The Two Problems of UN Reform

Calls to reform the UN really mean reforming it on two different issues: its bureaucracy and wastefulness on the one hand, and its role in world order on the other, Rein Müllerson, Valdai Club expert and professor at the Tallinn University told

There are two initiatives at the moment, the first is by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ reform program, the second is what President Trump has proposed. These are two different movements. It is obvious that the UN needs reforms, there is a big problem with the UN and there are many smaller problems concerning the work of the Secretariat of the UN, different field missions, the bureaucracy, the lack of transparency in the work of the UN. For example, the oil-for-food program during UN sanctions against Iraq revealed quite a lot of corruption in the UN.

One problem is that the UN is not functioning properly when it comes to its main function – keeping and maintaining international peace and security. These are two quite different domains. It is necessary to keep them apart for a while at least.

The Secretary-General of the UN can deal with the first group of problems, bureaucracy and the problems with different UN agencies, although this is not easy to do because a lot of it does not depend on him. There is an institutional inertia within the UN, and it depends on whether member-states support these reforms or not. States have pledged to support these efforts with the 10-point Declaration for supporting the initiatives of the Secretary-General.

The big problem is that the UN is not working properly in the field of maintaining peace and security. The US government takes up this issue now for several reasons. One is that Trump and his administration are frustrated because of the problem with North Korea, which is not being resolved. The other is that UN sanctions have not prevented the further development of nuclear and missile programs of North Korea.

Lastly, before Trump’s administration, the US failed to push the Libya scenario for Syria through the UN, to declare that the situation is a threat to international peace and security and authorize the UN states to take all necessary measures. This may mean frustration with the UN, that in the case of North Korea, it could not do much, and in the case of Syria, it did not go along with the US administration.

There are two different levels of UN reform. The big one can only be done by changing the UN Charter, which is nearly impossible, according to Article 108 of the UN Charter. Security Council reform has been discussed for several decades and nothing has happened.

Is the UN Losing Importance?

It is difficult to say that UN has lost the importance it had because it never had the importance expected of it after the Second World War. Unfortunately, the UN never had such a big importance; therefore, it is a bit difficult to tell that it has lost it. There is the big problem of very high expectations, especially in the late 1980s and the 1990s, that the UN may start working properly when the Cold War was declared over.

These expectations did not materialize, and now, major states in the Security Council see the world in different terms. The US and the Trump administration as well want the UN help implement the US vision of the world to intervene in internal conflicts in some states, to help the regime change in the case of Syria and there is a different vision of the world. There is also the multipolar world, with the balance of power supported by the UNSC permanent members - Russia and China.

These visions clash, which is why the UN has become less effective than it has been in the 1990s. This is not an issue of problems with the Secretariat or the organization. The major players have different visions of the current world and even more so of the future emerging world. However, the UN cannot work better than member states allow it to be.

What Could Russia’s Role Be?

Reform is a long-term project, which has already started by Kofi Annan, Ban-Ki Moon and now Guterres. On the smaller issues, Russia, like other states, especially UNSC permanent members, can support getting rid of wastefulness and excessive bureaucracy within the UN. These are relatively minor issues, in which Russia and other states can support it. On major issues, the problem is not that the UN has to be reformed or changed or the charter amended.

It is necessary and Russia should insist that member states act in accordance with the principles and purpose of the United Nations. This is the main problem. For example, the principle of the prohibition of the use of force in international relations and of intervening in internal affairs of states. These principles were almost forgotten in the 1990s, and this has not changed. Russia can insist on the implementation of the purposes and principles on the United Nations and that states should act in accordance with the UN Charter. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.