In the age of globalization, the importance of non-state actors in the international system has increased. The undermined capacity of the state has determined a new role for the international organizations in world politics (Strange, 2002; Baylis & Smith, 2007; Brown, 2005; Karns & Mingst, 2009; Kennedy, 2006). Since the end of the Cold War, several major developments have shaped the international system, and classic ideas of state sovereignty were replaced by models of world governance and international society of states (Wendt, 2003). The deepening and widening of European Union integration (Nugent, 2006) was only one of the signs of the revival of liberal institutionalism. In the 1990s, the growing presence of the United Nations as a peace-keeper in war torn regions such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Kosovo was an important signifier for the inclination of international organisations to mark the next step in collective security, as a replication to the newly emerged threats to security (Kaldor, 1999; Smith, 2006; Paese, 2003).
Criticisms from neo-realists that international organizations are marked by excessive governmentalism and are predominantly bound by national interest (Mearsheimer, 1994) have encouraged scholars and decision-makers to intensively discuss institutional reform in the United Nations and its governing bodies (Paese, 2003; Luck, 2006; Gupta, 2006; Wouters & Ruys, 2005). The discourse on the UN reform has repeatedly changed its nuances in the last decades, but the recurring ones revolve around democratic representation, transparency, and efficient decision-making (Kenney, 2006; Luck, 2006). This essay will critically discuss the most important reforms of the UN, in the context of a changing global environment. It will focus on two of the most important aspects of the UN reform – the decision-making process in the Security Council (the removal of the veto power in particular), and democratic reform, related to representation and direct election of the Secretary General. The essay will separately discuss these reforms, assessing their potential advantages and limitations, and their feasibility in the future. For clarity, the essay is divided in several sections: 2) Research question and criteria, 3) Institutional reform and decision-making, 4) Political reform and democracy and 5) Conclusion.
Research question and method
This essay will argue that the most important reform of the UN needs to take place in two directions: institutional, which is related to the decision-making process in the Security Council, and the removal of the existing veto, and political, which is related to democratization of the UN and the direct election of the Secretary General by popular vote of the citizens. The essay will argue that institutional reform is necessary, in order to make the UN a more efficient decision-maker. Political reform is also necessary in order to transform the UN from an arena for popular debate, into a political body, which represents the will of the people.
In order to defend these arguments, the author will use two criteria, which will be examined in the discussion of the proposed reforms. They will assess the effectiveness of the proposed reform as a policy, and will make projections for its future completion. The first criterion therefore is efficiency, and it will measure the usefulness and necessity of the proposed reform to make the UN. The second criterion is feasibility, and it will assess how doable the discussed reforms are. Also, it will briefly present potential obstacles for their implementation.
Institutional reform and decision-making
3.1 Problems with the veto power
Reform of the Security Council is crucial, because it is one of the key institutions in the organisation. It carries the responsibility for authorizing and coordinating collective action in global peace-keeping. According to the Global Policy Forum, between 1946 and 2004, 257 vetoes have been imposed, meaning that over 200 resolutions have been rejected (Global Policy Forum cited in Wouters & Ruys, 2005: 9). At present, the permanent members of the Security Council – France, China, United States, Russia and United Kingdom – have the right to place a veto on any resolution, which they disapprove of. The right to veto has been established in Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter (Charter of the United Nations, 1945). Each of the permanent members has a veto power and they can use it to block any legislation they decide to stand against. Despite its conception as a safeguard against another major war among the great powers, the veto right is often considered one of the institutional flaws of the Security Council (Gupta, 2006; Malone, 2004), because in order for resolutions to pass, the unanimity of all five members is required. This paralyses the decision-making capacity of the Security Council, especially when it comes to conflict settlement which requires military intervention or economic sanctions. The veto often leads to excessive politicization of the decision-making process (Wouters & Ruys, 2005). Historic examples often cited by UN scholars include the paralysis of the Security Council during the Cold War, when the ideological opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the practical inability of the Security Council to pass any decisions (Paese, 2003; Wouters & Ruys, 2005; Kennedy, 2006). Another example which has recently gained notorious prominence relates to the Arab uprising, and the inability of the Security Council to impose economic sanctions on Syria, because of the veto, used by two of the permanent members – Russia and China (Guardian, 2011). As a result, mass killings committed by President Assad and his regime were not stopped, and threatened to spill over into a violent civil war.
These are only two of the myriad of examples, which disclose the inability of the Security Council to act unilaterally in cases of international emergency, and the brevity of this paper does not allow the discussion of other examples. Here it is more important to note that the existing veto reflects not only the structural incapacity of the voting-process, but also the deeply political character of the resolutions passed by the Security Council. On many occasions the veto power has prevented cooperation, and has stood against the ideas of liberal institutionalism and collective security.
Removing the veto is technically related to changing the existing voting procedure in the Security Council, which at present requires the unanimity of all members. As an alternative, the unanimity could be replaced by a qualified majority, which would require 2/3 of the votes. With qualified majority, the chances to pass resolutions and make the Security Council an efficient decision-maker increase. In a world where there are new threats to security such as sub-state actors, ideological wars, and terrorism, a removal of the veto is absolutely essential. This would ensure that the Security Council will acquire a more interventionist, rather than supervisory approach to world affairs, and will increase its legitimacy as the keeper of the peace. Since the end of the Cold War, and the more intensive role of the UN in international peace-keeping, the reform of the Security Council and the existing voting procedure has often been criticized by neo – realists and critics of liberal institutionalism, who believe that national interest cannot be overpowered by ideas of suparnationalism and the pool of sovereignty, especially when it comes to matters of security and defence (Mearsheimer, 1994). Proponents of the UN reform are quite aware of the potential challenges, which the veto power poses to collective security in terms of decision-making (Gupta, 2006; Kennedy, 2006; Malone, 2004). Therefore in order to achieve institutional efficiency, the reform of the Security Council in relation to the veto is essential.
For the purposes of this essay it is important to discuss the feasibility of the proposed removal of the veto, which to this day remains a challenging topic. In reality, the main obstacles to this reform are related to possible opposition from the existing permanent members. In the aftermath of the failures of the Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria, some of the permanent members such as France and the United Kingdom expressed views that reforms towards efficiency of the decision-making power is necessary and desirable (Guardian, 2011). At present however, relinquishing the veto remains only a prescription. This is largely due to the fact that holding a veto power grants the five countries not only institutional strength within the UN framework, but also excessive political power as decision-makers on a global level. A second obstacle of removing the veto is related to the actual reform of the existing UN Charter, and the legislative incorporation of a new voting and decision-making procedure. Its adoption and ratification is a lengthy process, because it might necessitate amendments in the UN Charter, and approval of 2/3 of all the 193 members of United Nations (Malone, 2004: 253).
In sum, the removal of the veto power of the Security Council is one of the most important prerequisites for the increased efficiency of the UN in international peace keeping. Obstacles to its implementation include lack of political will from existing permanent members. In addition, the adoption and ratification of the new procedure would involve re-drafting of the UN Charter, which can be a time consuming process. Further reforms of the Security Council which are often discussed are related to representation and extending the permanent membership to include countries like India, Germany and Japan. These reforms however, would be the topic of another discussion.
Political reform and democracy
Problems of democracy and legitimacy
The second most important reform of the UN is related to the improvement of its democratic character and popular representation. It is a widespread criticism, that the UN does not reflect the will of the citizens of the member states. At present, the UN Secretary General is a politically appointed figure, and not directly elected. Despite the fact that the role of the UN Secretary General is largely representative, according to some (Malone, 2004; Moore & Pubantz, 2006) this post requires a popular vote, in order to secure the position of the UN as a world government.
The changing global environment necessitates that international institutions become more transparent and accountable to the public (Paese, 2003; Kennedy, 2006). A direct vote for the President of the UN would mean that countries are represented and equally respected as members of the UN. Also, the democratic election of the Secretary General would increase the popularity and legitimacy of UN actions.
In practice there are some obstacles to the direct election of the Secretary General. In reality, the organization of national elections in all countries for the election of UN President is a formidable and expensive administrative task. This would involve preparation on national level, in countries of different size and population. In addition, a difference in political regimes would not allow for a synchronized election procedure. For example the election in communist China would have to be held differently than the elections in a country with a democratic tradition like the United States. One solution would be for a universal electoral and voting system to be devised, where ballots would be cast directly to the UN level. At present however, this solution remains of highly prescriptive value.
In sum, a democratic reform of the UN is a necessary step in the transformation of the organization from an arena for international debate, into a global government, where synchronized decisions are taken and implemented. The first step to this transformation would involve the direct election of the Secretary General. Other reforms of the UN related to higher levels of democratization involve transparency of the UN Secretariat, which is at present often criticised for being overtly bureaucratic and overridden by administrative problems (Kennedy, 2006). These reforms however will be the topic of another discussion.
This essay has critically discussed two of the most important reforms of the UN. The first one needs to take place within the Security Council. Theremoval of the existing veto power of the permanent members is one way for making one of the key decision-making bodies of the UN more efficient. The growing role of UN in international peace-keeping necessitates a more efficient voting procedure, which would secure a more substantial role of the UN in international development. A second reform which this paper discussed was related to the democratic deficit of which the UN is often accused, and the direct election of the Secretary General. Despite the series of political and institutional obstacles, which these reforms pose and the significant amount of time required for their adoption, they are an important prerequisite for the development of a global community, with the UN at its core.
Baylis, J. & Smith, S. (2007) eds, The Globalization of World Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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Charter of the United Nations (1945) Chapter VI: The Security Council, Available at: http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter6.shtml
Guardian (2011) “Russia and China veto UN resolution against Syrian regime”, Wednesday, 5 October, Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/05/russia-china-veto-syria-resolution
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