A UN for the future?

The founding executive director of the Global Policy Forum shares his thoughts on reforming the United Nations on the occasion of its seventieth anniversary

James A. Paul

The United Nations celebrated its seventieth anniversary in October, so it's time to reflect on the organisation's accomplishments and shortcomings and to consider the possibility of making it stronger and more effective. Since the end of World War II, when the UN was founded, humanity has avoided nuclear war, colonialism has been abolished, and international cooperation on health, children's rights and more has dramatically increased. But today the planetary landscape is neither peaceful nor safe nor broadly prosperous. The UN Security Council has not prevented war, terror, mass migration, or state failure. UN economic bodies have fallen short too, unable to overcome poverty, hunger and the rise of global oligarchy. Worst of all, climate change threatens us with the 'Sixth Extinction'.

It's tempting to blame 'the UN' for these many problems, but the world body is not autonomous. It has been shaped and run by its most powerful member states - those who crafted the Charter in 1944-45 and who insist the organisation conform to their needs and interests. The US and UK in particular - along with France, Russia and China - are the UN hegemons, the Permanent Members of the Security Council, who gave themselves power to veto any policy (or change) they disapprove. To suit their purposes, they have set up competing institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the G-7, and they have kept the UN weak and underfunded. They have also repeatedly blocked progressive reform to protect their control, making effective multilateral global governance, reflecting the wishes of the majority, impossible. Other member states, hardly paragons of virtue, have not had the capacity, inspiration, courage or power to achieve something better.

Many reformers have tried to alter the UN's structures and power relations without much success. Blue ribbon panels have come and gone. Institutional change at the UN will remain frozen by the hegemons (and their corporate and financial interests) until crisis provokes real public alarm and new political forces gain strength. It seems possible that we are entering such a period now, due largely to climate change and the cascade of crises resulting from it. The ancien regime, including traditional state structures, is no longer as capable or credible as it once was. Those seeking change must seize the opportunities, face the uncertainties and have clear ideas about the future.

Many national leaders will be offering right-wing 'patriotic solutions' behind walled-in borders. But as climate change gathers force - resulting in more mass migration, political instability, violence and even food supply failure - we can expect the world's people to form cross-border political movements to demand global initiatives. The UN, which people in most countries trust more than their own governments according to polls, will offer the only immediate hope of such action - but we must dramatically reform and strengthen the organisation for this transformational purpose. We have little time and there is much to do.

Reform must begin by removing the oligarchy of Permanent Members. At the same time, there must be new forms of representation that go beyond nation states. One such proposal is a directly-elected People's Assembly, a second chamber that could function in parallel with the General Assembly. Other reforms must ensure that the top UN leadership is appointed on merit, not narrow national pressure and control.

The UN secretariat and its agencies spend over $30 billion each year, which may seem generous, particularly when additional direct funds from the public and corporations are factored in. But global mandates overwhelm the system. Sensible reform must responsibly and efficiently grow the UN budget many-fold to finance serious action. To gather the needed funds, we must turn to a system of global taxes, including a carbon tax and a tax on financial transactions.

The reformed institution must be responsive to democratic pressure from below, including devolved regional and local forms of decision-making, but it must conserve the ability to act effectively at the global level. All this and more is possible - but only when the old power-centres lose their legitimacy and people demand global renewal as an urgent means of survival.

Rather than waiting for disaster to arrive in full force, citizens must now begin to act transnationally and to demand a functional, well-financed, effective and strong world body, democratic and proactive, protecting the environment, advancing peace, and working (at last) in the people's interest.