Reforming the United Nations:  A Chronology (2016)

The United Nations (UN) celebrated its 70th anniversary and approved the Sustainable Development Agenda in September 2015. The Agenda proclaims the commitment to end hunger and poverty and to ensure healthy lives for all by 2030. The approval of the Agenda was called “a defining moment in human history” by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In order to be able to deliver, the UN will need to fundamentally reform its institutions, its way of doing business and the existing funding regimes.

The UN has been the subject of many reform efforts before. Founded after the ravages of World War II and the collapse of the League of Nations, the organization has evolved from humble beginnings to a large, complex and fragmented institution with an ambitious and expanding mandate: to maintain peace and security by preventing war, to foster economic and social development, and to promote respect for human rights. This is done through consultations and negotiations among member states resulting in the approval of programmes, policies and decision. The Secretary-General and the UN staff facilitate those discussions and implement the resulting decisions through a wide spectrum of services: organizing international conferences on issues of global significance; administering peacekeeping operations; mediating international disputes; organizing humanitarian relief programmes; surveying economic and social trends; preparing studies on human rights and sustainable development; and addressing disaster relief, the fight against HIV/AIDS, terrorism, gender equality, climate change, and more. The expansion of peace operations is particular striking. By mid-2015, the number of peacekeepers had risen to over 130,000 involved in 15 missions, and peace operations now account for over half of the organization’s activities.

This publication captures the evolution of the UN, presenting the main reform initiatives from the early 1940s to the end of 2015.[1] A chronological presentation of the changes in organizational structure, process and mandate tells an exciting story. It highlights successes and failures, including the underlying causes of these outcomes. The complexity of the subject matter will be captured by following questions:
  • What prompted the reform initiative? 
  • What were the interests and constraints? 
  • What were the dynamics of the process? 
  • What change occurred? 

This publication starts with a short introduction to the structure of the UN in Part I. The reform initiatives are presented in a twofold, mutually reinforcing format. Part II presents a summary of the main reform initiatives and Part III a chronology of change events. Whereas Part II provides a comprehensive view of individual efforts, Part III arranges the changes chronologically, highlighting parallel events. A system of cross-references from Part II to Part III facilitates easy linkage between the two sections. This is done by indicating the date of an event in square brackets in both sections.

Part II on the summary of major reform initiatives is organized according to the terms of office of the Secretaries-General. Although the Secretary-General is responsible for some initiatives and results, in many cases countries are in charge of the negotiations and decision-making process. Nevertheless, the individual Secretary-General often stands for an era of UN history during which certain initiatives prosper or fail. The summary captures all the main reforms since the UN was established, but additional explanations are provided for the most recent initiatives.

Part III on the chronology of main change events lists reforms such as the establishment of expert groups, release of reform proposals and decisions on reform proposals. Each reform event is introduced with keywords. Related UN documents and decisions are indicated for further reference. Dates of events shown in square brackets allow for cross-referencing within Part III.

As supplementary information, Appendix I presents three recent key documents, namely the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) and the Five-Year Action Agenda of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Appendix II presents the Charter of the UN, a list of member states with the scale of assessment, budget information and other documents. Finally, Appendix III provides a bibliography on UN reform.

I trust that this publication will be of use to everyone interested in the work of the UN.

Joachim Müller


[1] For related publications, please refer to Joachim Müller, Reforming the United Nations, Kluwer Law International, The Hague, The Netherlands, and Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden, The Netherlands, including New Initiatives and Past Efforts, Volumes I to III, 1997; The Quiet Revolution, Volume IV, 2001; and The Struggle for Legitimacy and Effectiveness, Volume V, 2006.