February 8, 2015
Four Ideas for a Stronger U.N.
by Kofi A. Annan and Gro Harlem Brundtland
Seventy years ago, the United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Looking around the world today, the least one can say is that it is not fully succeeding in this mission. From Nigeria through the Middle East to Afghanistan and Ukraine, millions are suffering and dying from that scourge, or are imminently threatened by it, and the United Nations seems powerless to save them.
We have four ideas for making the organization stronger and more effective. A big part of the problem is that the Security Council, which is supposed to maintain world peace and security on behalf of all member states, no longer commands respect — certainly not from armed insurgents operating across borders, and often not from the United Nations’ own members.
Throughout the world, and especially in the Global South, people struggle to understand why, in 2015, the Council is still dominated by the five powers that won World War II. They are more and more inclined to question its authority, and the legitimacy of its decisions.
We ignore this threat at our peril. Times have changed since 1945, and the Security Council must adapt.
Almost everyone claims to favor expanding the Council to include new permanent members, but for decades now states have been unable to agree who these should be, or whether, like the existing ones, they should have the power to veto agreements reached by their fellow members.
Our first idea aims to break this stalemate. Instead of new permanent members, let us have a new category of members, serving a much longer term than the non-permanent ones and eligible for immediate re-election. In other words they would be permanent, provided they retained the confidence of other member states. Surely that is more democratic?
Secondly, we call on the five existing permanent members to give a solemn pledge. They must no longer allow their disagreements to mean that the Council fails to act, even when — for instance, as currently in Syria — people are threatened with atrocious crimes.
Let the five permanent members promise never to use the veto just to defend their national interests, but only when they genuinely fear that the proposed action will do more harm than good to world peace and to the people concerned. In that case, let them give a full and clear explanation of the alternative they propose, as a more credible and efficient way to protect the victims. And when one or more of them do use the veto in that way, let the others promise not to abandon the search for common ground, but to work even harder to find an effective solution on which all can agree.
Thirdly, let the Council listen more carefully to those affected by its decisions. When they can agree, the permanent members too often deliberate behind closed doors, without listening to those whom their decisions most directly affect. From now on, let them — and the whole Council — give groups representing people in zones of conflict a real chance to inform and influence their decisions.
And finally, let the Council, and especially its permanent members, make sure the United Nations gets the kind of leader it needs. Let them respect the spirit as well as the letter of what the United Nations Charter says about choosing a new Secretary-General, and no longer settle it by negotiating among themselves behind closed doors. Under current procedures, governments nominate their own citizens as candidates for the position. Members of the Security Council then conduct rounds of secret voting known as “straw polls” to ascertain who has broadest and deepest support; crucially, the five permanent members use different colored voting slips so that their preferences — and those they do not favor — are made clear to the other 10 temporary members.
Let us have a thorough and open search for the best qualified candidates, irrespective of gender or region; let the Council then recommend more than one candidate for the General Assembly to choose from; and let the successful candidate be appointed for a single, non-renewable term of seven years. He or she (and after eight “he’s” it’s surely time for a “she”) must not be under pressure to give jobs or concessions to any member state in return for its support. This new process should be adopted without delay, so that it can be used to find the best person to take over in January 2017.
These four proposals are spelled out in greater detail in a statement issued this Saturday by The Elders, an independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights. We believe they form an essential starting point for the United Nations to recover its authority. And we call on the peoples of the world to insist that their governments accept them, in this, the 70th anniversary year of the United Nations.
Kofi A. Annan, Chairman of The Elders, served as Secretary General of the United Nations from 1996 to 2007. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Deputy Chairwoman of The Elders, is a former Prime Minister of Norway and served as Director General of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003.