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10 things the UN needs to do NOW!

By T P Sreenivasan
Last updated on: October 19, 2015 12:00 IST
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The United Nations headquarters in New York


On October 24, the United Nations turns 70.

'The credibility of the UN has been eroded by the fact that the Security Council does not represent the political realities of the world today,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, listing the 10 things the UN needs to do to become more relevant and effective.

Reform the Security Council

The 50th and the 60th anniversary of the UN have passed without any meaningful Security Council reform and the 70th does not hold any promise. The credibility of the UN has been eroded by the fact that the Security Council does not represent the political realities of the world today.

The exercise that began in 1979 on the initiative of India is still bogged down not only by the P-5, who want to preserve their privileged positions but also by many others, who do not want to accept the reality of the current geopolitical scene. Today, there is no formula, which can command the number of votes necessary to amend the charter to expand the Security Council.

Moreover, in a recent communication, China, the United States and Russia have indicated their position that they are not in favour of a meaningful expansion. But, if this is prolonged, sidelining of the UN and even the emergence of a rival organisation cannot be ruled out. It is reform or perish for the UN!

Abolish the veto

The veto is the most controversial attribute of the permanent members, which has brought the UN a bad name. There have been occasions when a single vote has reversed the will of the entire international community.

Vetoes have been cast to legitimise unjustifiable actions by the permanent members or to protect friends and allies. The decisions of the Security Council should be taken on the basis of a 2/3 majority of the membership without any veto.

Make the election of the Secretary-General transparent and democratic

The present system of selection rather than election of the Secretary-General leaves much to be desired. The P-5 normally go for the most pliable person with a 'butler image,' not necessarily the most energetic, imaginative or efficient person and expect him to serve their interests, rather than of the entire membership.

The mysterious emergence of an acceptable candidate from the Security Council and his automatic endorsement by the General Assembly make the whole process undemocratic. The Security Council should appoint a search committee and suggest three names to the General Assembly to choose from after they place their agenda before the general membership.

The best man or woman should be found without rotational blessings. Only the General Assembly should have the power to change the Secretary-General. The Secretary-General should have a single term of six years so that he does not spend the first term to please those who can get him a second term.

Strengthen the General Assembly

The General Assembly is the only universal body of the UN, which has become ritualistic because of its inability to enforce its decisions. Its agenda has also become unwieldy, as it is easier to add items rather than delete them from it.

The agenda should be rationalised in clusters and considered together, if they cannot be eliminated. There should be a mechanism of penalties to members for repeated defiance of the General Assembly. Repetitive statements should be avoided and time and money should be saved on conference hours. More restrictions must be imposed on length of speeches and documents.

Make financial contributions for development mandatory on the basis of capacity to pay, not voluntary

Financing for development never reaches targets as they are voluntary in nature. Unpredictability of funds and reduction of contributions from year to year have made development activities shrink.

Development financing should be mandatory like contributions to the UN budget, fixed on the basis of capacity to pay, as voluntary funding is used to control activities or to direct them to activities of interest to the donors.

Make members commit troops to the UN, which can be deployed at short notice

Peacekeeping has become one of the major activities of the UN, which has a bearing on international peace and security. But the mounting of operations is cumbersome and time consuming as member states take time to make troops available.

A standing force for the UN is unacceptable, but member States should earmark and equip peacekeeping units, so that they can be deployed at short notice. The troop contributing countries should be consulted at every stage. Payment of compensation for casualties should be the same for all nationalities.

Withdraw peacekeeping operations, which have become outdated and irrelevant

Some of the peacekeeping operations are maintained simply because of the insistence of one party or the other, even after their relevance has diminished. The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan is a case in point. It should have been withdrawn when the two parties converted the cease-fire line to the Line of Control.

Such sunset operations must be identified and withdrawn to reduce cost and to enhance the value of current operations.

Eliminate UN bodies which have either lost their relevance or become uneconomical

Some UN bodies are less relevant today than before, but they are maintained, while new bodies do not receive adequate financing and personnel. A review is necessary to identify such bodies and to streamline them.

Remove the national quotas for recruitment to the Secretariat

The efficiency of the Secretariat is affected by the requirement that all member states should be represented. Nationality, rather than competence, becomes the criterion for selection. A transparent and non-discriminatory recruitment and promotion system should be devised.

Reduce the strength of the Secretariat personnel to the barest minimum

When then secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali was asked as to how many people worked at the UN, he said, 'about half.' The situation seems to remain the same even today. An exercise should be undertaken system wide to study the workload and to eliminate unnecessary posts. Appointment of consultants and casual staff should also be reviewed.

T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India at the IAEA; Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

You can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.

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T P Sreenivasan