The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Reform of the United Nations

In recent years there have been many calls for "reform" of the United Nations. But there is little clarity, let alone consensus, about what reform might mean in practice. Both those who want the UN to play a greater role in world affairs and those who want its role confined to humanitarian work or otherwise reduced use the term "UN reform" to refer to their ideas. The range of opinion extends from as far as those who want to eliminate the UN entirely, to those that want to make it into a full-fledged world government.

An official reform program was initiated by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan shortly after starting his first term January 1, 1997. On March 21, 2005, Annan presented a major report on UN reform, In Larger Freedom[1].


Security Council reform

A very frequently discussed change to the UN structure is to change the permanent membership of the Security Council, which reflects the power structure of the world as it was in 1945. One proposed change is to admit more members: the candidates usually mentioned are India, Japan, Germany and Brazil (the gang of four). The politics involved in adopting such a plan are complicated. According to a Reuters article, "Britain, France and Russia have supported Germany, Brazil, India and Japan. The People's Republic of China and North and South Korea have doubts about Japan, which pays nearly as much in dues as the United States. . . Italy, which does not want to be the only large European country without a permanent council seat, opposes Germany; Pakistan opposes India; and Mexico and Argentina oppose Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking country in a largely Spanish-speaking continent"[2].

U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has refrained from supporting Germany (which opposed the 2003 Invasion of Iraq), but supports Japan's bid. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at Sophia University in Tokyo, said, "Japan has earned its honorable place among the nations of the world by its own effort and its own character. That's why the United States unambiguously supports a permanent seat for Japan on the United Nations Security Council"[3]. The previous Secretary, Colin Powell, had objected to Japanese permanent membership because Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan forbids the country from going to war[4].

Another proposal is to abolish the United Kingdom and France's seats and give a seat to the European Union: but since the EU is not a state this would require a change to the UN Charter (or it would require that the EU become a state).

Another change frequently suggested is to remove the veto power enjoyed by the permanent members of the Security Council. It is hard to see any of the current members surrendering the veto power. The United States in particular would strongly oppose this on the grounds that it would make the actions of the United States subject to international approval, and would also increase the likelihood of resolutions critical of Israel being passed. (See also Israel and the United Nations.) One of the main drives behind this are situations in which all but one of the fifteen nations on the Security Council vote to support a measure that is relatively unimportant, such as administrative decisions. (This was the case with the battle over re-election of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.)

In Larger Freedom

On March 21, 2005, Annan called on the UN to reach a consensus on expanding the council to 24 members, but did not specify which proposal he preferred[5]. In any case, Annan favored making the decision quickly, stating, "This important issue has been discussed for too long. I believe member states should agree to take a decision on it preferably by consensus, but in any case before the summit making use of one or other of the options presented in the report of the High-Level Panel"[6].

The two options mentioned by Annan are referred to as Plan A and Plan B[7]:

  • Plan A calls for creating six new permanent members, plus three new nonpermanent members for a total of 24 seats in the council.
  • Plan B calls for creating eight new seats in a new class of members, who would serve for four years, subject to renewal, plus one nonpermanent seat, also for a total of 24.

The summit mentioned by Annan is the September 2005 Millennium +5 summit, a high level plenary meeting that will review Annan's report, the implementation of the 2000 Millennium Declaration, and other UN reform-related issues[8].


At another level, calls for reforming the UN demand to make the UN administration (usually called "the bureaucracy") more transparent, more accountable, and more efficient. In the United States, and particularly in the United States Congress, this is linked to demands that the UN adopt policies which encourage the development of free market economies and cease what are seen as socialist and anti-American policies and actions.

Enhancing its democratic nature

Another frequent demand is that the UN become "more democratic", and a key institution of a World democracy. This raises fundamental questions about the nature and role of the UN. The UN is not a world government, rather a forum for the world's sovereign states to debate issues and determine collective courses of action. Since the large majority of the world's states are now democracies, the UN is in a sense an "indirect democracy" already — the majority of countries cast votes at the UN in accordance (at least in theory) with the wishes of the electorates that elected them. A direct democracy would request the election of the UN Secretary-General by direct vote of the citizens of the democratic countries (World presidentialism) as well as the General Assembly (just as cities, states and nations have their own representatives in many systems, who attend specifically to issues relevant to the given level of authority) and the World Court. Others have proposed a combination of direct and indirect democracy, whereby national governments might ratify the expressed will of the people for such important posts as an empowered World Court.

For the UN to become more democratic in a direct sense, four things would presumably have to happen:

  1. Representation would need to be based more on population vote and UN democratic and free elections to the Secretary and Assembly, rather than the present strict one-state-one-vote principle. Another proposal is to establish a consultative United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) as an intermediary step towards a world parliament within the UN structure. An assembly where Liechtenstein has the same voting power as the People's Republic of China is far from equally representational (generally considered a key aspect of democracy).
  2. The veto power of the Security Council would have to be removed. Again, this would remove a form of counter-representationalism, where the permanent Security Council members have their opinions weighted above others.
  3. The UN would have to be given some power of governance over its members, just as a national government has power of governance over its citizens. In other words, it would have to become, to some degree, a world government. This would imply having the power to impose sanctions on members who would not follow the UN's determined courses of action and resolutions (including the human rights' resolutions).
  4. As implied in the previous item, the UN might also exclude from its membership those nations which it determined to be grossly violating the human rights of its people, including the right to periodic democratic, universal, secret-ballot elections (upheld in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

It is likely that the small countries, which make up the majority of the current members of the General Assembly, would oppose the first of these changes (some of these might oppose the fourth), while the current permanent members of the Security Council would oppose the second, and probably the third as well. However, reformers have proposed that with incremental and simultaneous attention to these points, it is possible that the interests of the large and small nations might be reconciled through compromise in order to avert the anarchy and relative powerlessness of the present system which hamper the interests of both large and small nations. For example, if the veto power were progressively limited while also basing the weighting of the General Assembly more on population, large and small nations might be more trusting of the system to assign more supranational authority to the votes of the General Assembly (and judgments of an empowered World Court).

Diversity and democracy

Implementation of population-based UN voting also raises the problems of diversity of interests and governments of the various nations. The nations in the UN contain representative democracies, absolute dictatorships and every shading in between. Allowing large powers to vote their population's interests en bloc raises the question whether they really represent the interests and desires of their individual citizens and the world community. Anything like direct election would be impossible as well in the many nations where an accurate direct vote would be impossible or where the local government has power to influence the local voters as well as security of the ballot box. Giving the UN any kind of actual governance power raises the question of how these powers could be carried out. What would happen when a vote of the UN general assembly demands changes in the borders or political status of a nation, or requires citizens in some nations to tax themselves in favour of other nations, or demands the arrest of the leader of a nation, and is met by refusal?

The subsidiarity principle resolves some of these issues. The term originates from social thought within the Roman Catholic church and states that no larger organ shall resolve an issue that can be resolved at a more local level. It can be compared to federalist principles where entities of the union retain some aspects of sovereignty. Only when two or more members of the federation are affected by any given act does the federal government have the authority to intervene. Giving a reformed UN more powers but enshrining the subsidiarity principle in its Charter would guarantee that the UN does not evolve into a world autocracy that can arbitrarily dictate policy. For example, the fate of Kashmir would have to be decided through a referendum held by the Kashmiris and not by a vote in the General Assembly.

Financing reform

On the subject of financing, an interesting proposal has been made by Paul Hawken in his book, The Ecology of Commerce . Hawken's recommendation is to impose an international tariff on arms manufacturers worldwide. By his calculations, 'a tax on missiles, planes, tanks, and guns would provide the U.N. (sic) with its entire budget, as well as pay for all peacekeeping efforts around the world, including the resettlement of refugees and reparations to the victims of war.'

The main problem with implementing such a radical tax is finding acceptance. While most nations of the European Union and Japan would likely be willing to support such a tariff, it would be unpopular among consumers of arms. Nations such as these range from the United States, which spends a huge amount of its GNP on defence, to petty dictatorships who depend on arms to keep themselves in power. Arms producers would also oppose it, because it would increase their costs and reduce their consumer base. Like any large corporation, arms manufacturers have a great deal of political clout in most countries.

Another problem with the United Nations is that finances are not controlled by the overwhelming monetary contributers. In theory, democratizing the budget by allowing all members to vote on it would be the ideal. However, as in voting matters concerning non-fiscal issues, blocs are formed that effectively quell reform. In general, First World nations (which tend to have strong democratic systems within their governments) contribute the vast majority of finances for the UN. However, Third World nations (which tend to have dictatorships for governments) have more control over where those funds go. This is due to the fact that the number of Third World nations is larger than the number of First World nations.

Committee reform

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has come under some fire. The United States, in particular, was angry when it was ejected from the Commission in 2002. While it has been reelected to the Commission, several nations that have been guilty of gross violations of human rights have been in the organization recently. Examples of these countries include Libya, Cuba, Sudan, Algeria, and Vietnam.

See also

Binding triad


Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13