Reforming the UN: The Struggle for Legitimacy and Effectiveness (2006)

The United Nations has undergone a new phase of adjustment and repositioning in recent years. The legitimacy and effectiveness of the Organization were questioned in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The investigation of the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme raised issues of integrity and management competence. Apparent shortcomings in the human rights machinery and peacekeeping came to the forefront. At the same time, the services of the Organization were in demand; for example, peacekeeping operations doubled during recent years and now account for half of the Organization’s activities.

            In response to this crisis, the very foundations of the Organization were questioned and there were discussions on the nature of new threats, the right of self-defence, the legitimacy of preventive and pre-emptive action, the response to terrorism and the reform of the Security Council. The search for new concepts and proposals included a number of high-level United Nations expert groups and certain congressional initiatives in the United States.  The Secretary-General’s reform package was proposed to the World Summit in September 2005, linking security, human rights and development matters.

            The 2005 World Summit was able to reach agreement on some important new directions to strengthen the United Nations and multilateralism.  Innovative concepts were approved such as a ‘new security consensus’ and the collective ‘responsibility to protect’ and new institutional arrangements were established, including the Peacebuilding Commission and the new Human Rights Council.  The grand bargain, however, was not achieved as initially intended.  Key institutional adjustments were not approved, such as the reform of the Security Council; there was a lack of progress on the issue of terrorism and few new commitments with regard to development.  Finally, progress on management reform was painfully slow.

            The Secretary-General has often initiated and facilitated reform processes, which fall into the realm of national sensitivities and require the close involvement and approval of member states. The cautious approach suitable for diplomatic negotiations has also been applied in the case of management reform. Past and recent initiatives have been modest and late, and tended to be imposed rather than developed from the inside.  Clearly, there is a need for leadership and a more proactive approach. The fragmentation of the United Nations and of the organizations within the United Nations system raises further barriers to implementing reforms.  Initiatives approved centrally are often watered down or not implemeneted by independent or semi-independent sister organizations.

            Reconciling the different priorities and national interests of 191 member states is, however, the basic challenge for United Nations reform.  Proposals for fundamental reforms in the areas of security, human rights and management were put forward primarily by the United States. The developed countries of the North, in particular Japan and a number of European countries have, in general, been positive to such initiatives.  The developing countries of the South, however, have adopted a more cautious and reserved approach. Agreement to reforms was coupled with demands for concessions in the area of development, trade and debt relief – the logic of the proposed grand bargain. Some, however, saw reform as an attempt to facilitate intervention by the powerful countries into their national sovereign domains.  In parallel, weakening the position of the developing countries within the United Nations was seen as the driving force of institutional reform that involved limiting the role of the General Assembly and strengthening the 15-member Security Council as well as increasing the prerogatives of the Secretary-General.  The developing countries perceived this package of changes as a loss of policy space at home and in the United Nations.  In response, efforts to preserve the status quo were seen by other nations as blocking progress or negativism.

             The condition for reaching agreement on reform, however is consensus and the price to be paid is the adjustment of proposals to the lowest common denominator.  To do otherwise may require the extraordinary circumstances of a catalytic event, such as the end of the Cold War, which allowed for the revitalization of the United Nations in the early 1990s.  It might also require a group of visionary leaders who are prepared to make the necessary compromises.  In the absence of those factors, for all the logic and promise of a grand bargain, such as the World Summit attempted to reach, it is destined to fail ad refor in the United Nations will remainh a cumjbersome and lengthy step-by-step process.

            The publication Reforming the United Nations: The Struggle for Legitimacy and Effectiveness captures the recent reform efforts, which unfolded during the period from 2003 to 2006.  Events leading up to the 2005 World Summit and the subsequent follow-up are described in Part I of the publication.  In Part II, the key reform documents are presented.  This focus makes the publication unique. It provides an authentic, comprehensive, in-depth description of important reform initiatives based on primary sources.  In so doing, it brings together a wealth of information, identifying the major interest groups, the mechanisms and constraints of the reform process and the impact of major reform initiatives.

            A short summary of previous reform efforts is presented in Chapter 1 (The History of United Nations Reform Efforts, 1950 to 2002).  In Section 1.1 (Cold War, North-South Conflict and the Revitalization of the United Nations, 1950 to 1996), there is a discussion of the initiatives launched by the Soviet Union during the East-West antagonism in the 1950s, the expansion of the United Nations in the development field following the decolonization period in the 1960s and negotiations of a New International Economic Order as part of the North-South conflict in the 1970s.  The 1980s were characterized by financial crisis, stagnation and the retreat of the United States, which triggered a reform of the budgetary process and the downsizing of the Organization.  With the end of the Cold War, the rediscovery and renaissance of the United Nations was hailed; there was a major expansion of the Organization and the reform associated with the Agenda for Peace launched by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali in the first half of the 1990s. in the wake of disappointment with the peacekeeping operations in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, there was a marked retreat from assertive multilateralism in the second half of the 1990s, followed by renewed financial  withholding and budgetary adjustments.

            As outlined in Section 1.2 (Structural Adjustments and a New Vision: The Quiet Revolution, 1997 to 2002) of Chapter 1, the incoming Secretary-General Kofi Annan moved quickly in the late 1990s to address some of the Organization’s structural shortcomings. In an initiative known as the Quiet Revolution, he made the fragmented Organization more coherent, pulled together the development system, created more effective humanitarian structures, improved the capacity to manage peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, energized the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic and improved partnerhip between the United Nations and international business as part of a Global Compact.  Other reforms included the upgrading and revamping of peacekeeping operations following the Brahimi Report and the introduction of a new assessment scale to meet the United States’ demands.  The initiative led to the Millennium Summit in 2000, which approved the Millennium Development Goals to combat poverty, hunger, disease and environmental degradation.

            As outlined in Section 1.3 (Security Council Reform: The Unfinished Business) of Chapter 1, the efforts launched initially 1992 to reform the Security Council had not been successful by the time of the 2000 Millennium Summit, as initially planned.  This was particularly discouraging for the aspiring new permanent members Brazil, Germany, India and Japan.

            Chapter 2 (New Reform Initiatives: The Struggle for Legitimacy and Effectiveness, 2003 to 2006) of Part I reviews the most recent reform initiatives and discusses in more detail the key reform documents presented in Part II.  As outlined in Section 2.1 (September 11, Iraq and the issue of Collective Security), the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 had a profound impact on the United States, the world and thereby the United Nations. Because of the new threats, including terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the traditional strategies of deterrence and containment were no longer considered sufficient. The understanding of self-defence as stipulated in the United Nations Charter was  seen to include pre-emptive action against potential aggressors.  The invasion of Iraq marked the end of a long process starting with the occupation of Kuwait by Iraqi forces in 1990.  It also split the United Nations and was seen as a test of its relevance. Following the terrorist attacks against the United Nations office in Baghdad, the United Nations pulled out of Iraq.

            As Section 2.2 (A Fork in the Road: The Need for a Fundamental Assessment of the United Nations) reveals, the inability of the Security Council to either endorse or prevent military action in Iraq resulted in a crisis of relevance in the United Nations.  Moreover, scepticism with regard to its relevance was linked to the failure to act promptly and decisively to deal with the situation in Darfur, as had previously been the case in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.  In September 2003, in the middle of his second term, the Secretary-General announced the need to fundamentally reassess the functioning of the Organization and to forge anew consensus on collective security. To this end, the Secretary-General gave two groups of experts a mandate to formulate proposals, based on which he intended to present his own reform report to the World Summit in 2005.  This included the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change to set out a new vision of collective security for the twenty-first century, as described in Section 2.3, and the UN Millennium Project, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, to recommend a global plan for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, as described in Section 2.4.

            Section 2.3 (High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change: A More Secure World) presents the High-level Panel’s report ‘A More Secujre World: Our Shared Responsibilty’ (shown in Part II as document 1), issued in December 2004. The reform proposals are highlighted, including the new security consensus, a new concept known as responsibility to protect, the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission, a definition of terrorism, and options for the reform of the Security Council.  Also presented are the Panel’s consideration of the need to amend the United Nations Charter in view of the new threat and its interpretation of the use of force.  Additional comments are made on the issues of development and management reform.

             Section 2.4 (UN Millennium Project: Investing in Development) presents the report of the UN Millennium Project ‘Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals’ (shown in Part II as document 2), issued in 2005.  Details are provided on the work of the Millenium Project and the 10 recommendations put forward by the Project are discussed.  This included recommendations that developing countries should put in place poverty reduction strategies based on the Millennium Development Goals and that developed countries should increase official development assistance and debt relief.  Other recommendations include the launch of quick win actions, the identification of fast-track countries, and the involvement of civil society and  privatge sector.

            Section 2.5 (United Nations Secretary-General: In Larger Freedom) presents the report of the Secretary-General entitled ‘In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All’ (Shown in Part II as document 3), issued in March 2005.  The concept of the proposed grand bargain is presented, covering issues of security, human rights and development. In order to facilitate comparison with the report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, the format of the presentation follows that used for the High-level Panel. This includes details on the new security consensus, the responsibility to protect and humanitarian issues, the Peacebuilding Commission and peacekeeping, the Human Rights Council and the rule of law, terrorism and security threats, Security Council reform, the use of force, development and management.  Similarities to and differences from the recommendations of the High-level Panel and the Millennium Project are highlighted, such as a more restricted mandate and power of the Peacebuilding Commission or a new concept for a smaller Human Rights Council. On the issue of management, the link is highlighted between the report of the Secretary-General and some of the demands developed in the United States in response to the Volcker Inquiry, as described in Section 2.6.

            Section 2.6 (United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme: The Volcker Inquiry and Congressional Initiatives) describes the events during the crucial months preceding the World Summit when the Secretary-General came under attack as a result of speculations concerning the outcome of the inquiry by the Volcker Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme. The final report of the Volcker Committee is presented, entitled ‘The Management of the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme’ shown in Part II as document 4) and issued in September 2005. As described, the Committee issued a strong indictment, concluding that the Secretary-General, the Security Council and the United Nations agencies had not been up to the extraordinary challenges posed by the Oil-for-Food Programme. This section also covers the investigations launched by the United States Congress into the United Nations in parallel to the Volcker Committee, including the bipartisan Task Force on the United Nations chaired by George Mitchell and Newt Gingrich.  The United States Congress considered the establishment of benchmarks for United Nations reform, coupled with the withholding of funding to the United Nations in case of non-compliance.  In addition, the United States administration pushed for a strong package of United Nations management reforms in the areas of fraud prevention, oversight and accountability.

            Section 2.7 (Security Council Reform: The Collapse of Aspiration) covers the continuous efforts to reach agreement on the Security Council reform. Taking into account the proposals of the High-level Panel, three draft reform resolutions were considered.  The Group of 4, including Germany, Brazil, Japan and India, pushed for a proposal that would provide them with new permanent seats.  In order to improve the acceptability of the proposal, no veto right was demanded for the new permanent seats. A larger group of member states, called Uniting for Consensus and led by Italy, Pakistan, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, Turkey and Argentina, favoured the establishment of a larger number of semi-permanent seats, again without the veto rights. Whereas those countries were unlikely to gain one of the proposed new permanent seats, they would be stronger candidates in a semi-permanent arrangement.  The two proposals did not, however, gain the support of the African states, which demanded permanent seats for Africa with veto rights.  As described, in the end, no proposal was submitted to the World Summit, and the attempt to reform the Security Council had failed once again after its previous collapse in the context of the 1995 Summit.

            Section 2.8 (2005 World Summit: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity) describes the negotiations during the months leading up to the World Summit and the decisions reached with the approval of the ‘2005 World Summit Outcome’ (shown in Part II as document 5) in September 2005.  This covers the new emphasis introduced with compared to the previous proposals, such as the last-minute demands by the United States including increased emphasis on management reform by strengthening internal oversight and accountability.  It also covers issues for which no agreement could be reached.  Most important are the consensus on terrorism, Security Council reform, the strengthening of nuclear non-proliferation and new commitments on development.

            Section 2.9 (Follow-up to the World Summit: Continued and New Reform Efforts) describes the outcome of continued negotiations on issues, which remained unresolved during the Summit. This included essential elements of the Human Rights Council, the Peacebuilding Commission, ECOSOC and the management reform. With regard to the latter, the report of the Secretary-General is presented entitled ‘Investing in the United Nations: For a Stronger Organization Worldwide’ (shown in Part II as document 6) and issued in March 2006. Moreover, events following upon the failed Security Council reform are recalled.

            Finally, Section 2.10 (Concluding Comments: Incremental Steps Towards Legitimacy and Effectiveness) provides some observations on the outcome of the reform process, in particular on the result of the World Summit. It is argued that some significant agreements were reached on important new directions to strengthen the United Nations and multilateralism. The grand bargain, however, was not achieved as initially intended.

            This publication constitutes the fifth volume of Reforming the United Nations.  The first three volumes[1] present a detailed review of 50 earlier reform initiatives and of key reform documents originating during the period from 1950 to 1995.  The period from 1996 to 2000 is captured in the fourth volume[2], which presents, in particular, the reform efforts of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan known as the Quiet Revolution.  Together, the five volumes provide over 5,000 pages of material and constitute the most complete documentation of their kind.

            I trust that Reforming the United Nations: The Struggle for Legitimacy and Effectiveness will be  of use to those interested in the reform of the United Nations. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Organization I am affiliated with.


Joachim Müller

Geneva, 2006                 

[1] Joachim Müller, Reforming the United Nations : New Initiatives and Past Efforts, Kluwer Law International, The Hague, volumes I to III, 1997.

[2] Joachim Müller, Reforming the United Nations : The Quiet Revolution, Kluwer Law International, The Hague, volume IV, 2001.