What direction should UN reform take?

Posted in Other , UN | 26-Jul-05 | Author: Jožef Kunic

The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia has been regularly analyzing the events in the Middle East and the Balkans. Dr. Jožef Kunic, a member of the International Institute IFIMES and the president of the Slovenian Association for the International Relations (SDMO) and Slovenian defense minister in shadows is in his article 'WHAT DIRECTION SHOULD UN REFORM TAKE?' analyzing the direction into which the Organization of the United Nations should be reformed. The article is published in full.


The debate on the UN reform, with particular emphasis on the Security Council reform, has been on the agenda of the international community for several years. The debate has intensified especially following the failure of reaching an agreement within the Security Council on the attack against Iraq. This led to a military intervention without an appropriate consent that may only be given to such a decision by this authorised body. This was not the only military intervention without prior approval of the Security Council. In the recent time, such was NATO's intervention in Yugoslavia, and there have been many more. The ignoring of resolutions adopted by this body, as well as the taking of military action without approval clearly show that this body needs a thorough reform. The greatest problem is the ignoring of decisions, which should be binding, without any sanctions, as well as military actions without the approval of the Security Council, the only body authorised to give such an approval. There are no sanctions for failure to acquire an appropriate mandate and such de jure unlawful actions are de facto considered post festum as lawful. The "Coalition of the Willing" was formed which took part in the military action in Iraq. An important motive for cooperation was the promotion of certain common values. A coalition of states was formed, the security forces of which have been deployed in Afghanistan, where they are acting in the name of certain common values. There is another group of countries, the security forces of which have been deployed in the Balkans. Certain common values are involved here as well, and we could continue enumerating. If we waited for a formal legalisation required according to the procedure currently applicable within the UN, many of such actions would not take place at all. The world situation would certainly seem to be much worse. It is not a good practice that a formally authorised organisation is loosening the Gordian Knot, correctly from the legally formal aspect, yet so slowly that someone who has enough courage simply has to cut it.

Dr Jožef Kunic, Ambassador
President of the Slovenian Association for International Relations (SDMO)
Member of the International Institute for Middle…
Dr Jožef Kunic, Ambassador President of the Slovenian Association for International Relations (SDMO) Member of the International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) Slovenian defense minister in shadows
There are other areas of activity which would also require reform. Many people on our planet are living below the poverty threshold, a growing number of people is suffering from AIDS, there is lack of respect for human rights in the countries with totalitarian regimes and gender inequality – all this shows the need to reform the system and make it more effective in facing numerous challenges. The decision-making system concerning the settlement of political crises and particularly military interventions requires change. The decision-making process is too slow, economically powerful states that contribute most funds to the UN system, Germany, Japan, Brazil, India, Italy feel themselves pushed away, while permanent members who have the possibility of veto insist on privileges gained in the past.


In its 60-year history, the United Nations has accomplished a great deal. It has decisively contributed to the neutralisation of conflicts, prevention of armed conflicts and to a better life of thousands of people on our planet. The Organisation is still successful in the field of humanitarian activity and the world needs it.

It has however more difficulties in the field of political activity. In some crucial moments for the whole world, the Security Council was practically trapped in endless debates, in which ideas, counter-ideas, various arguments and counter-arguments were intertwined, gradually forming a singular Gordian Knot. It was cut – and not only once – by a unilateral resolute action of a state. Such an example is the intervention in Iraq. In the aftermath of this action, politicians' voices were heard from states, who did not agree with cutting the knot, people raised their voices as well, but in a year or two, practically everyone considered such an action – which had no legal support in the Security Council – just as if it had had the support. The international community did not legalise it de jure, but it did de facto. Legal experts maintain that such actions are still unlawful, but politicians with power over the execution of potential sanctions act in such a way as if such actions had been legalised by the UN Security Council. It proved that, apart from some turbulent diplomatic encounters and ill will voiced in public, it was practically irrelevant whether legalisation by the UN Security Council was correctly and justifiably made or not.

The world has changed considerably since the United Nations Organisation was founded. Moreover, it has not only changed; it is still changing relatively quickly. If the UN is reorganised now, at this moment, in such a way as to suit today's requirements, its organisation – at least as far as providing global security is concerned - will soon become outdated. Some states or communities of states will become more powerful and some economically powerful states may lag behind. It is difficult to say which, but we may affirm with certainty that the dynamics of change is intense. The organisational scheme or rules of action should not merely be changed, but set in such a way that the rules will follow the changes in today's world. A system of changing or adaptable rules should be worked out.

Many changes have occurred since the end of World War II that affect the UN's functioning and efficiency. The ratio of power of states, permanent members of the Security Council, has changed significantly in relation to other states. The Russian Federation is relatively weaker, the United Kingdom and France considerably weaker, while China's power is increasing. These changes, however, are not so crucial that they alone would require the UN reform. The United Kingdom continues to have great impact on the states of the Commonwealth, and France on the states of the Francophonia. Immense progress was made in the communications and transport sector, but this should facilitate the work of the UN and raise its significance due to the flow of information, quick access to information and to ensuring physical presence of everyone anywhere in the world more easily. Yet this is not so. Many other circumstances have of course changed as well, but two of them are crucial: unique power of only one superpower and a more pronounced advocacy of values.

The fact is that the USA as by far the most influential state in the domain of security issues dominates, which renders impossible dialogue between the five permanent Security Council members on an equal footing, confronting them occasionally with accomplished facts. "The first global capital has de facto emerged. That capital city, however, is not New York, the place where General Assembly of all nation-states periodically convenes. New York might have become the capital if the world’s new order had emerged on the basis of comprehensive collaboration among nation-states, based on the legal friction of equal sovereignty. But such a world did not come to pass, and indeed the very notion has become an anachronism given the new realities of transnational globalization and of the historically unique scope of sovereign American power. And yet a global capital did emerge, not between the Hudson and east River but on the banks of the Potomac, Washington, D.C." (Brzezinski, 2004; p. 132). The relation of the USA to the UN’s role is clearly evident from the interview given by M. Albright on the topic of the activity in Iraq and other foreign policy issues. In replying to the question of what she would propose to the UN, she did not mention any political issues, but advised that the Organisation should above all help the victims of tsunami. She saw the role of the UN within the humanitarian rather than political framework. (Albright, 2005; p. 3).

Another important circumstance that has gained in importance following the fall of the Berlin Wall is the significance of values. "An international politics based on interests may not be perfect, but it has the advantage that conflicts can be kept limited, differences can be negotiated, and compromises may be found. In contrast, an international politics based on conflicts over social, economic, or religious matters means that conflicts become unlimited and non-negotiable as one society and its values must eventually triumph over the other." (Gilpin, 1990; p. 137). "Today the Westphalian order is in systemic crisis. Its principles are being challenged, though an agreed alternative has yet to emerge. Noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states has been abandoned in favour of a concept of universal humanitarian intervention or universal jurisdiction, not only by the United States but by many West European countries." (Kissinger 2001; p. 21.) "Once undesired, or even prohibited, interference in the domestic affairs of other states has today been accepted as the basis for the activity of many international institutions." (Jazbec, 2005; p. 4). The intensity of global interactions has been unprecedented in history. The result of global interactions is: considerably reduced significance of state borders; non-consideration of the so-called "domestic affairs" of individual states; and the emphasis on "generally applicable" values.

Some even believe that the world must return to the Westphalian system since there is no other system on the horizon. "Those who have argued for a "twighlight of sovereignty" -whether they are proponents of free markets on the right or committed multilateralists on the left - have to explain what will replace the power of sovereign nation-states in the contemporary world....In the absence of a clear answer, we have no choice but to turn back to the sovereign nation state and to try to understand once again how to make it strong and effective." (Fukuyama, 2004; p. 163). It seems unfortunate that this is merely a piece of wishful thinking. The world will not return to the old tracks. It will follow the new ones and we have to accept this rather unpleasant fact, examine it in detail, and adapt to it as much as possible.

The contemporary politics has of course not removed the national interest from its agenda. Referring to values is not new either since the USA has continually intervened in the world in the name of the so-called values, e.g. following the Monroe Doctrine. The reason for activities or interventions has shifted from interests to values. "We should not simply regard, in other words, the humanitarian and universalistic rhetoric of U.S. diplomacy and military action as facades designed to mask the fundamental logic of national interests. Instead we should recognize them both as equally real: two competing logics that run through one single military-political apparatus. In some conflicts, such as Kosovo, the imperial humanitarian logic may be dominant, and in others, such as Afghanistan, the national, imperialist logic appears primary, while in still others, such as Iraq, the two are mixed almost indistinguishably. Both logics, in any case, in different doses and guises, run throughout all of these conflicts." (Hardt, Negri, 2004; p. 60). The contemporary politics does practically no longer refer to national interests which are of course present but, to a great extent, to values. These are not values in the narrow sense of the word, such as the good, the desired or the worthy. Neither are these values in the broader sense, such as goodness, beauty, justice, truth, virtue and sanctity. These are values in the broadest sense, such as morality, religion, art, science, economy, politics, law and customs. (Krašovec, 2003; p. 95). Politics most often refers to values such as democracy, non-terrorism, freedom, and universality of human rights. All these values which may have many different appearances are defined in a manner that suits it most. The resolute advocacy of these values in a way that suits best the leading powers in the world at a given moment has led some persons to a somewhat exaggerated assertion that the fundamentalism of values was at stake (Tariq, 2002; p. 285). It is certain that the global enforcement of these values which, however, are not shared by all environments in the form understood and defended by the leading powers, and which such environments are reluctant to accept, has caused a reaction.

The reason, however, for an ever more pronounced referring to values lies not only in politics. It is evident that following the period of technical innovations which were particularly intense in the 20th century, and the increased pursuit of material goods, most humanity needs value-support. Values played a major role in the Iranian revolution, they are an important factor in terrorist recruiting and operating. The fact that people in the developed Christian world attach great importance to values was massively confirmed by crowds of people gathered on the occasion of the largest funeral of all times, the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

"Many politicians, activists, and scholars invoke morality and values today as the basis of legitimate violence outside the question of legality or, rather, as the basis of a new legal structure: violence is legitimate if its basis is moral and just, but illegitimate if its basis is immoral and unjust." (Hardt, Negri, 2004; p. 27). This "new legal structure" is neither compatible with the logic of the UN functioning nor with its organisation.

The UN system cannot be defined on the basis of currently applicable values subjectively assessed by superpowers. It has clear rules suitable for negotiations on the basis of interests. In a body functioning according to the current concept, the basis for decisions made cannot be arguments, such as referring to a particular state as being "a rogue state" or "a member of the axis of evil", or that "it most certainly has weapons of mass destruction because it cannot persuade the others that it has no such weapons", or that "it most certainly hides terrorists, for it provides no proof that it does not". Yet such and similar arguments were of key importance in taking decisions that had a decisive impact on the whole world, which the majority understood and knew that they had to be taken although they were not legal from the formal aspect. This shifted the UN Security Council from the position of a central decision-making body to a marginal position where it can post festum legalise the action; if it does not, however, everything is right as well.


Those responsible within the UN have long insisted on organisation that proved to be outdated. The principle of UN's organisation is that of a world government with a kind of "parliament" in which all member states are represented that were admitted to the organisation and the Security Council as a decision-making body (if we leave aside the humanitarian field of activity), which reminds us of a Central Committee in non-democratic and rigid communist systems, that had a final say (and still has it in some states). Certain UN members are so important that they have the honour to sit on the Security Council similarly as in a communist system where some important members had the honour to sit on the Central Committee. Some UN members are even so important that they sit on the Security Council on a permanent basis and, due to their past merits, have the right of veto. This again reminds us of a Central Committee on which members with a life-long mandate sat and whose negative opinion had the weight of a veto. It is more than evident that such a scheme is not viable in the contemporary, postmodern era. The dynamics of the reform also reminds us of the outdated communist system. Similarly as in the rigid system directed by the Central Committee, it was impossible to agree upon key reforms within an acceptable period of time, a debate on the reform has years been underway in different UN bodies, although the reform should have been carried through at least ten years ago.

An attempt at reorganising the UN presented to the public by the High-level Panel (United Nations, 2004) and subsequently by the UN Secretary-General (United Nations, 2005) should (in addition to the proposal that the Commission on Human Rights be replaced by the Human Rights Council and some other, less significant changes) change the Security Council's structure, enlarge it, add some new members, but the basic principle of organisation remains intact. It proposes that the number of Security Council members be increased to 24, whereby, according to one variant, there would be 6 new permanent members, while the number of non-permanent members should be increased to 13. According to another variant, there would be 8 new permanent members and 11 non-permanent members. Thus the aspirations of large and economically powerful states to gain more influence in this body would be satisfied; the system of veto remains with the same privileged states as to date. A parallel could again be drawn with the communist states before their collapse when new members were admitted to central committees, the composition of which was thus reinvigorated, yet major members with a life-long mandate remained, although they could no longer make a useful contribution to a new, very different world.

Multilateral diplomacy in the postmodern era, however, does not yield the desired results. Organisations resorting to terrorism as a method of action are organised neither as independent entities not as multilateral entities. The activities of both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy as mechanisms of defence against such organisations bring about little success. These organisations, as e.g. Al Qaida, operate on the principle of a network. This network includes any operating points having such tasks as they themselves choose and such an intensity of mutual links as they may deem necessary at a certain point. The network has a joint basic aim of operation, and values needed to attain this aim, while all other elements of its organisational structure are extremely flexible. "The necessity of the network form of power thus makes moot the debates over unilaterism and multilaterism, since the network cannot be controlled from any single, unitary point of command." (Hardt, Negri, 2004; p. 61). In the postmodern era, it would be reasonable to adapt the organisation of UN activity to such needs. Appropriate networks should be set up for each action. These may be referred to as "ad hoc coalitions", whereby the intensity of an individual member's activity is not determined in advance, and with mutual links that easily adapt to the needs. Such a network set up on a case-by-case basis would operate rapidly, efficiently and would have no difficulties with members which have an unfavourable attitude towards the common goal. Those who are "in favour" participate in such a way and with such intensity as suits them best. No strictly formal preliminary criteria are required for participation in such a network and a candidate which considers that the values of such a network are incompatible with its own values, ceases to be a candidate for joining such a network without any sanctions on the part of the UN. The underlying principle of UN organisation should no longer be one that resembles the organisation of a state according to the res publica principle; it should adapt to the new reality and approach the res communis principle.

If there were a body within the UN with a task and position of a coordinator, a position of a distinguished organiser of coalitions or appropriate networks, a coordinator of repute who has acquired authority based on such repute and the power of word, the UN could play a much more important role than it has played so far. The organisation method and the modalities of participation between the network or coalition members would be gradually adjusted by members themselves, while the operation of the network would be substantively supervised by a body which would propose appropriate change, if required. The UN activity would yet remain topical and necessary and would not find itself in a situation in which it would become so inflexible – due to its own rules and organisation – that it would need to be circumvented. In coordination activity, the body would respect internal rules taking into account relevant facts. It would have the role of a coordinator of flexible and voluntary coalitions and would assist in their formation, operation and dissolution. There would be no need for a formally correct world government that lacks sufficient authority in key moments and may be overlooked both by the large and powerful and by the small. This coordinating body would not need any members with the right of veto, since it would not make decisions "from above" (according to the res publica principle), but together with those interested (according to the res communis principle). As it would not be a government but a coordinator, it would not have executive powers but would act on the basis of repute and authority acquired through serious and reasonable proposals to the network participants. A body in which no member has the right of veto functions as a coordinator and not as a ruler. The body should be composed of a roughly dozen eminent personalities who would at the same time represent states playing a key role in making decisions relevant for the world at large. It should also have a possibility – if the majority of members participating in the work of the body so decides – to invite other members (representatives of other states) to join them in addressing a particular issue on an equal footing. The body supplemented in such a way to address a particular issue would have a much better insight into the situation in problematic areas and would be – also thanks to the repute of provisionally invited members - much more reputable and effective. Non-respect for a formally authorised body is in most cultures excused if the majority of people think that its decision has not been wise or has even been harmful. Non-respect for a reputable and wise body is in most world cultures considered as a dishonourable act. The authority exercised by a reputable body is often much greater than that exercised by an authorised body.

The proposed solution may seem naïve and idealistic at first glance. The proposed reform of the UN demonstrates that such a body could function. Such a proposal could not be formulated within the formally existing bodies. It could, however, be formulated by a panel of eminent persons: without a system of veto, without formal authorisation, but with great repute.

The existing Security Council structure, or as it may be the numerically altered one, could remain in place. It would suffice to set up the proposed body, providing it with all assistance required for its functioning. It would become an important supplement to the Security Council and a powerful tool whenever the Security Council system might actually fail, either due to the possibility of veto or rigid procedures.


The UN reform is certainly necessary. The world has changed substantially since the organisation was founded. Mere cosmetic corrections without modifying the very foundation of the concept of coordination and operation, especially at the time of crisis will not yield results. Instead of a "quasi-global government" which has no power to make key decisions and no power to either prevent or encourage appropriate action, it would be useful to set up a body, a panel of eminent persons of great personal repute, representing states which de facto govern the world. These eminent persons should, without the right of veto and without the required consensus of all, give their opinions or proposals which will have great political