The United Nations at 75 – due for a rewrite?

The increasing frustration of the west with the United Nations will surely spell the organisation’s downfall unless it adapts to what its three western permanent members want. A revised UN Charter can update this organisation to the dramatically different perils of the contemporary world, and might just save an otherwise rotting collective structure from oblivion. The United Nations needs to find a new direction, trim away its ineffective structures, and develop new capacities, such as in the field of global health, to meet its members’ current demands.

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By Matthew Parish

We are frequently reminded that the current global coronavirus pandemic represents the greatest challenge to the international order since World War II. With a global crisis, all the rules of geopolitics have the potential to be rewritten. Hence it may be time to rewrite the rules of the United Nations, much as did the prevailing powers in 1945. The United Nations was conceived as a mechanism of global cooperation in the aftermath of war, and in the years since the end of the Cold War it has been perceived increasingly as a failure. That may be because the organisation was conceived as a method of countering a threat that has subsided. The world faces new threats, and therefore it may need a new United Nations organisation.

In the course of World War II, the globe had been devastated by cruel war across borders with a high death toll. The League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor created by US President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I to try to prevent the recurrence of conflict, was the first idea of an international organisation designed to create collective solutions to global challenges such as global war. The League failed in its task because Wilson could not persuade his own Senate to ratify the treaty creating it, in the face of Republican-led bipartisan opposition to the Peace Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. By the time the League of Nations, structured in much the same way as the United Nations but with a more sclerotic Security Council (every member of the Council had a veto, not just the permanent ones), was faced with the challenge of Nazi German regional aggression in Europe, Germany withdrew unilaterally from the League; in the absence of US diplomatic and military support, the League proved impotent in response.

The League was refashioned into the United Nations at the end of World War II, and the United States did join the structure this time under a Democrat-majority Senate. The structure of the UN was almost identical to that of the League: a secretariat headed by a Secretary General, a Security Council for emergencies, and a General Assembly of the members for non-urgent matters. The Security Council’s permanent members would have vetoes in resolutions authorising the use of force or other measures to address risks to peace and security, but unanimity of the Security Council would not be required. Nevertheless the Security Council found itself perennially blocked in making decisions of consequence in response to international crises, by reason of Cold War superpower rivalry (both of whom had vetoes). In response to its impotence in its core function, the United Nations bureaucracy grew exponentially in other areas, proliferating a rash of so-called specialised agencies designed to combat specific international perils but each with weak legal powers. In this way, the United Nations flourished, after a fashion, even though its principal Security Council actors could not agree upon the major issues of the day. The United Nations became a fount of international legal institutions in which the global powers shared technology, competence and ideas in the background of Cold War division.

This structure made ever less sense as the Cold War drew to a conclusion. The 1990’s saw a proliferation of civil conflicts worldwide as the status quo off nuclear armed Superpower confrontation abated. The support of one or other Superpower for an otherwise unsustainable  military government or rebel movement receded in the Cold War’s conflict zones. This was because it no longer became necessary to fight Cold War across the world using satellite states, new conflicts were ignited to establish the post-Cold War balance of power. (By contrast some interminable civil conflicts ceased abruptly, as the Superpowers lost interest in fuelling them.)

Ostensibly the United Nations approved post-Cold War military intervention missions to restore order or balance the tide in these new war-ridden regions of the world, but in practice these interventions were typically led by one Security Council member as they came to realise they might have a vested interest in the outcome of a regional security crisis, even after the end of the Cold War. Hence the United Nations came to serve as a cover for unilateral actions on the part of its most powerful member states. The United Nations could no longer address conflicts effectively on a genuinely multilateral basis (if ever it had been able to, which is much debated), as its failed roles in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda showed.

By reason of these unsuccessful operations, a picture emerged of a United Nations bureaucracy that had been left to grow unsupervised and had become grossly bloated, inefficient, corrupt and incapable of making effective decisions or executing effective operations as a result. The United Nations had come to employ many tens of thousands of people around the world – nobody knew (or still knows) exactly how many. It had come to enjoy a budget of tens of billions of dollars a year – but, extraordinarily, again nobody knows just how much. I have written before on the bizarre opacity of the United Nations financial system: the biggest bureaucracy of its kind in the world lacking effective financial or management oversight. And now more recently the specialised agencies, one after the other, have started to demonstrate serial and even criminal mismanagement.

The Department for Peacekeeping Operations presided over a culture of impunity in response to child sex abuse by UN peacekeepers. The World Health Organization failed to respond to the first Ebola crisis, notwithstanding its enormous bureaucracy and ostensible expertise. The United Nations Development System came under strain, as a proliferation of sub-agencies proved unable to resist an alternative development model of infrastructure spending, and investment in raw materials manufacture, developed by China in its Belt-and-Road initiative. The World Intellectual Property Organization demonstrated that it could not run the international patent system effectively, its sometime Director General mired in accusations of corruption. The Director of the UN agency to combat HIV / AIDS was shown to run an organisation in which homosexual sexual assault had become a norm of the employment relationship. Staff members who raised these deficiencies were persecuted. With every successive Secretary General, the reputation of the organisation for probity, honesty and effectiveness has corroded still further.

This is an irony for the UN’s critics, because the United Nations markets itself as the international standard bearer for the rule of law. It purports to propagate a rich legal infrastructure governing the functioning of its operations, and it manages a number of international courts and tribunals of varying effectiveness. Yet the organisation’s reputation for adhering to standards of rule of law that it enunciates is abysmal. The problem is principally one of accountability. The United Nations sits outside the legal systems of the member states that fund it. The UN provides no management accounting to its member states for the benefits or services it provides in exchange for their annual contributions to its budget, so it is impossible for the major donor member states to assess whether they are receiving value for money in contributing to a collective organisation, or whether they are paying more proportionate to the collective benefit than other donors. Were a more robust system of cost management and benefit measurement put in place, so wasteful a bureaucracy would never have been able to proliferate because it would have been transparent that the UN’s perpetual bureaucratic growth achieves so little of measurable value for its members.

One way of resurrecting a relationship between contribution and value in a collective system is to rank influence within the system proportionate to fiscal contributions. The UN sits in an endless conflict with the United States who is disappointed by how little the organisation achieves in the interests of its biggest funder. Therefore the United States refuses to pay its full assessed contributions. This is a pattern that has recurred for decades over both Republican and Democrat administrations in Washington, DC, although Republicans and Democrats tend to be dissatisfied with the operation of the United Nations for somewhat different reasons.

Failure to pay compounds resistance within the United Nations bureaucracy to US influence, and a vicious circle emerges. Most recently the United States has become so infuriated with the UN’s habit of pulling in a different direction from its principal donor that it has unilaterally withdrawn from the UN’s operations, including the International Criminal Court, the Human Rights Council and most recently the World Health Organization. The United Nations’ effectiveness is inevitably decreased as a result, as the world finds itself encumbered with a model of multilateralism in which the United States appears reluctant to participate. We are reminded of the flaccidity of the League of Nations, which suffered the same fate of US neglect that led to the League becoming an irrelevance.

One solution to this bureaucratic failure is to incentivise the United Nations into providing the services its principal donors want it to provide. That may be achieved by rating influence within the organisation proportionate to contributions to its budget; and encouraging tied contracts. If a member state wants the United Nations to undertake a specific response to an international crisis using that member state’s money, there should be a more effective mechanism for the member state to prescribe what its expectations are and the circumstances in which payments are made, for example against milestones. Rigorous financial and management oversight, externally imposed by member states and using their domestic standards, will follow from benchmarking the results of UN missions and organisations. The United Nations will be subject to external audit according to its donors’ standards. This is the same as one would expect from any mutual society.

This leads into a point about values. Western donors to the United Nations expect their contributions to be spent in accordance with the values of democracy and rule of law that cause their societies to thrive economically and politically. The United Nations is currently an environment in which rule of law is almost entirely absent. Its international network of courts is dysfunctional; the organisation’s specialised agencies are virtually criminally negligent; corruption is endemic; there are no promotions on the basis of merit; legitimate dissent is suppressed.

One might take the view that these problems are virtually inevitable given the member states’ composition. The United Nations General Assembly, in theory responsible for oversight of the Secretariat’s work, is composed of every member state of the UN on a one member state – one vote theory. A greater majority of those member states are net recipients of UN funds (developing world nations); a greater majority have little to no rule of law traditions. In these circumstances, it is not hard to imagine why there is a proliferation of so much corruption and ineptitude within the United Nations Executive; countries without rule of law traditions can hardly be expected miraculously to import or advance such a culture in the global cooperative society of which they are members. Western nations express persistent frustration with the absence of rule of law in the United Nations bureaucracy; but given the way the organisation was conceived, as a collective of lawless countries each with equal say, this is virtually inevitable.

Many improvements have been made in the rule of law cultures of UN member states since the organisation’s founding in 1945. That is because many states have come to learn that minimal standards of rule of law are essential for economic growth and indeed for fruitful multilateral cooperation. Nevertheless it remains hard to cooperate with some countries in a multilateral way, because they have no domestic culture of rules-based cooperation.

Some countries are in transition between government power being executed outside the law and a modern rule of law culture. This may be particularly true of post-communist countries as they persevere to move from internal bureaucracies based upon patronage to those based upon rules. To persist with their reforms and to create a level playing field between the world’s modern superpowers, countries need to be incentivised to cooperate in a fair and lawful way. There is no point having an organisation in the nature of the United Nations driven as a vast system of unlawful patronage, which is what it has become. As the rest of the world has rejected communism over the past 30 years, the contemporary United Nations seems to have embraced it in its bewildering and suffocating bureaucracy, and this must be undone.

A reformed and rejuvenated United Nations therefore needs the capacity to restrict voting or contributing membership to countries meeting global rule of law standards. It also needs the capacity to expel errant countries that fall below the high standard we properly expect of multilateral rule of law. This requires a fundamental rethink of how member states are admitted to and depart from a scheme of multilateral cooperation, and the commitments they all make to one-another. The United Nations charter, determined to focus upon inclusiveness of member states, overlooked criteria for admission and expulsion. A new UN charter might be much clearer about the behaviour it expects of its members. It is unrealistic to pretend that multilateral cooperation can achieve net surpluses where the standards of behaviour of its members are so variable. P&I clubs, for mutual insurance of vessels, contain minimum standards for the conduct of their members in their charters; it is hard to see why the United Nations should not adopt an equivalent approach.

The United Nations’ various charters of legal standards, in particular its human rights instruments that are supposed to guarantee rule of law protections in all its member states, also need to be rewritten. They are aged documents, couched in the legal language of the world after World War II. Ambiguously written to please everyone in an era of widespread destruction of pre-war domestic legal orders, the vagaries in their texts have been exploited by the unscrupulous. The United Nations human rights architecture, operating within parameters unsatisfactorily defined by these documents, is particularly unsatisfactory. Its stated goals are hazy, and themselves fall below the rule of law standards the United Nations purports to propagate but almost universally fails to.

The United Nations is a cooperative society between its members to resolve global problems, based upon the assumption that some international problems are better faced collectively than alone. Nevertheless it is reasonable to expect that individual members of the cooperative society will require the organisation as a whole to adhere to minimum standards of behaviour. These should ensure that the cooperative operates professionally, accountably, ethically and with proper cost / benefit analyses routinely undertaken so that the member states may periodically assess the efficacy of their contributions. Therefore rule of law must come first.

Now is the time for a comprehensive rewrite of the UN Charter. The coronavirus crisis has taught us that global emergencies can change in dramatic ways. The UN Charter that we live with now was designed principally to address armed conflict, not pandemic plagues. Nobody could have imagined in 1945 that a trundling bureaucracy amassed piecemeal over the decades to respond to individual military crises might now struggle to know what to do in the face of the international spread of a pandemic. Because the problem is truly international, international cooperation on emergency medical procedures, to ensure constancy of testing methods, sharing of vaccine research, and the like, makes eminent sense. Yet the benefits of cooperation can only be achieved if the United Nations is a lawful environment, run professionally and whose employees understand that their role is deliver upon their members’ needs. Therefore they must constantly demonstrate value for money in what they are doing.

No cooperative society, even one on so monumental a scale as the United Nations, can survive unless it understands the need for it to be responsive to the values, financial commitments and expectations of its contributing members. The current United Nations, an antique institution now held in near-universal derision, fails on all three of these counts. Perhaps that is not surprising. The challenges facing the world are different from those existing in 1945. The increasing frustration of the west with the United Nations – and the west has three permanent members out of five on the UN Security Council – will surely spell the organisation’s downfall unless the United Nations adapts to what its three western permanent members want. A revised UN Charter can update this organisation to the dramatically different perils of the contemporary world, and might just save an otherwise rotting collective structure from oblivion. The United Nations needs to find a new direction, trim away its ineffective structures, and develop new capacities, such as in the field of global health, to meet its members’ current demands.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer and scholar of international relations based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Leicester; was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum; and has been named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. An expert in UN reform, he is the author of several books and over three hundred articles.

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