Reforming the United Nations | Zahid Hussain

IT is indeed a seminal year for the United Nations as world leaders assemble for the annual General Assembly session celebrating the 70th anniversary of the birth of the world body. What makes the current session more significant is not its disappointing legacy on conflict resolution, but its new Sustainable Development Agenda (SDA).

After years of intense and painstaking deliberations, the member-nations have reached an agreement on 17 development goals — including the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger — to be achieved by 2030. It covers a wide range of political and socio-economic issues, including poverty, hunger, gender equality, industrialisation, sustainable development, full employment, human rights, quality education, climate change and sustainable energy for all.

Surely, it is a highly ambitious agenda that promises to transform the lives of billions of people; its success will depend largely not only on international efforts but also on the commitment of individual states. It may also cost trillions of dollars each year to achieve the minimum targets. Nevertheless, the SDA highlights the growing UN focus on development and humanitarian causes and greater international resolve to address issues related to poverty, gender inequality and education.

It was a moment of great pride to see Malala Yousafzai sharing the stage with other world luminaries at New York’s Central Park Global Citizen event to launch the SDA that replaces the Millennium Development Goals. Although a UN report claimed the MDGs had cut by half the number of people living in extreme poverty, Pakistan, unfortunately, is among the countries that have fallen far behind. It has not even come close to achieving any of the millennium targets.

There is absolutely no realisation in Pakistan on the importance of these issues relating to investing in human development. Poverty, education and gender inequality are still the lowest items on the priority list of the government. That gives little confidence to a country being able to achieve those goals in the stipulated time frame.

Not to forget that the post-2015 agenda has been launched in a very different setting — one of greater inequality, of more damaging environmental degradation linked to natural disasters and other crises, and of more widespread and brutal conflicts, to name a few examples. Therefore, this new agenda will require changing old ways of doing business and embracing innovations.

Another significant event on the sidelines of the 70th General Assembly session was a high-level roundtable on South-South cooperation with the participation of 20 countries including Pakistan. The forum led by China certainly scaled up the long lost cause of cooperation among developing countries that should also help in achieving the SDA goals.

South-South cooperation assumes greater significance as global financial and political rebalancing takes place. It is apparent that power and influence are shifting from the US-led transatlantic order towards Asia and Latin America. Therefore, a major question revolves around how the new system can be managed and how successfully and quickly the newly empowered big players of the Global South manage their transformation from marginal actors to major stakeholders in the new order.

This also raises questions about the relevance of the world body in dealing with the new challenges confronting global security. The world has changed enormously since the creation of the UN in 1945. Despite the fact that the number of UN members has quadrupled to 193 states, the Security Council that virtually controls the decision-making still comprises the victors of the Second World War. Its structure does not reflect the diversity of the present member-states. Surely it is the biggest failure of the UN, when faced with some of the most critical issues, leaving it open to allegations of being a powerless body.

While not denying the role of the UN in preventing many crises threatening world peace, its failure to protect and defend the interests of the weaker and smaller nations has become much more apparent. Some recent events have exposed its limitations in dealing with conflicts involving big powers, particularly the United States. For that reason, many sceptics see the UN as having been reduced to a debating forum, not a problem-solving entity. Too often has it demonstrated a failure to tackle urgent collective action on problems due to its structural inability and inertia.

The much-delayed critical structural and procedural reforms further highlight the question of its legitimacy and performance. The crisis of confidence in the world body as a symbol of multilateralism has intensified with Washington’s unilateral US military action in Iraq and the inability of the UN to play a more active role in the Middle East conflict, especially in the Syrian civil war.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the United Nations in its present form does not meet the requirements of a truly representative multilateral organisation in a fast-changing world that is confronted with complex security challenges. Over the past seven decades, the UN has survived various phases — from the bipolarity of the Cold War period to a unipolar order in 1990s and now to the transition to a sort of fragmented world order.

Most attention on structural reform in the UN system has been focused on the Security Council. Surely the Council in its present shape is unrepresentative in both permanent and elected membership, unaccountable to the General Assembly, and not subject to judicial oversight. But there is a need for much deeper reforms to make the UN more relevant and effective in fulfilling its primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security.

Therefore, it is not only imperative to restructure the Security Council that reflects today’s power balance, but also to make the United Nations more representative of a broader constituency of interests. Surely the Security Council is the most important UN organ and its geopolitical centre of gravity. But its expanded powers and reach have steadily reduced the role and relevance of the General Assembly which should be the major source of its authority and legitimacy.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Reforming the United Nations | Zahid Hussain

Published in Dawn September 30th, 2015

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