By Alex Maresca, 20 January 2016
On 11 January 2016, the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein and the Elders, a civil society group of eminent former officials, co-sponsored a panel discussion on “Moving Forward with the Reform of the United Nations”. The session featured remarks by the President of the General Assembly; Ambassador Patriota of Brazil; and Lakhdar Brahimi, a member of the Elders and a former Special Representative to the Secretary-General. For complete coverage of the event, please see the UN's webcast.
The meeting was convened to present a new report, which summarized discussions during an expert retreat organized by Liechtenstein and the Elders in early September 2015. In particular, the session focused on three areas of reform: the election of the next Secretary-General; Security Council action in cases of mass atrocities, with an emphasis on the new Code of Conduct initiative; and expansion of the Security Council.
At the start of the session, Ambassador Wenaweser (Liechtenstein) described the topics reflected in the report, noting the significant overlap between the views of Liechtenstein and the proposals made by the Elders with regards to UN reform. He noted that the Code of Conduct, which was formally launched in October, was supported by 108 Member States. Later in the session, Kazakhstan would announce that it had signed on to the Code of Conduct, bringing the total number of supporters to 109.
The President of the General Assembly observed that in spite of the UN’s determination to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” the UN had collectively failed in this regard on several occasions—particularly in its failure to act in the face of mass atrocities. Given the Security Council’s mandate to address peace and security concerns, he felt that it had “especially been found wanting”. The launch of the Code of Conduct was an “encouraging step forward”; while it is already supported by “quite a majority” of Member States, he looked forward to the day it enjoyed universal support.
Turning to Security Council reform, the President emphasized that the UN Security Council must be “representative, credible, effective, and efficient” in order to grapple with today’s challenges. The need for reform was “undeniable”; however, reform could only succeed “when a spirit of compromise prevails”. He noted that he had appointed a new chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiations (IGN) on Security Council reform, Ambassador Sylvie Lucas of Luxembourg, and looked forward to following the IGN this year.
On the issue of the selection of the Secretary-General, the President discussed the new measures adopted by the General Assembly in resolution 69/321 “to enhance the General Assembly’s role and to make the process more transparent, more inclusive, and more rigorous”. In particular, the Presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council had taken the “first step” by issuing a joint letter on 15 December calling for candidate nominations; they had also begun to circulate information about the candidates, as requested in the resolution.
Also in line with the resolution, the President expressed his intention to hold meetings with candidates around early April, after a number of candidates had been presented. Stating that these dialogues “should be of interest to all serious candidates,” he asked that candidates be presented as soon as possible, preferably by late March. While the details of these meetings were still being finalized, the interest of the media and civil society in this issue would be taken into account when determining their format.
Speaking on behalf of the Elders, Mr. Brahimi mentioned the group’s reform initiative, first presented at the Munich Security Conference in February 2015. Brahimi was “impressed and encouraged” by what had already been achieved, particularly the measures adopted in resolution 69/321 to improve the selection process for the Secretary-General.
Characterizing the UN as “the indispensible organization,” Brahimi stated that it was no longer functioning correctly because it was not allowed to do so by its membership. He was concerned that the UN was losing its credibility in the world due to the behavior of its own staff and members. Quoting Kofi Annan, he stated that it was the “responsibility of all of us... to work towards the restoration of the credibility of the UN”. By selecting the Secretary-General in a new way, some of this credibility could be restored; moreover, the man or woman appointed to the post must be capable of helping the organization to restore its credibility.
Reform of the Security Council would also help to restore the organization’s credibility. In this regard, the permanent five members of the Council have more power and therefore more responsibility to ensure a successful outcome; at the same time, “third world” countries had not done everything in their power to pressure the permanent five not to impede reform. While the UN had on several occasions done “wonderfully well”, the organization could do “so much better... in every field”—particularly in the maintenance of international peace and security.
Ambassador Patriota began his remarks by highlighting several of the achievements of the UN in 2015, including the new sustainable development agenda, consensus on Financing for Development, and the Paris agreement on climate change. These developments demonstrate the ability of UN Member States to “rally around common challenges”.
Agreeing in part with Mr. Brahimi, Ambassador Patriota stated that the UN suffered from a “credibility deficit” with regards to international peace and security. However, he noted that important discussions lay ahead on the recommendations of the recent reports on peacekeeping operations; on the Peacebuilding Commission, and on women, peace, and security. He argued that over the past fifteen years, “undue faith had been deposited in military strategies,” which had proven counterproductive; for instance, there was less terrorism in the immediate period after the September 11th attacks than there is today. These reports provide a basis on which to move forward.
In response to this credibility deficit, Patriota called for a Secretary-General who is particularly qualified on issues of international peace and security. Turning to initiatives to restrain the use of the veto, he felt that the Elders had provided meaningful consensus language in their February 2015 statement, in which the group calls for greater and more consistent efforts to find common ground in order to respond to incidents of mass atrocity crimes. The statement further calls for the permanent members to provide and clearly explain an alternative course of action upon using the veto in such cases.
Finally, on the question of Security Council reform, Patriota felt that “without changes in governance, we will not achieve functionality we need”. By failing to reform the Security Council, the UN was actually going backwards; in politics, Patriota concluded, “paralysis... is actually regression”.
Following these remarks, statements were delivered by representatives of Liechtenstein, Kazakhstan, Japan, Colombia, Russia, Hungary, Costa Rica, Algeria, and the International Parliamentary Union.
Ambassador Wenaweser (Liechtenstein) emphasized that the recently issued “joint letter” would only be one step in the selection process for the next Secretary-General. The General Assembly must continue to play its own role, particularly with regards to the process itself, in order to be more than a “rubberstamp” of the Security Council’s choice. Specifically, the proposal to appoint the Secretary-General to a single term deserved further discussion.
Ambassador Wenaweser also expressed his gratitude for the “extremely positive response” to the Code of Conduct. He noted that the Code originated in the idea of restraining the use of the veto by the Permanent members, but became “more sophisticated”. Specifically, the Code is applicable to all potential members of the Council, and includes a commitment to undertake positive action as well as to not impede action. 108 Member States actively support the Code, and Liechtenstein will be looking to expand the Code’s membership. Of course, Liechtenstein will also work to ensure the Code is implemented in the Security Council; currently, 9 of Council’s 15 members support the Code.
Kazakhstan announced that it had signed on to the Code of Conduct, and applauded the efforts of ACT and the Elders to promote a culture of zero tolerance at the UN with regards to atrocity crimes. Kazakhstan also reiterated its support for expanding the Council in order to make it more regionally diverse, and stated that resolution 69/321 is a significant innovation on the Secretary-General selection process.
Focusing on the appointment of the Secretary-General, Colombia observed that many had been skeptical a joint letter could be issued as early as it had been; there had also been doubts that women would be encouraged to be nominated as candidates. In light of these developments, Colombia felt that there was a positive “roadmap” to move forward.
Japan asked for further information about the Elders’ proposals with regard to Security Council reform, in which they call on those who seek permanent membership to accept the “compromise” of longer-term seats. In Japan’s view, the majority of countries support permanent seats; therefore, the minority should be willing to compromise with the majority perspective, rather than vice versa.
Hungary stated that it was "high time" for a highly-qualified Eastern European woman to be Secretary-General, in light of the fact that no previous Secretary-General had reflected either of these groups. It also hoped for a Security Council that would better reflect the 21st century.
Russia argued that “important organizations” which focus primarily on reforming themselves will fall into disrepute, since there are so many other issues in the world that a reform focus could not be justified. He felt there was no need to appoint a Secretary-General for a single term, given that under the current system Secretaries-General were not guaranteed a second term. Russia also noted that many were too critical of the UN, failing to recognize that it is an intergovernmental organization.
The International Parliamentary Union (IPU) expressed its support for a more democratic and inclusive selection process for the UN Secretary-General. They announced that they were planning a debate with candidates on March 22nd, who would be invited after submitting letters to the Presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council. If it would not be possible to secure enough candidates, the IPU would instead hold a dialogue on ways to improve the selection process.
Costa Rica noted that 2015 had been a landmark year for reforming the UN, citing the changes to the Secretary-General selection process adopted in resolution 69/321 as well as the Code of Conduct . However, in order to ensure comprehensive reform of the organization, more could also be achieved. For instance, Costa Rica hoped to see a stronger Office of the President of the General Assembly.
Speaking as coordinator for the Non-Aligned Movement on Revitalization of the General Assembly, Algeria emphasized that reforms must be “operational”. Algeria felt that the changes to the procedures to appoint the Secretary-General were important, but not the only important UN reform issue.