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Creating a UN fit-for-purpose

09/08/2016 3:53 PM AEST | Updated 28/09/2016 10:01 PM AEST
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The United Nations is now 70 years old. And the world of 70 years ago was a vastly different place to the world of today. Global geo-politics is in the middle of its third great transformation since the last global war: from 40 years of Cold War, to what now seems to have been the 20 year temporary peace that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, to the current period of growing geo-political instability between the US and Russia, the US and China and the now the deepening strategic engagement between China and Russia.

Geo-economics has also radically changed from a post-war global economy dominated by the US, to one where global economic power is split between the US, China and Europe, and where China's economic century has barely begun.

And against all this fundamental change in the deep underpinnings of the order itself, the need for global collaboration is at an all-time high as we strive to respond to the "globalisation" of everything, from global financial instability, to the rise of global terrorism, the explosion in global people movements and the planetary imperatives from climate change. The common refrain from foreign ministries around the world is that at a time when the demand for effective global governance is on the rise, the supply of such governance appears to be in decline. Instead, we are beginning to see a fragmentation of the order itself.

The question arises, therefore, whether this post-war institution called the UN remains "fit for purpose" to meet the needs of the international community for the century unfolding before us. And if not, what can be done in practical terms to bring its mission, structure and resourcing up to date to meet the formidable challenges ahead.

The bottom line is that despite its many detractors, the UN matters. In fact, because it is such an embedded part of the post-war order, it matters a lot. So much so that if it was to fail, falter or just fade away, it would further erode the stability of an already fragile global order.

But because the UN has become such a 'factored in' component of the international order after 70 years, we are barely conscious of the continuing stabilising role it plays in setting the broad parameters for the conduct of international relations. We tend to take the UN for granted. We see it as a comfortable part of the international furniture. A given.

But as history reminds us, nothing is forever, least of all the durability of global institutions whose history is recent and where the precedents are fraught. If the UN one day disappears, or more likely just slides into neglect, it is only then that we would become fully aware of the gaping hole this would leave in what remained of the post-war order. Without the UN, we would be left with increasingly brittle 'state-on-state' relationships, with little remaining to mediate, negotiate or resolve inter-state crises when they arise. By which time it would simply be too late to lament the UN's demise.

The UN has many core strengths. It has unmatched international legal legitimacy under the terms of the UN Charter and the sovereign equality of states. It is capable therefore of speaking with a universal voice, unmatched by any other institution. It sets global norms through a vast array of international treaty law. It possesses a unique global convening power to deal with the challenges of the day. It can take global initiatives in its own name and demonstrate global leadership. It has a unique power to initiate lawful collective security action to preserve international peace and security. It is also empowered to deliver economic and social programs to enhance social justice and environmental sustainability. These powers are impossible to replicate, and they stand separate to the many successes and failures the UN has been associated with over the decades.

Those of us who are proud to be life-long friends of the UN today will defend the institution to the hilt. But the uncomfortable truth is that while the UN today is not broken, it is in trouble.

The danger is that it is starting to drift into irrelevance as states increasingly 'walk around' the UN on the most important questions facing the international community, seeking substantive solutions elsewhere, increasingly seeing the UN as a pleasant diplomatic afterthought. We see this, for example on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, terrorism, cyber security, global pandemics, and refugees. There is a reason for this. The UN, like many old institutions, both national and international, is being overwhelmed by the major systemic changes and challenges now buffeting the international community at large. But this is compounded by the fact that UN has a 20th century institutional structure and culture, struggling to adapt to new 21st century realities. And the common concern for those who care about the institution's future is that if it fails to adapt, the UN is likely to slowly slide into the shadowlands.

This need not be the case. The UN is capable of re-inventing itself. All 21st century institutions must do this in order to survive the pace and complexity of change around them. There is no point dreaming utopian dreams that the UN could be rebuilt from the ground up. But we can make what we already have work much better.

• We need a UN which structurally integrates its peace and security, sustainable development, humanitarian and human rights agendas as a strategic continuum, rather than leaving them as the self-contained, institutional silos of the past. This reflects the "joined-up" realities which the UN now has to deal with on the ground. This integrated approach to UN missions must occur both at the center of UN operations, and in the field.

• We need a UN with a robust policy planning capability looking into the future several years out, not just at the crises of the day;

• We need a UN which embraces a comprehensive doctrine of prevention, rather than just reaction, which is directly reflected in the organisation's leadership structure, culture and resources. The guiding principles of the future must be anticipation, planning and prevention, rather than a culture of simple reaction, "band aid" solutions, and fingers crossed.

• We need equally a UN with a comprehensive ready-reaction capability, both as an effective provider of security stabilisation and emergency humanitarian support, to deal with crises which erupt without warning.

• We need a UN which attaches first priority of field operations over head office. The UN of the future will be judged on its performance in the field in saving lives and transforming life opportunities for the world. The UN's performance will not be judged by the number of reports that are written. In fact, the UN writes too many.

• We need a "Team UN" which finally resolves the problem of its rigid institutional silos by moving increasingly to integrated, multi-disciplinary teams to deal with specific challenges on the ground, and driven by fully-empowered directors of local UN operations in each country;

• We need a UN driven by the measurement of real results on the ground, rather the elegance of our processes in the conference hall;

• We need a UN which attaches a new priority to the principle of "We the People" by developing, at scale, global partnerships and compacts with civil society and the private sector. The UN has embarked on an approach of gradually developing these. It must now proceed at pace. Otherwise we will fail in the delivery of the sustainable development goals under Agenda 2030, which cannot be delivered in the absence of unleashing large-scale private finance. Global public finance is but a drop in the ocean of what is needed. This new partnership philosophy must also be integrated at the highest levels of UN management and, once again, across the traditional silos. And this can be done while maintaining the centrality of the UN member-states, and their policy priorities, in the process.

• We need a UN where women are at the center of the totality of its agenda, not just parts of it, so that their full human potential can be realised as a matter of social justice, and because to fail to do so will further undermine peace, security, development and human rights. We also need a UN where the youth of the world have their voices heard at the center of the UN's councils, not simply as some sort of paternalistic afterthought, so that youth can help shape a future of genuine hope for the billions of people today aged under 25.

• And we need a UN that can operate efficiently, effectively, and flexibly, within the inevitable fiscal limitations of the future, rather than one that assumes that constrained national budgets are likely to loosen up any time soon.

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These ten basic principles are not exactly rocket science. Nor do they address every institutional and policy challenge faced by the UN system today. They do, however, provide some guide for the continuing reform of the management of the UN system in the future. Many fine reform programs have been launched in the past, including by the current Secretary General. But it is the responsibility of each generation to think afresh on the mega-changes and challenges of our own time. And this responsibility will fall principally on the shoulders of the next UN Secretary General, whoever she or he may be.

This is also the task I have sought to address over the last two years as the Chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, established by the International Peace Institute in September 2014. Given the recent decision of the current Australian Prime Minister to decline my nomination, it seems I will not be a candidate myself for the position of UNSG. But I offer these reflections, and more substantively the report I will soon release, to the next SG, her or his staff, the UN Secretariat, and most importantly the UN member states, for their consideration.

The slow, but steady decline of the UN, and the wider multilateral system which has the UN as its foundation, would be catastrophic for an increasingly unstable world. The peoples of the world, in one way or another, are increasingly asking the question: "Is anybody in control anymore?" when they see growing disagreement among the great powers, the re-emergence of old inter-state conflicts, terrorists on their streets, chaos in their markets, and jobs disappearing with nothing to replace them. People are questioning whether we are beginning to see the beginning of a deeper crisis in the foundations of the overall post-war order itself.

I remain a life-long UN supporter, advocate and optimist. But the time for deep UN reform is now. Otherwise, the UN will, in the decades ahead, not die, but quietly fade away, the facade of a once grand building but where, on closer inspection, little of substance actually happens anymore. And that would an avoidable tragedy for us all, large states and in particular small, signalling the end of what remains a core pillar of our post-world order.

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