We need an end to UN leadership that is more Secretary than General

Every October five of the ten non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are elected by the General Assembly. This year they were: Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, South Korea, and Rwanda.

I don’t think I’ve met many people, even in international affairs circles, who could have named the five that this year’s cohort replaced (South Africa, India, Colombia, Germany, and Portugal in case you were wondering).

The reason is clear: the institutional structure of the Security Council reduces all but the permanent members, the veto powers, to a ceremonial role. Which countries hold the non-permanent positions is essentially irrelevant.

The Security Council is the most prestigious of the UN’s organs, charged with upholding the core value of the charter (“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”), yet clearly its current form is beyond broken, its composition a farce.

This should worry us all. It certainly worries me.

Earlier this year I interviewed Lord Malloch-Brown, ex-Deputy Secretary General of the UN under Kofi Annan about reforming global institutions. Now seems as good a time as any to publish that interview.

Here’s me describing the central point Malloch-Brown made then:

The United Nations, for which he worked for many years, Malloch-Brown unsurprisingly sees differently. But his experience inside it has strengthened his conviction that “the UN desperately needs strengthening.”

The main task? Effective leadership at the top.

I remember at the time thinking this was foolish, that the UN is basically a network of different bodies which overlap, compete too much, and fall well short of the influence they should have given their scope and funding. That if they aren’t reformed from the bottom up a strong, principled leader will be ossified by them as much as a weak ineffectual one.

I’ve since reviewed this and come to the conclusion that Malloch-Brown was basically correct.

The Security Council is a good example. Here are my (completely unoriginal) proposals for a council fit to uphold the central tenet of the Charter:

  1. Remove the veto and institute a two-thirds majority decision mechanism for all resolutions;
  2. Expand the membership level to 21;
  3. Expand and redress the permanent membership to better represent global population;
  4. Rebalance the regional group requirements to end the distortion towards the Western European and Other Group, which is clearly unnecessary and at least partially anachronistic;
  5. Remove the same regional bias in favour of WEOG in the permanent membership;
  6. Introduce a limited term ban (including suspension of permanent members) of three years on any nation condemned by the council or another named body, such as the ICJ, for acts of aggression.

These are all institutional changes, that ostensibly have nothing to do with the current leadership. The trouble is the structure of the UN and its leadership aren’t really separable.

The current formulation of the council isn’t a law of nature. It endures because no strong, principled leader has been willing or able to force through deep changes to it. I certainly can’t imagine anything like the above proposals happening without a concerted campaign from a Secretary General.

Malloch-Brown put it like this:

“The bottom line is so long as the UN is led by someone who is more Secretary than General, and make no mistake the hegemonic states prefer that, there’s little hope for any kind of effective global policy, let alone the peaceful resolution of violent international conflicts.”

That seems basically correct. The hegemonic states want ineffectual UN leadership for a reason – it precludes their neutering.

Image courtesy of the United Nations

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About Tom Stevenson
Tom Stevenson is an Independent North Africa reporter

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