Why the UN is Crying Out for Reform

November 28, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency of the U S represents a watershed moment in history. He has become the personification of the American ideal of opportunity for all, something which will not have escaped the attention of the American public. The world at large has embraced him in the hope that he and his nation will return the gesture. In the years ahead we will see if that gesture is backed up with meaningful actions.

One of the themes of Obama’s rise has been his talk of multilateralism. Given his background (a Kenyan father, a mother with English, Irish and German ancestry and an upbringing which included several years in Indonesia) this should come as no surprise. His experiences have enabled him to witness how American actions are viewed from an international perspective, something he himself has acknowledged. These themes have undoubtedly been factors in cementing his apparent faith in the consensual approach to issues of international importance.

Of all the items in the new president’s in-tray, and there are an overwhelming number, the most strategically important is the reform of international organisations. While present financial woes illustrate the need for reform in this area, the long-term challenges facing the world require structural reform of the United Nations. Its present structure reflects the geopolitical realities of its birth; the Second World War had come to an end with the two victorious but rival blocks of the future represented at the top table. While it proved to be an invaluable media through which Cold War tensions could be eased, the world of today bears little resemblance to those times. If it is to assert its relevance in the modern world, urgent changes need to be made.

The most important of these is to expand the Security Council to include the emerging world powers. There is a case for having a representative from each continent, something that would sit well with Obama’s inclusive and multinational tendencies. At present, the five permanent members represent less than 30 per cent of the world’s population. Inviting India and Brazil would, at a stroke, increase this to 50 per cent. Given its regional economic clout, South Africa’s inclusion would also be welcome, as would Indonesia’s, with its sizable Muslim populace. With its moderate Arab voice, there is also a case to be made for a future Egyptian seat. However, the addition of any new members will need to strengthen the democratic values of the UN. This is especially important given the growing autocratic tendencies of Russia and the apparent Chinese indifference to human rights.

The most compelling case for an expanded Security Council is that it would boost its capacity to perform its primary function. By sharing the responsibilities of global security, present and future threats can be confronted more effectively. We often hear politicians talk of the ‘will of the international community’. The main problem with the current set-up is that no-one could argue that the five permanent members represent a cross-section of the international community. It is easy for people like Robert Mugabe to reject calls for reform as interference by old colonialists. Were regional voices present at the table, UN-sponsored solutions could be explored with more legitimacy. The same arguments could be made in reference to the intractable Middle East peace process, the crisis engulfing DR Congo and the ongoing conflict in Sudan.

There are significant obstacles to overcome should such a fundamental realignment of diplomatic power be achieved. Of the five permanent members, Britain and France would likely be the most supportive. Even with American backing, and it remains to be seen whether President-Elect Obama would provide it, there would be strong opposition from Russia given its attempts to re-assert itself on the world stage. China keeps a lower profile than its northern neighbour, although it would likely be opposed to any inclusion of India or Japan (another candidate who is often mentioned in these discussions). However, the limitations of the current set-up mean a radical overhaul is needed. We must hope that Obama agrees and that he is prepared to use his persuasive energy to make the change we need a reality.

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This post was written by Luke Aldred

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