UN secretary general António Guterres. Photo: AFP
UN secretary general António Guterres. Photo: AFP

Reforming the UN: problems and prospects

UN secretary general Antnio Guterres's reform plan faces significant normative, financial and political challenges, and lessons from earlier efforts might prove instructive

In March 2018, UN secretary general António Guterres submitted an ambitious blueprint for the consideration of the UN general assembly to restructure the organization’s peace and security pillar. This plan has four main goals: first, to “prioritize prevention and sustaining peace"; second, to “enhance the effectiveness and coherence of peacekeeping operations and special political missions"; third, to make the pillar “coherent, nimble and effective"; and fourth, to “align the peace and security pillar more closely with the development and human rights pillars to create greater coherence and cross-pillar coordination".

If the plan comes to fruition, it would be akin to combining a nation’s foreign, defence and development ministries into one super ministry. While this might not make sense for nations, such coherence would enhance the UN’s primary goal of ensuring global peace and security. This reform plan faces significant normative, financial and political challenges, and lessons from earlier efforts might prove instructive.

Efforts to reform the UN’s peace and security architecture began soon after the establishment of the world body and have continued ever since with varied results. The early reforms were driven primarily by international developments, notably the superpower Cold War contestation, as well as the rapid process of decolonization and the expanding membership of the UN. The advent of the so-called “chapter six-and-a-half" peacekeeping in the mid-1950s and the establishment of the normative holy trinity of consent, impartiality, and minimum use of force for these operations was a direct consequence of these global developments.

Similarly, the early bonhomie of the post-Cold War era, coupled with the surge in peace agreements, led to the creation of the department of peacekeeping operations (DPKO) and the publication of “An Agenda For Peace" in 1992. Soon thereafter, following the disastrous failures in Mogadishu (1993), Rwanda (1994) and Srebrenica (1995), the Brahmi report on UN peace operations, published in 2000, sought comprehensive reforms of the DPKO. The turn of the century also saw the adoption of UN security council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in 2000 (only to be shelved following the events of 9/11) and the establishment of the norm of the responsibility to protect (R2P), adopted in the 2005 World Summit outcome document. However, the implementation of R2P has remained both extremely controversial and woefully inadequate.

More recently, the 2015 “High-Level Independent Panel On Peacekeeping Operations" (HIPPO) report sought to redress the growing expectations of UN peacekeeping with its growing inadequacies. In particular, the HIPPO report stressed the primacy of politics in resolving ongoing conflicts; the need for responsive operations; stronger partnerships, especially with the African Union; and the need for operations to be field-focused and people-oriented. On the other hand, the 2017 report by Lt Gen. (retd) Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, the former UN force commander in Haiti and Congo, highlighted the need to improve the security of UN peacekeepers.

All these peace and security reforms, as well as their successes or failures, have depended on three sets of actors: member states (who constitute the so-called “first UN"); the secretariat (which makes up the “second UN"); and civil society—both within states and on the international stage (who are recognized as the “third UN"). Of course, none of these sets of actors are monolithic. In fact, the differences are often most pronounced within the same set of actors. For instance, differences within the first UN—evident between states that are the biggest contributors to the UN budget (the US, for instance) and states that either provide the bulk of peacekeeping troops (such as the South Asian nations) or that are beneficiaries of UN peace and security efforts (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa)—are one of the primary factors that have thwarted previous reforms.

While Guterres’ appointment, via a reformed selection process, was partly an endorsement of his agenda to restructure the secretariat, the plan presented in March 2018 faces several hurdles. First, in normative terms, many states of the global South—particularly those in the throes of conflict—are wary of the links made between peace and security on the one hand and development and human rights on the other.

A second, and more formidable, challenge is raising financial resources to ensure these changes. Although Guterres has averred that the restructuring will be “cost-neutral", the Donald Trump administration’s “America First" policy, coupled with an aversion to multilateralism, indicates that Washington might yet cut its share of the UN budget. A related issue is to allow the secretariat to move the budget from peacekeeping operations to prevention efforts, if needed.

Finally, political interests in maintaining the present silo-ed and arcane structure might yet drive some states to oppose these sweeping reforms to maintain their hold on prized billets in the secretariat. An even bigger political problem is that although these changes may improve the delivery of the peace and security mandate, they are unlikely to reform the way the mandate is shaped. That would require a long overdue reform of the UN security council, which, sadly, is beyond the remit of the secretary general’s reform agenda, and is stymied by the ancien régime desperately clinging on to power.

W.P.S. Sidhu is professor at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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