe, but the proposal was short on detail. The questions in my mind were many:

  • Assuming each permanent member state would be for a set period, how long would that be?
  • Could a permanent member state seek re-election? If so, how many times?
  • With your permanent member state term having come to an end, would there be a period of time before you could seek re-election again? If so, how long?
  • Would the permanent member states, still have a veto?
  • What checks and balances would be implemented to prevent the current voting bottlenecks?

Perhaps the biggest question of all, is how the heck you expect such a reform from getting through the Security Council with the current setup? It is a classic case of idealism, with little realism. It just won’t happen.

Activism is healthy, as is having a questioning mind. It adds some checks and balances to what can often be overlooked. But having a solution, doesn’t make it a good idea. There is little point in betting your life’s savings on a donkey to win the Grand National. The chances of winning such a bet are so extreme, that it doesn’t make strategic sense. It is much better to have realistic aims.

To some this may seem like defeatism. To me it is achieving reform that may not otherwise happen. In a situation where you’re up against an immovable force, you may have to continually chip away at the bottom to bring the mighty oak tree tumbling down.

There is little doubt that the United Nations isn’t perfect, but then neither is any democratic body. That’s not to say I’m in favour of dictatorships. It’s just that we have to accept that not everyone thinks the same as us. If we accept this, we must expect shit to happen sometimes.

With the UN, there is little doubt in my mind that the current system sucks, but we’ve little or no chance of getting it changed. Plus the UN for all its faults has succeeded in many areas. It’s peacekeeping operations may not always have been successful, think of the Rwandan genocide or allegations of human rights abuses by UN troops, but they often have limited or stops armed insurrection. The UN has provided aid when there’s been a humanitarian catastrophe, and continues to work for impoverished sectors of society.

Would I reform the UN? Yes, but I’d ensure the aim was tempered with a strategic and realistic vision of what could be achieved.