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Reforming the United Nations

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 6 March 2007


UN reform is like the weather - everyone talks about it but nothing is ever accomplished. Therefore, I am not very optimistic that the current spate of UN reform proposals will get very far.

Amending the UN Charter is a very difficult process. There has not been any substantive amendment to the document since it was created in 1945. Therefore I distinguish between "micro" amendments (which could be implemented today if there were the political will) and "macro" amendments (which require an amendment to the UN Charter).

The extent of the micro amendments shows how far governments could go in making the UN Charter more effective without having to amend it - and, by implication, how reluctant they are to make full use of the current document.

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Micro reforms

The UN was not designed to fail. The people who drew up the UN Charter in 1945 really did think that they were producing a workable document. Winston Churchill, one of the UN’s architects, referred to the war they had just fought as the “Unnecessary War” because it “could easily have been prevented if the League of Nations had been used with courage and loyalty by the associated nations”.

The architects did not want to want to repeat the same errors. But that generation, scarred by two world wars, has long since passed from the political scene, and the current generation is more concerned with furthering national interests rather than expanding the UN.

Therefore, before speculating on ways of “reforming” the current document, attention ought to be given to seeing how the current document can be better implemented. “Micro reforms” could be implemented immediately - if there were the political will to do so. Here are some examples of how the UN could be made more effective today.

UN finances

All member states should pay their subscriptions on time. The sums are not large. The total UN system spends about US$12 billion each year. Therefore the appalling record of most countries paying late (though Australia is always on time) can only be explained as a political action because their contributions are not onerous.

A variation on the proposal that all members should pay their subscriptions on time is that all aspiring members of the Security Council should have paid their contributions to the UN budget (this would knock out most of the current membership - including the US and Russia).

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More generally, there should be more money for the UN system. For example, many people die from diseases that could be prevented if there were more money for health care services. Ironically, developed countries such as Australia are now providing - as a percentage of their gross national product - less foreign aid than they were two decades ago. The UN foreign aid target for developed countries is 0.7 of the gross national product - Australia is giving less than half of that target. As countries have become richer, so they have become meaner.

More women at senior levels

More women should be appointed to senior positions. The senior level of the UN traditionally had none or only a few women. This was similar to the lack of women as heads of national delegations to the UN. However, just as some countries are now making more of an effort to ensure equal opportunity at the head of delegation level, so the UN's own employment practices could reflect that same determination.

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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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