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United Nations reform

By Keith Suter - posted Friday, 8 July 2005


Can life begin at 60? The United Nations had its 60th birthday on June 26, marking the occasion when the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has tabled his report on how the UN can be reorganised to make greater progress in development, security and the protection of human rights.

This is one of the most ambitious documents ever tabled by a UN Secretary General. Unfortunately, the omens are not good. Most other reports from UN Secretaries General on UN reform have not been implemented. UN reform is like the weather - everybody talks about it but little gets done.

The report is notable for its wide-ranging ideas. Many media reports have focused on proposals for amending the UN bodies. But these come towards the end of the document.

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Most of the report covers, as suggested by its title, the substantive areas of UN’s work. The report is well worth reading just for being an excellent overview of matters such as the environment, development and human rights. It provides a very good introduction to the UN’s work and it is written in a reader-friendly way.

For example, at a time when Australia’s foreign aid is at a record low level, the report reaffirms the UN target (which Australia has supported) of creating a timetable to achieve 0.7 per cent of gross national income to be provided as aid. The target should be reached by 2015, with 0.5 per cent being reached by 2009. This is a specific target that Australia should aim towards.

On natural disasters, with the Asian tsunami fresh in everyone’s mind, the UN Secretary General recommends the establishment of a worldwide early warning system for all natural hazards, building on existing national and regional capacity. This is in keeping with another report the UN General Assembly has had on its shelves for 17 years: the report from the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues.

Indeed, it is the fate of both the 0.7 per cent development target and the non-implementation of the report from that Independent Commission, which makes me pessimistic about the current report.

There is no shortage of bright ideas on what ought to be done. The UN Secretary General is to be congratulated for bringing them together in one document. But there is a lack of political will to implement the good ideas.

There is a difference in worldview between how the UN is viewed by many members of the general public - and how it is actually used by national governments. The general public would like the UN to flourish as the international mechanism to assist with such issues as development, protection of human rights and protection of the environment. They therefore expect national governments to work for the greater international good.

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But national governments see the UN as just another weapon in their armoury for safeguarding the national interest. They lack the idealism of many members of their own general public.

If the UN makes progress on an issue, then it is more because governments have found that it fits with their own short-term narrow nationalistic outlook, rather than any deliberate attempt to work for the international common good. Governments are not as naturally internationally-minded as are many of their citizens.

If this sounds too harsh, then look again at such commonsense recommendations as governments providing 0.7 per cent for foreign aid and creating international early warning systems for natural disasters. My fear is that governments will again fail to make much headway on these sensible ideas.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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