The Right Time for UN Reform
Outcome of an event organized by the Bahá'í International Community
New York, 1 November 2022
Is Now the Right Time for UN Reform?
It’s the Best Time, BIC Says During Talks
Fundamental change to global governance systems was at the heart of a Baha’i International Community (BIC) event co-hosted recently with the Coalition for the United Nations We Need, entitled “Tipping the Scales: Proposals for UN Reform in a Time of Need.”
In addition to considering a number of proposals for reform, the event also explored how such proposals can be implemented — getting from ideation to actualization, in the words of one attendee.
“Too often in the UN we spend a lot of time talking about the what and the when and the why, but not the how,” said Ambassador Christopher Lu, of the United States, one of the event’s featured respondents.
“Think outside the current construct of the UN,” Ambassador Lu added, urging attendees to be audacious in their consultations. “If you were designing it all from scratch, what would you do?”
The fifth in a series exploring the Our Common Agenda (OCA) report of the UN Secretary General, the event attracted around 100 in-person and online participants, including representatives of over 20 Member States. An unattributed summary of the proceedings is below.
Proposals for reform that were offered ranged widely in form and focus. They included setting a strong precedent in the establishment of the UN Youth Office, creating a standing UN Emergency Peace Service, restoring a measure of authority and autonomy to the Office of the Secretary General, and ensuring that needed action can be taken on the basis of majority decision, rather than be hamstrung by a desire for consensus.
Significant discussion was sparked by a proposal offered by Augusto Lopez-Claros, Executive Director of the Global Governance Forum, on convening a General Conference for review of the UN Charter. Such a step, provided for under Article 109 of the Charter, could bring the legal foundations of the UN into the 21st century, said Lopez-Claros, and could be integrated with the upcoming Summit of the Future.
Major reform initiatives like this are not without risk, participants noted. But perpetuating the status quo also involves risk—likely much greater in the long run. One attendee, for example, suggested that limiting ourselves to what is perceived to be realistic invites catastrophe.
Also discussed was the complex relationship between crisis and reform. Change can be difficult in times of turmoil, especially when trust is lacking. Yet any crisis also interrupts the status quo and demonstrates why change is needed, potentially opening new possibilities.
In the face of climate change, COVID, and conflict, among other challenges, “people ask whether now is the time to also be trying to reform the UN,” related BIC Representative Daniel Perell, who moderated the event. “My response is, this is the best time to do it, because we recognize the fundamental need.”
Another point of emphasis was the need for an inclusive and collaborative relationship between the UN and civil society. “One of the central parts of the OCA report is the idea of a renewed social contract that is anchored in trust, inclusion, protection, participation, and measuring and valuing what matters to people and planet,” said Kavita Desai, with the Quaker United Nations Office.
Underlying the discussion was a common recognition that coordinated global action has become the only viable foundation for addressing many of humanity’s most pressing challenges.
“The question we face,” Lopez-Claros said in closing remarks, “is whether actions to be taken in the coming years to address the risks we face will be a matter of conscious choice and prevention, reflecting broad ranging consultations across various stakeholder groups, or whether they will be prompted by the destruction and suffering brought on by climate change, conflict, and so on.”
Meeting Summary - 1 November 2022
Tipping the Scales: Proposals for UN Reform in a Time of Need
Proposals for reform
● Convene a General Conference on review of the UN Charter, under Article 109
○ The legal foundations of the Charter need to be brought into the 21st century.
○ The Summit of the Future can build momentum toward a review Conference.
○ A Conference is provided for in the Charter and therefore very implementable.
○ The broad-based consultations at a review Conference would be useful in themselves.
● Begin practical implementation of the UN Youth Office
○ The Office should be an independent high-level body, as opposed to a department or another office, which would be subject to budget cuts.
○ The Office should seek quick, low-cost wins to establish credibility and potential, such as championing OCA youth perspectives across all agendas.
○ The Office could serve as a clearinghouse for youth-related research, and in the longer term, act as a secretariat for a UN Youth Council
● Ensure full compliance with human rights commitments
○ Human rights mechanisms should be provided with sustainable financing, sufficient for them to deliver on their mandates.
○ All treaty bodies receiving reports should establish a predictable calendar with full reviews every 8 years and midpoint follow-up reviews.
○ Civil Society representatives should have greater access to the UN campus. Similarly, the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs should not indefinitely defer applications.
● Create a single, high-level UN champion for Civil Society
○ Such a champion could provide strategic direction, hold long-term memory, and remove barriers. It would not seek to represent Civil Society organizations, but embody commitment to engage with them
● Take practical steps to facilitate Civil Society participation at the UN
○ The UN Civil Society Unit, Department of Global Communications website, and announcement bulletin should be revamped to better reflect opportunities to engage and time-sensitive deadlines.
○ Multi-stakeholder dialogues should be institutionalized in all UN processes, for example by the President of the General Assembly’s office including in co-facilitators’ appointment letters.
○ The PGAs’s Office should have a clear Civil Society focal point. The PGA should also make a habit of meeting with local Civil Society actors on all official trips.
● Establish a UN Emergency Peace Service
○ Such a first-responding body would strengthen capacity for prevention of armed conflict, humanitarian disaster, and similar developments.
● Ensure that needed action can be taken on the basis of majority decision
○ Consensus is desirable, but not at the cost of paralysis.
● Establish chains of responsibility, similar to the Kimberley Process developed around blood diamonds, that reinforce social values higher than financial profit alone.
● Restore a measure of the authority and autonomy of the office of the Secretary-General.
● A lot of time at the UN is spent talking about the what, when, and why; more time and attention needs to be devoted to the ‘how’.
● In considering the ‘how’, it’s important to recognize that political processes unfold in capitals as much as UN Headquarters. NGOs should work in capitals and not only with representatives in NYC.
● Thinking must go beyond current frameworks. If we were designing the UN from scratch, what would it look like? What entities wouldn’t be included? What might take their place?
● There are more global challenges than resources. How should needs be prioritized, if it is accepted that the UN can’t solve all problems?
● How can the performance and impact of UN programs and policies be more accurately and holistically assessed?
● Desire for radical UN reform should not obscure the value of achieving smaller steps. We want home runs, but singles and doubles can do much of the work. We should resist the urge to collapse overall reform of the UN system to the Security Council alone.
● The relationship between crisis and reform is complex. Change can be difficult in times of crisis, because trust might not have been built. Yet crisis also interrupts the status quo and demonstrates why change is needed, potentially opening new possibilities.
● Civil Society involvement will mean little unless paradigms based in GDP growth are left behind.
● Meaningful steps of reform, such as convening a conference for Charter review, are not without risk. Such steps could make things worse. But perpetuating the status quo also involves risk. Present challenges call for an audacity of imagination.
● Proposals made today have often been tried in the past. We need to keep those experiences in mind, including why they did or didn’t succeed.
● Review of past experiences should reflect an orientation toward learning and the development of capacity. Just because a baby falls the first time it tries to walk, doesn’t mean helping it learn is a lost cause.
● Reforms need to be reformable. Previously there was an Agenda for Peace and a Declaration on Future Generations, but these didn’t stand the test of time and now require renegotiation. We need to be able to differentiate between stability on the one hand, and static institutions and frameworks, on the other.
● “Enlightened state sovereignty” can be a useful concept. The only rational and useful view of sovereignty today is one that is consistent with a reliable and functioning global order. Any other view, ultimately, undermines goals of national wellbeing.
● The UN can play a key role in creating and building trust. Trust is the recognition of responsibility and acceptance of accountability for agreements and treaties.
● The UN must be a diverse and representative institution. Access to the UN Secretary-General’s Office that is supported only or primarily through Western funding is problematic and contrary to the founding spirit of the UN.
● Adopting more inclusive models of governance will impact the roles that Member States play at the international level. This needs to be acknowledged frankly and explored collectively.
● The key question before the multilateral system is whether needed actions will be taken as a matter of conscious choice and prevention, reflecting broad based consultation, or whether they will be prompted by the suffering provoked by climate change, conflict, etc.
Source: based on Bahá'í World News Service, 3 November 2022, https://www.bic.org/news/now-right-time-un-reform-its-best-time-bic-say…
Last updated 4 November 2022