69th Session of the UN General Assembly: the General Debate and UN Reform

24-30 September 2014

The need to reform the United Nations and in particular the UN Security Council was raised throughout the General Debate this year. Many delegations seemed to feel that the upcoming 70th anniversary of the UN in 2015 provided an opportunity to push forward on the reform agenda and evaluate the way forward for the Organization.

General Assembly President Samuel Kutesa of Uganda first raised the issue during his opening speech, where he called for continued focus on the revitalization of the GA and reform of the Security Council. As is the common starting point for discussions about UN reform, Kutesa pointed out that while the Organization was created 70 years ago by 53 countries, today there are 193 member states which exist in a completely different world. In his own words, he stated, “Clearly there is an imminent need to change things.”

The notion that a different world requires a different UN was echoed by many, most of those being (though not exclusively) developing countries. Most of these calls centered on the desire to see a more democratic UN with the General Assembly, as the universal organ, playing a more central role (see in particular the speeches by Argentina, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Venezuela, and Brunei).

There were also a few speakers that highlighted the role of the Secretary-General. Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo stated the need to improve the functioning of the Secretary-General, and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet spoke in support of enhancing the Secretary-General’s ability to take initiative and to act in urgent situations, within the context of the UN Charter. In his speech, President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro was adamant about the need to have a Secretary-General who represents all Member States.

On the subject of Security Council reform, there were the usual calls for Council expansion to better reflect the world of today. Some member states specifically named countries they believe should be given permanent seats, with the most popular candidates being Japan, Brazil, Germany, and India. A broader consensus was heard in support of a permanent African seat, and Yemen emphasized the need for a permanent member from the Middle East region. A minority of speakers pushed back against the agenda of expanding the permanent seats; for example, Italy questioned the efficiency of a Council with more permanent members.

Beyond the discussion of expansion, the working methods of the Council were also under scrutiny by many Member States. Frustration abounded that the Council had been unable to act on Syria and Ukraine, and many pointed to this inaction as illustrative of the need for Council reform. Citing the situations in Syria and Ukraine, New Zealand told the Assembly that there needs to be an “end to the ideological gridlock that has kept the Council impotent for the last three years.” Some states also blamed the P5 outright, with Norway accusing the “big powers” of adhering to “zero-sum games and spheres of influence” which has contributed to the Council’s failure to act on key issues.

Some member states also took the opportunity to highlight the role of the veto in the inaction of the Council on major crises, and express support for efforts to restrict the use of the veto in situations of mass atrocity. Estonia pointed out that no permanent member should be able to use the veto to circumvent the principles of the UN Charter and contested that “justice was manipulated” in the case of Syria. Liechtenstein’s Foreign Minister made a particularly strong statement on the subject of the veto, saying that a true notion of collective security does not reconcile with the notion of the veto by even one Security Council member, regardless of the amount of support the veto-wielding member may have. Argentinian President Kirchner also spoke frankly about the incompatibility of the existence of the veto and the principles of the Charter, saying that as long as the votes of five members counted more than those of other members, nothing could be resolved.

In addition to addressing these specific issues, many member states more broadly called for action to improve the transparency, openness and accountability of the Council’s processes.