It has become clear that the United Nations is ill suited to the challenges of the 21st century. Its institutions were created in the aftermath of World War II and to this day they reflect that balance of global power. Yet the world has changed drastically in the past half century. The number of states has tripled, and the very structure of international relations has been transformed. The U.N. must evolve to cope with this new world.
The Iraq crisis of 2002, triggered by the United States’ readiness to invade another sovereign state without U.N. approval, brought home the failings of the organization. The lessons were plain: New security threats had emerged that the world body was not prepared to deal with. And if the U.N. could not respond to them, then it risked becoming irrelevant. The failures reflected both structures and operating principles, and remedying them would require drastic measures on both levels.
Cognizant of these challenges, Secretary General Kofi Annan convened a panel of 16 eminent persons to assess the nature of future threats and to recommend changes in the institution to better enable the U.N. to deal with them. The High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change deliberated for a year, and presented its report to Mr. Annan last week, who will forward it, and its 101 recommendations, to the General Assembly. Mr. Annan will also boil that lengthy list down and provide his own version next March, which will then be considered by heads of state at a meeting prior to the General Assembly session in September.
The panel’s first challenge was identifying security threats of the 21st century. Its list includes traditional dangers, such as conventional war or the use of weapons of mass destruction, but it also acknowledged new threats such as terrorism, poverty, environmental degradation and organized crime. These have long been concerns, but linking them to international security has been problematic. Significantly, these threats shift the level of analysis from governments to individuals and groups operating within states.
To think of them as security threats requires a new menu of responses to them. That means two things. First, it implies collective responsibility for what has been the domestic affairs of a country. Since actions within a nation have consequences beyond its borders, the veil of national sovereignty becomes quite transparent. Second, because the potential consequences of threats are so much greater than in the past, there is a premium on acting before those threats occur. In other words, preemptive action is to be encouraged. And the High Level Panel concludes that states have a right to defend themselves, even preemptively when an attack is imminent. The panel also argues that if the use of force is needed, it should only be a last resort and should be authorized by the Security Council.
The High Level Panel concludes that the U.N. needs structural reform. The most obvious, and most awaited, recommendation was the call to expand the Security Council. The panel suggested enlarging the council from its current 15 members to 24. Yet in an indication of the difficulties that lie ahead, even this small group of eminent persons could not agree on what should be done.
The panel provided two recommendations. One proposal would add three new rotating two-year members and six new permanent members (most likely Japan, Germany, Brazil, India, Egypt and either Nigeria or South Africa). The second would create another group of eight semipermanent members with renewable four-year terms and add one more member with a two-year term. Both proposals retain the current permanent five members, and they get to keep their vetoes.
This suggestion moves toward a more representative U.N. but it is by no means consistent with its democratic ideals. Japan would become more equal — it would likely get one of the new permanent or semipermanent seats — but it would not be among the “most equal” as it would not have a veto. Japan supports the reform as it provides one of the best ways for it to fulfill its international responsibilities. Nonetheless, there was some dissatisfaction at the restriction of the veto to the five original permanent members. Japanese officials argue that all UNSC permanent members should have equal rights, but, when pressed, they concede that they will follow the will of the international community.
That realism will be required of all U.N. members if there is to be any hope of reform. There is much that is unknown about the fate of the U.N., but one thing is certain: Reform will be painful and leave many unsatisfied. Compromise will be required all around. Many will be content to see the U.N. sink under the weight of its failures or its idealism. Its supporters must strive to see that they do not prevail. The High Level Panel provides a starting point realistic discussions about the future of the U.N. It deserves serious consideration.
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