UN reforms — a call to reflect the 21st century realities

Author - Patrick Gruban (CC)
Author – Patrick Gruban (CC)

At the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations, a significant political will seems to be emerging regarding the future reforms of the international body. More than 120 countries (including India) pledged their support for a series of reforms aimed at overhauling the administrative organs of the United Nations. The concluding document which presented a ten-point agenda focused on simplification of procedures, decentralisation of authority with greater transparency, efficiency and accountability.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked at the UN reform event that, “fragmented structures, byzantine procedures and endless red tape” should end soon. Although this statement is merely a part of the story, we cannot ignore this strongly worded statement by the UNSG himself. At the UN, the member states are quite clear that it is important to reform the Security Council (G4 countries led by India are pushing for it), the General Assembly and the procedures for selection and appointment of the UN Secretary-General.

The Security Council reforms date back to 1963 when the non-permanent seats were increased to four in number, during which the Soviet Union and France voted against the reform, the United States and the United Kingdom opted for abstention, and the Republic of China (Taiwan now) voted in favour of it. After this reform, the pace of reforms almost froze until the emergence of “Open-Ended Working Group (1993)”, which has remained a failure since its inception. Subsequently, this year marks a decade (September 2007-2017) since the Intergovernmental Negotiations Committee was formed and inherited its powers from the decision 62/557 of 2008, to carry out the Security Council reforms. As a part of the OEWG endeavour, UNGA moved forward to the text-based negotiations in September 2015 by a consensus. Optimists are hoping that soon a stage will come when these text-based negotiations would be put to vote and the Security Council reform would become a reality.

The realists who question the relevance of the United Nations in contemporary world should remember that if there is no United Nations, then we’ll have to invent something similar to United Nations. Nevertheless, this is also true that the framework adopted post-Second World War is not relevant to address the contemporary challenges that we face. Hence, we need to evolve new governance structures to address such challenges and shape the new realities. The question remains how it should be reformed? President Trump said at the UN reforms meeting this year that “sovereignty should remain the bedrock of international order”, which is closer to India’s position. At the same time, the voices are being raised to ensure transparency and accountability, especially with respect to the bureaucratic functioning of the international body. The G-4 countries led by India are pushing for a coordinated reform of both management and governance structures as they believe that these issues cannot be seen in silos.

For a temporary period, the Security Council is oddly represented at the top level. The United States is represented by an isolationist administration which is sceptical of international organisations. Russia is engaged in a semi-cold war with the United States which affects cooperation between the two members. China is opposed to any expansion of the Security Council, especially India and Japan because it sees itself as the sole representative of Asia. The United Kingdom and France, who are the European representatives at the UNSC, are tackling with Euroscepticism and Brexit negotiations, hence, the earlier idea of a merger of EU representation as a single unit seems a far-fetched dream now. Hence, at the present juncture, the P-5 represents minimal coherence and maximum hostility to any reforms of the Security Council. The P-5 members are comfortable with retaining their exclusiveness. Even if they support individual candidatures to the Security Council, it does not automatically imply opening up the permanent seats for negotiations.

It is important to note that the G-4 and the L.69 countries have a support of about 110-115 member states out of the total 193 members at the UNGA, i.e. the simple majority. Unfortunately, in 1998, the UNGA took a decision that Charter amendments need to secure a special majority of about 2/3rd membership (129 votes) of the General Assembly. India is trying to woo various countries who are averse to the proposal of reforms and the results show that we are succeeding in this adventure. It is going in the right direction and hopefully, the resolution would invite maximum support in the coming times when the text-based negotiations would be put to vote.

India needs to create a balance between the pursuit of its narrow national interest and responsibility as a rising power. Given the fact that the Security Council reforms are not in sight, at least for the short or mid-term, we can pursue our constructive voice in the reforms of the other organs of the United Nations. It will strengthen our candidature for any future possibility of opening up of the Security Council. For instance, the focus can be shifted to UN Peacekeeping, where India is a leading contributor, yet we do not possess a leading voice in the forum. India needs to increase its presence in such niche organisations that the United Nations operate worldwide. Therefore, we can pursue consistent efforts in the areas where we can leverage our heft at this moment.

To conclude, perhaps a small observation by Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be important to consider. He observed that if India’s GDP grows at the rate of ten percent per annum for the next ten years, our economy would triple to that of the current size. In this case, we will be automatically invited to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, as it will be impossible for the UNSC to circumvent India on critical issues plaguing the world by that time.

About the Author
The author is an analyst who expresses his opinions on matters of global significance. He can be contacted at X (formerly Twitter) using the handle @postsfromVivek.