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Why we need the UN

By Graham Cooke - posted Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The United Nations needs to be reformed – how often have we heard that? The Security Council is: too small; too big; it needs more permanent members; it needs no permanent members; there should be no veto; the General Assembly is unwieldy and ineffective; the General Assembly should be given more powers.

Ask any ten people working at U.N. Headquarters on the East Side of Manhattan about reform of the world body and you are likely to get ten earnest, thoughtful but quite different answers. The frustrating thing is that everyone wants reform, but no one has any practical ideas on how it can be achieved.

This is partly the fault of the institution itself and the well-meaning idealists who set it up at the end of a war that had devastated Europe, finally writing the obituary for the world order that had existed since Waterloo.


The United States had emerged as a Great Power without whom anything could be achieved. France, Britain and the Soviet Union, battered but triumphant, had to be rewarded for bearing the brunt of the devastating conflict with Germany, as did China for its steadfast opposition to the Japanese Imperial menace. Japan and Germany, on the other hand, were defeated and disgraced enemy combatants, to be excluded and punished. It seemed all so clear and simple then.

Fast forward 65 years and we live in a world that the framers of the U.N. Charter could not have dreamed of. The Soviet Union had risen and fallen, France and Britain had declined in influence, China had overcome internal chaos and contradictions to become an increasingly important geopolitical player, while only the U.S. retained its pre-eminence.

Germany was the largest economy in Europe, and Japan until recently had been second only to the U.S. as a manufacturing and technological powerhouse. Even more surprisingly India, still a British colony in 1945 and Brazil, a little regarded Latin American backwater, had emerged as new challengers to the established order.

But an observer of the U.N. might be excused for thinking it was still living in the era of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. The faces change, the words reflect the various issues and crises that come and go, but the institution itself creaks on, a clumsy monolith blundering its way through the digital age.

Who is responsible for this failure to transform? And is transformation possible? There are no easy answers. The five permanent members of the Security Council will not give up their special privileges, but may be prepared to share them with others. However, no one seems to be able to agree who those others may be, and if all applicants were satisfied the Security Council would become an unwieldy mini-General Assembly powerless to decide anything amid a welter of vetoes.

To survive the U.N. must maintain a delicate balancing act. Only a wild-eyed idealist would argue that Guinea Bissau should exert as much influence over proceedings as Germany, or Cape Verde have as big a say as China. Yet the rights of the small and microstates have to be taken into consideration when the major votes are taken, especially on such all-embracing issues as climate change and global poverty – and how do you accommodate the interests of middle-range powers such as South Africa, Argentina and Australia?


The job of solving these problems has rested with the world body’s bureaucracy, headed by the Secretary General - and it has failed miserably.

Not since Dag Hammarskjold has there been a Secretary General prepared to place the U.N. on an independent course, working for the overall good of the global community and prepared to take on sectional interests even if these resided in the Great Powers of the Security Council. The fact he lost his life in a never-satisfactorily-explained plane crash while engaged in personal diplomacy during the Congolese Civil War in 1961 seems to have been an object lesson to his successors.

Who apart from historians and specialist journalists remember the achievements of U Thant, Javier Perez de Cuellar or Boutros Boutros-Ghali? Kurt Waldheim is better remembered for activities during World War II 30 years before his U.N. appointment, and while Kofi Annan, perhaps the most able of the of those who have followed Hammarskjold, had success in lifting the organisation’s profile and prestige, his attempts at comprehensive internal reform bogged down in minutiae.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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