Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

The United Nations After Coronavirus

The United Nations After Coronavirus

Thursday, 24 December, 2020 - 05:45
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”. Implicit is the expectation that there is an opportunity for progress.

Since the creation of the UN there has not been a single crisis that affected the entire world population and every single country, regardless of its size, military might and economic prowess as did the COVID-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has affected relationships amongst individuals, between individuals and governments and also between governments. Also, COVID-19 has buried the notion that security can be confined to the military realm. It has also confirmed that international solidarity and cooperation is necessary to deal with transnational threats such as the pandemic. But more importantly it has led to the inescapable conclusion that there is a crisis in governance at the international, regional and national levels.

The relevant question then becomes: Where does the process of UN reform figure amongst these developments? The UN is at once a reflection of the balance of power in international system at any point of time and also an agent of change. Herein lies the dilemma that complicates the process of UN reform.

UN reform has been a constant theme in for a considerable time, certainly since the 1960s when the membership of the organization witnessed a major change in the size of its membership. This resulted in merely enlarging the non-permanent membership of the Security Council without affecting its methods of work. This however can be considered as the sole, but incomplete, substantive reform of the UN.

In this context, one should not overlook the introduction of the concept of peacekeeping in the 1950s . This was a major innovation, and therefore can be considered as a reform, designed to overcome the failure of the permanent members of the Security Council to agree on a UN force envisaged by the Charter.

The push for UN reform was driven primarily driven by developing countries, largely frustrated by the inability of the permanent members of the Security Council to allow the Council to effectively discharge its responsibilities in the area of the maintenance of international peace and security, but also due to growing frustration of their limited influence to shape the international economic order.

After the 1973 oil crisis a push for reforming the international economic order was launched. This would include the need to address the decision-making processes at both the World Bank and the IMF. In 1974 a process for reviewing the UN Charter was initiated, focusing primarily at equitable representation in the Security Council and limiting the use of the veto power. And again in 1992, the Security Council became engaged in the process of reform.

None these initiatives have resulted in substantive reform: equitable representation in the decision-making process, primarily in the Security Council, the World Bank and the IMF.

The only reforms that were able to get traction were the efforts dealing with the marginal matters. That is not to say that such efforts have completely failed. They have had positive impact on setting the priorities and to some extent the methods of work of the UN in the economic and social fields.

The failure of substantive reform can be traced to two main factors: First, the resistance of the permanent members of the Security Council to restrict their role in the maintenance of international peace and security. Second, the continuous attempts of major contributors, whether to the regular budget or extra-budgetary voluntary resources, to enhance their influence over the disbursement of funds to finance UN operational activities, thereby exercising inordinate influence over development assistance priorities. This is particularly apparent in conflict and post-conflict situations.

In addition, there are a host of factors, some of which have emerged of late, that are also responsible for complicating UN reform. First, while all members, at least on the surface, agree on the need for reforms, they mean different things. Those who exercise the most influence in the present day and that also happen to be the main contributors to the regular budget as well as the main source of voluntary contributions, while aiming to address waste and increase the efficiency of the delivery of the UN, they also seek to preserve if not enhance their influence in managing the organization that makes up the UN system.

Second, is the position of both Russia and China. While both countries are on the same page with the other three permanent members of the Security Council when it comes to the reform of the Council, they meanwhile strive to enhance their power elsewhere in the UN system by continuously trying to sway the majority of members to their positions.

Third, is the fragmentation of majority of the international community still nominally grouped as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77 (G77). Fourth, is the increased influence of NGOs in setting international agendas, particularly in the economic and social fields. Fifth and last, is the increasing role of private funding of UN activities.

While the latter two factors are relatively recent, they are an increasingly important feature of the evolving international system. They however contradict the basic principle upon which the UN is built: it is an organization of sovereign states represented by their governments. This contradiction needs to resolved if there is going to be genuine UN reform.

It is important in this context to highlight the overwhelming dependency of operational activities on voluntary contributions. While it is an inescapable fact that this is used to further the political agendas of the main contributors, what makes it particularly difficult to deal with is that it involves the issue of trust. Due to the pervasive corruption in many countries, major donors - with parliamentary oversight - find it necessary to closely monitor the disbursal of their contributions. In effect this means aligning UN activities with their own priorities and national interests. In other words, setting the agenda for UN operational activities, with scant attention to the interests of the recipient countries.

To date it appears that COVID-19 has not generated structural changes in the international system, but merely accelerated already existing trends in the political, economic and social spheres. It is therefore to be expected that no serious effort is being made to bring about substantive reform at the UN.

No one has risen to the challenge, not one or a group of states, nor has the UN Secretary General. No one has seized the opportunity to accelerate the UN reform. Apart from some specific and piecemeal initiatives, there has been no attempt at addressing the impediments to genuine reform.

So, the expectation is that the UN will continue to reform itself, but avoiding substantive reform which requires structural changes in two areas: First, participatory governance or in other words a more equitable representation in the key institutions that anchor the international system. Namely, the UN Security Council, World Bank and IMF. And second, to isolate, to the extent that is possible and feasible, development and humanitarian assistance from national political agendas.

In view of the above, we will witness foreseeable future competition between the US and its allies on the one hand and, both China and Russia on the other to influence the evolution of the international system, including reforming the UN. Such competition will include attempts at swaying the rest of the world to their positions.

Meanwhile, the UN will continue to discharge its role, as envisaged in the Charter, as a center for harmonizing actions between member states, but will continue to disappoint when it comes to its other functions, particularly in the area of maintenance of international peace and security.

Only when the evolving international system settles in a new and more realistic balance of power, will the UN be able to undertake the necessary reforms that will make it more effective in discharging its mission as envisaged by the Charter.

Other opinion articles

Editor Picks