A 21st Century United Nations

Threats, Challenges, and Change

Sep 23, 2004

A year ago in a speech to the United Nations's General Assembly, Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged that the United Nations did not meet the needs of its members, including the United States. He said: "We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded. ... I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental policy issues, and at the structural changes that may be needed in order to strengthen them." He went on to call for "radical reform" of the UN system and in doing so established a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.

The Security Council debates over the US-led invasion in Iraq and the mass killings in Sudan have raised anew concerns relating to the effectiveness of the United Nations. The high panel, a team of 16 former high-ranking officials and heads of international organizations, is responsible for analyzing the challenges to international peace and security, and for raising proposals and submitting reports on UN reform to the Secretary-General.

In light of this critical time in the history of the UN, the Wilson Center's Conflict Prevention Project has established a meeting series intended to spur discussion on the UN, its role, the changes needed to improve its performance and its relationship with the United States. In February 2004, the Wilson Center convened a session, moderated by Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar David Birenbaum, which focused on the impact of the coalition intervention in Iraq (without Security Council approval) on the organization. This meeting was co-sponsored by Citizens for Global Solutions with support from the United Nations Foundation.

The high panel is due to report to the secretary general by 1 December 2004, and while thus far the panel is on track to make that deadline, the group has only just begun to wrestle with detailed drafting language, UN High Level Panel Member Gareth Evans reported. According to Evans, the secretary general is focusing on the "operationally deliverable rather than the intellectually or emotionally attractive (though he may not have put it in quite these terms)."

Threats to Peace and Security

The range of potential threats to peace and security addressed by the panel are likely to be grouped under six broad headings:

  • threats from poverty, disease, and environmental breakdown (the threats to human security identified in the Millennium Development Goals)
  • threats from conflict between states
  • threats from violence and massive human rights violations within states
  • threats from terrorism
  • threats from organized crime
  • threats from the proliferation of weapons - particularly WMD, but also conventional


"While the panel will address the whole range of international players, it nonetheless will have to address a number of institutional problems evident in the UN system, including the perceived unrepresentative structure of the Security Council, the cumbrous and dysfunctional character of much of the economic and social machinery, and the limited role and impact of the general assembly," Evans said.

"The range of the threats facing the world are so urgent and widespread that the United States would prefer to engage multilaterally," said Stewart Patrick of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff. Giving his personal views, Patrick noted that the United Nations is not one entity, but several organizations including the general assembly, secretariat, secretary-general and numerous agencies. Thus any reform recommendations must be multi-faceted and encompassing. For instance, he cited the lack of standards and criteria toward countries with dubious human rights records, such as Sudan and Libya, and their election to membership and leadership positions in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

"The panel is not focusing on reform in a narrow sense," said Abiodun Williams, Head of Strategic Planning, Executive Office of the United Nations Secretary-General. "These changes will be a means to the end, hopefully resulting in a more comprehensive collective security system. "

The Impact of Iraq on the UN

"The military invasion of Iraq may actually be considered a success for the United Nations," said Thomas Leney, Director of Programs, UN Foundation. Before taking action to forcefully remove Saddam Hussein from power, President Bush and his administration attempted to get a United Nations Security Council resolution, and their effort shows the relevance of the United Nations. Still there exists a great tension between the norms of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention and questions regarding the use of force—-especially against the backdrop of Iraq and the Darfur region of Sudan. "This is the needle that we will need to thread, and is the biggest challenge for the panel and the United Nations," Leney said.

The discussion also focused on responses to genocide, the International Criminal Court and institutional reform. "The challenge of the high level panel is to make the United Nations work so well that United States won't be tempted as often to go it alone," Evans said. However he noted that the invasion of Iraq has made it more difficult to enforce collective security responses to legitimate security concerns.

"Lasting peace and security should be underpinned by adhering to the rule of law," Leney said. Furthermore he advised moving away from the strict criteria outlined by the genocide convention, instead focusing on the victims of injustice, atrocities and mass killings. He urged United States engagement with the United Nations as it attempts to reshape global norms.

Reconstitution of the Security Council

"Although disproportionate attention has focused on reform of the Security Council, changing its composition and structure to better reflect the reality of the 21st century is indeed a priority," Evans said. The panel is discussing a proposal that would expand the Security Council, with the eventual addition of approximately nine members. New members would be divided into four-year renewable terms and two-year terms as at present, with some allocation of those seats to a revised set of regional groupings. "The system would be formulated in such a way that would make it possible for the major aspirants for permanent membership on the Security Council to play a much more regular role," noted Evans.

Many of the participants agreed with Annan's comments of a year ago----we have reached a fork in the road and more critically, if member states won't make a decision or prefer to keep the status quo, then history will make the decision for all of us.

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Experts & Staff

  • Steve McDonald // Senior Advisor, Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity
  • Aly Lyons // Program Associate