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A radical reform proposal for the United Nations

By Sean Kellett - posted Wednesday, 21 March 2007

The United Nations is our last, best hope for a peaceful and prosperous planet. There exists no other institution with the same universal appeal, the same hold on our collective imagination, the same potential to make the world a fairer place for all of its inhabitants. The new Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, therefore inherits an awesome responsibility: to improve the capabilities of the organisation and to strengthen its role in international affairs for the betterment of humanity.

Unfortunately, strengthening the organisation is easier said than done. The previous Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, attempted many reforms but was, for the most part, stymied by powerful actors interested in the status quo.

Structurally, the United Nations favours the status quo and incumbent power. As supporters of a strong and capable United Nations, this reality leads to an uncomfortable but nonetheless central truth about the institution: the organisational structure, centred on the Secretariat, the Security Council, and the General Assembly does not reflect our democratic and humanitarian sensibilities.


As much as we may have faith in the institution, in the charters, in the norms and ideas that we believe reflect what is best about humanity, we cannot deny the reality that the structure is a compromise to power. The UN suffers from a democratic deficit and as long as this deficit exists, critics will charge - quite fairly - that the organisation has no legitimacy to act out its institutional role.

Of course, I am well aware that not all who criticise the United Nations for its lack of democratic mores are disinterested parties seeking to improve the organisation. These critics, usually American conservatives, use the charge as a political weapon. Their aim is to weaken the institution, such that it cannot be used to restrict the projection of American power. The hypocrisy in this position is of course breathtaking. However, we supporters cannot afford to ignore these critics, nor can we allow them to misappropriate our democratic values for their political gains. We must meet this criticism head-on and in the process create a strong, capable and democratically constituted United Nations.

Structural reform is therefore required - democratic structural reform. This is not a new observation, many have made it and what's more, many have offered solutions. Usually the solution involves adding a second chamber to accompany the General Assembly. In one formulation, members to this second chamber would be democratically elected, with one member accounting for possibly a million constituents. In an attempt to appease the powerful states on the Security Council, the P5, advocates will quite often stipulate that the chamber be “advisory only”. The underlying assumption - hope really - being that over time this second chamber will earn more and more respect and will eventually rival the Security Council.

I do not support this solution. I find it unrealistic for a number of reasons. In the first instance, a second chamber populated by individuals representing electorates would pose a challenge to the charter of the United Nations, which stresses peoples and state sovereignty. A chamber at odds with the rest of the organisation would weaken, not strengthen the United Nations.

Second, the amount of co-ordination and co-operation required to create this chamber would be unprecedented, requiring the active support of virtually all state governments simultaneously. Third, it is naive to expect national governments, no matter how progressive, to support a reform quite clearly designed to reduce their power.

Finally, there exists no powerful constituency at present that will definitely benefit from a second chamber, leading to the obvious question: who benefits?


For those of us interested in democratic reform to strengthen the organisation, a second chamber may hold sentimental value, but in the final analysis it is a false hope.

Recoiling from the term “government” and hoping to appear less “utopian”, another solution sometimes offered involves the nebulous terms “governance” and “networks” as well as the participation of “civil society”. The argument generally goes that the democratic credentials of the United Nations would be enhanced by formally including “civil society” into the proceedings. Civil society referring of course to the many and varied NGOs.

These new networked NGOs, the argument continues, being located close to the communities in which they work can provide the United Nations with a model of “governance” that is both legitimate and workable.

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About the Author

Sean Kellett is studying for a post-graduate diploma at the University of Melbourne and his thesis topic touches on reform of the United Nations.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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