Simon Maxwell

A Commonwealth Initiative to Support UN Reform

A Commonwealth Initiative to Support UN Reform. Available for free in the e-book version of 'Reform of International Institutions', Economic Paper No 85, Commonwealth Secretariat, London

Summary (see link in title for full article): This paper places UN reform in the context of reform of the international system and has been prepared on the basis of representative consultation. The core argument can be summarised in four sentences: first, Commonwealth countries need the UN to meet and solve global challenges and shared problems, and to take advantage of opportunities for change; second, the UN is not performing as well as it could; third, reform is slow, for understandable reasons; and fourth, the Commonwealth can play a unique role in forging consensus about the shape and pace of change.

There is a long list of issues on the table – ranging from big opportunities to make progress on the millennium development goals (MDGs) to the management of problems like climate change or the threat of disease. Various UN panels and international commissions have made contributions, as have Commonwealth leaders.

Not all collective action problems are for the UN to solve. Sometimes nongovernmental bodies or smaller groups of countries can make adequate progress. There is a special role for the UN, however, where action is required that involves engagement by nation states, universality, political legitimacy, formal accountability or the interlinking of political, economic, social and normative frameworks.

Against this background, the UN does well in providing the infrastructure of internationalism.

In addition, it is a very large provider of financial assistance and humanitarian aid, and a key forum for conflict resolution and resource for peace-keeping.

But at the same time no-one doubts the fragility of the system, especially when it is faced with new challenges.

Proposals for UN reform have a long history. There is already quite a substantial reform agenda on the table and progress has been made, but very slowly and in a sometimes fraught political atmosphere.

Now the UN Secretary-General has identified the development arena as important for reform. The MDG Call to Action made in September 2008 offered one opportunity, as did the Financing for Development meeting which took place on 29 November–2 December in Doha. It is likely, however, that early 2009 will be taken up with debate, before the pace of change accelerates.

There are many barriers to progress, including lack of trust among UN member countries; an overloaded and excessively interconnected reform agenda; and a lack of authority exercised by the Secretary-General, especially with respect to the specialised agencies.

Accelerating progress to reform through overcoming the barriers is the challenge for all in the international community.

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