A New Agenda


The 70th anniversary of the United Nations presents an opportunity to take stock, recognizing our successes and acknowledging our shortcomings.

The United Nations has indisputably made the world a better place over the past seven decades. We have succeeded in making the world recognize the wealth in its pluralism and diversity. For the first time in history, a consensus around human equality has been forged. No race or culture can claim to exclusively represent human civilization.

There are five core areas where the contribution of the United Nations can best be demonstrated.

Firstly, in universal values. The United Nations has succeeded in formulating and expounding universal statements of principles and values, as enshrined in its Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has also succeeded in translating these principles into globally agreed agendas and courses of action. Today, the United Nations protects and promotes human rights through dozens of treaties and declarations, duly ratified by States and widely embraced by individuals and civil society.1

The second crucial area is peace. The world has effectively been saved from the scourges of a global war. Since its founding, the United Nations has helped end conflicts and foster reconciliation in many countries. It has helped disarm more than 500,000 ex-combatants2 in the past decade alone. Today, over 122,000 peacekeepers are present in 16 operations on 4 continents,3 sacrificing their lives to protect the lives and livelihoods of civilians and local communities.

The third is decolonization. The United Nations has successfully supervised the accession to independence of previously colonized countries, welcoming them into the global community as integral and sovereign States.

The fourth is the critical area of development. The United Nations has succeeded in promoting increasingly progressive and inclusive development policies through its various agencies, Regional Commissions, funds and programmes operating around the world. It has led the struggle against poverty and hunger, and helped to achieve increased literacy, better health and longer life expectancy. Working with Member States, the United Nations created and helped implement the pioneering Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were the first-of-its-kind global development agenda. Today the United Nations is fostering global agreement and support around new sustainable development goals (SDGs) that will form the backbone of the post-2015 development agenda. The SDGs aim to build on the successes and shortcomings of the MDGs process to promote more relevant and effective development. The United Nations also enacted the first legally binding instrument to control harmful emissions and combat climate change.

Finally, humanitarian assistance: the United Nations provides food to more than 80 million people in 75 countries.4 It saves more than 2 million lives every year through vaccinations and the eradication of diseases.5 Since 1951 the United Nations has provided aid to more than 60 million refugees6 fleeing war, persecution or famine. It has also proven its ability to respond in a timely and effective manner to sudden crises, such as the Asian tsunami and the recent Ebola outbreak.

Furthermore, internally, the United Nations has always been innovative and proactive in reconciling its breadth and scope with emerging needs and conflicting priorities. Continuous reform has kept the United Nations agile and nimble, enhancing its impact in all parts of the world.

The successes of the United Nations, however, have been tempered by failings. These are mainly to be found in its peace and security mandate.

Despite the prevention of global conflicts on the scale of the First and Second World Wars, an epidemic of local and regional proxy conflicts has resulted in levels of human suffering comparable, in the aggregate, to the two global conflicts. A third world war has been averted, but it has been replaced by many third world wars.

The end of worldwide classical colonialism has been achieved, but open wounds remain. The Israeli occupation and settler colonization of Palestine has persisted for half a century, ruining lives and livelihoods, hindering development and posing serious threats to regional and global peace.

The United Nations system has also failed at times to adequately protect human rights and uphold international law. For the sake of political convenience, human rights abuses, and even crimes against humanity have remained unaddressed by United Nations organs such as the Security Council. Examples, in addition to Palestine, include Cambodia, Rwanda and the Balkans.

The reasons behind these shortcomings are numerous. The most prominent among them is the misalignment between the structure of the United Nations and the world that it serves.

The United Nations was founded in 1945. Since then tectonic horizontal and vertical shifts have taken place in world politics. Geographically, the political and economic seats of power are shifting eastward, State sovereignty is being challenged vertically, from above, at the regional and supranational level, and from below, by sub-State actors. Yet the institutional setup of the United Nations remains as it was originally designed 70 years ago. The veto power which was provided as an incentive to bring the most powerful nation States into the multilateral fold, has become a source of inaction, allowing conflicts to fester and violators to go unpunished. When the interests of the few trump universal values, the ability of the United Nations to operate with neutrality is compromised.

In addition, the current system of governance affects funding patterns and priorities. Funding is increasingly unpredictable and the political and security dimension is often prioritized over development. This is particularly regrettable since it is the long-term developmental ailments which breed discontent and disenfranchisement, in turn triggering conflict and violence.

Despite growing development funding in absolute terms, the financing of the United Nations has been increasingly dependent on non-core funding, with core funding shrinking in comparative terms, thus weakening the operational capacity of the United Nations. Earmarking at the expense of core funding can compromise the autonomy and impartiality of the Organization.

Failure to adapt the structure of the United Nations to a changing environment could imperil the relevance of the Organization, making it unwanted by the weak and unneeded by the strong.

If multilateralism as embodied by the United Nations ceases to be relevant, effective and legitimate nation States and other global actors will conduct business around it, without it, and even against it. To prevent that, Member States need to continuously adapt and reform the system. At this juncture, reform is most needed in three main areas.

Firstly, decision-making should be brought back into the United Nations and democratized. Enlarging the Security Council and restraining the veto power can significantly enhance the representativeness and legitimacy of the Council. It can also ensure the fairness, enforceability and sustainability of Security Council decisions.

Secondly, current budgetary trends should be changed. Doing more with less is a mere illusion. The United Nations annual regular budget barely exceeds US $5.5 billion—less than what certain tobacco firms allocate for marketing their products in a year.7

Lastly, in all reforms, development work should be protected and enhanced. Developmental and humanitarian policies should be seen as key to achieving political stability and security. We should invest in long-term development to both save lives and resources. Development today is tomorrow’s avoided war.

It is in everybody’s interest to fashion a modern, adaptive, flexible and responsive United Nations. Today’s circumstances are different, but certainly no less urgent than those that led to the creation of the United Nations 70 years ago. Despite its numerous imperfections, this universal body remains the institution of choice to bring lasting peace and prosperity for all. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “The UN is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. 



1    Available from https://treaties.un.org/pages/ParticipationStatus.aspx .

2    Available from http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/documents/backgroundnote.pdf .

3    Available from http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/documents/bnote0315.pdf .

4    Available from http://www.wfp.org/about.

5    Available from http://www.un.org/en/un60/60ways/health.shtml. (57. halting the spread of epidemics).

6   Available from http://www.un.org/en/un60/60ways/ha.shtml. (46. assisting refugees).

7  A lot less than what the top 5 tobacco companies spent on advertising in the United States alone in 2012: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/tobacco_industry/marketing/.