A Time for Bold Reforms

©UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

When the United Nations was born in 1945, I was six years old. The world was emerging from the horrors of the Second World War and Norway was reasserting and re-establishing its democracy after five long years of Nazi occupation. By the time I was ten, my family was living in New York and I was proud and keenly aware that a fellow Norwegian, Trygve Lie, had become the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. Little did I know then that I would also have a long involvement with the Organization.

Over the past 35 years, I have had the honour and privilege to serve on various United Nations commissions and panels, as well as to head one of its flagship agencies. I have seen many positive United Nations-led initiatives which have helped to promote peace, democracy and human rights, improve living conditions and protect the environment, to name a few.

However, now, more than ever, the relevance of the United Nations is at a crossroads. There have been profound shifts of power and wealth in the world since the Organization was established. Of the 193 Member States of the United Nations today, nearly three quarters were not members in 1945.

The purpose of the United Nations is greater than trying to maintain peace and security among nations; it is also to help humanity solve the economic, social, humanitarian and environmental problems facing us.


As a young Minister of the Environment in the 1970s, I witnessed not only the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but also the United Nations itself engaging Governments in addressing key concerns and challenges. In 1976, my work with the Ministry of the Environment brought me to Vancouver, Canada, for the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, and a year later, in 1977, to Mar del Plata, Argentina, for the United Nations Water Conference. I also travelled to Nairobi, where the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established after the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

My first role serving the United Nations was in 1983 when Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar invited me to establish and chair the World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Commission considered the intertwined challenges of environmental degradation, poverty and population growth. The Commission, which is best known for developing the broad political concept of sustainable development, published its report Our Common Future in April 1987.

This report placed environmental issues firmly on the political agenda, and presented them not in isolation, but as intrinsically linked to development and as a right for all people and nations, thus recognizing their interdependence. The recommendations by the Commission led to the Earth Summit—the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

We have come a long way since the publication of the report more than 25 years ago. Indeed, great strides have been made since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. We have dramatically reduced the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. More people have access to safe drinking water. Fewer children are dying in infancy.

However, even a cursory glance will show that while some in the world are experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Environmental degradation continues, and the effects of climate change have begun to threaten the world’s most vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

This is why the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will be launched in September 2015, will be crucial in continuing the momentum to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to address a number of critical economic, social and environmental issues, including climate change.


In 1998 I had the honour to be elected Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). I wanted to promote WHO as the moral voice and the technical leader in improving people’s health. Besides prevention and combating disease and alleviating suffering, we needed to promote sustainable and equitable health systems in all countries.

Before embarking on a career in politics, I had trained as a doctor like my father had before me. A young mother and newly qualified physician, I won a scholarship to the Harvard School of Public Health where my vision of health began to extend beyond the confines of the medical world into environmental issues and human development.

This holistic sense of public health and its intimate and intricate links to wider social issues informed my vision for WHO and continues to guide my work today as a member of The Elders (www.theElders.org) and of the board of the United Nations Foundation (www.unfoundation.org).

While we concentrated our efforts on combating health threats, such as the tobacco epidemic, and diseases such as malaria, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, I also wanted Governments to fully realize how investment in health can be an investment for national economies. This must also be recognized in the forthcoming SDGs.


The United Nations was born out of the shared desire that the world should never again descend to the horrors of global war and tyranny. Yet before the Organization was10 years old, the Iron Curtain had descended across Europe and the cold war with its attendant nuclear arms race had changed the geopolitical landscape beyond all recognition. These divisive dynamics meant that there was little appetite to fundamentally review the nature and functions of the Organization’s institutional mechanisms.

Now, however, a generation has passed since the end of the cold war and it is high time the United Nations addressed these outstanding questions. All institutions must adapt to cope with new circumstances—and today’s circumstances are very different from those of 1945.

A number of proposals have been put forward for changes in the arcane composition of the Security Council. It is highly legitimate to demand a more representative composition, to reflect the emergence of new dynamic countries and regions, and their growing international responsibility for peace and security. It is also legitimate and necessary to be considering the need for effectiveness. Should we extend the right of veto to new powers or focus on curtailing the use of veto of the present Permanent Five (P5)?

Could a possible compromise be found in introducing a new category of members, serving longer terms than the present non-permanent ones, and eligible for immediate re-election, leading to a form of permanence, provided they retain the confidence of other Member States? Efforts by some countries to establish a similar practice without changes to the Charter of the United Nations have so far been met with de facto opposition.

It is frustrating and fuels the legitimacy debate that some of the vetoes cast, as well as the sometimes equally effective veto threats, have collided with widely held views of what humanitarian needs require of us as a responsible international community. We should call on the five existing permanent members not to prevent the Security Council from taking binding decisions, when whole populations are threatened with atrocious crimes.

It is inherent in the system today, that the P5 will have recourse to veto when they consider their vital interests to be at stake. None of them take such decisions lightly, but we should request a full and clear explanation of the alternatives they propose, as a more credible and efficient way to protect 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.

Moreover, we should request that the Security 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 enough 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 better opportunity to inform and influence their decisions.

Several years of negotiations on the composition of the Council have failed to produce results. Many Member States seem equally eager to prevent other countries from serving more frequently or even permanently on the Council than they are to create a more legitimate council.

Several other United Nations reform proposals have failed due to the Member States themselves. Many good proposals fail because Member States have imposed rules on the United Nations which they are unwilling to change. Some years ago, a laudable effort was made to reduce the number of mandates given to the Organization to fulfil. Hardly any were deleted.

Every time a new Secretary-General is elected, we see a great deal of expectations. The General Assembly has for years requested to have more influence with the choice than hitherto, when it is presented with one proposed name from the Security Council. Personally, I would like to see the General Assembly allowing the new Secretary-General more room for initiative and innovation on behalf of the Organization, than Member States have so far conceded to vest in that role.

I have always been convinced that we need to base our decisions upon facts and evidence, but facts alone are not enough. We need ethical leadership and a clear political will to make the tough decisions that must be taken. This applies to Member States as well as to those at the helm of the Organization.

In this 70th anniversary year, the United Nations must show itself to be mature and responsible enough to make bold reforms that can secure its long-term effectiveness. It must also exhibit humility and engage with ordinary citizens in its Member States, listen to their views, recognize their respective contributions to development, and show that it is relevant to their lives, and to the lives and prospects of their children.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, the founder of The Elders, “The real makers of history are the ordinary men and women…their participation in every decision about the future is the only guarantee of true democracy and freedom.”1  



1  Nelson Mandela, “Address to Rally in Durban, 25 February 1990”, in The Struggle is My Life (London, IDAF Publications LTD., 1990), p. 228.