SA’s position on UN reform
Global body has important role to play but revitalisation needed to be more fit for purpose
THE UN’S significance lies in its founding purpose to protect people, advance human development and social progress, and achieve global co-operation aimed at resolving economic, social, cultural and humanitarian challenges.
The noble ideals are, however, of little consequence if the mechanism to achieve them is broken, insufficient or lacking. While mainstream opinion remains that the UN’s objectives are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago, many are questioning whether the UN is still fit for purpose.
Its relevance hinges on the two issues of inconsequence for member states’ non-adherence to UN resolutions, and the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) decision-making regime.
Yet the UN remains a relevant force. It has helped ward off hunger, poverty and violence for hundreds of millions of people. It leads the fight against climate change. Its agencies take care of about 60 million refugees and other vulnerable people.
There is no entity matching the standing capacity of the UN and its agencies. Despite this, calls for reform of the organisation are growing louder.
In terms of UN management reform, a better operational set-up, improved strategies and structures should be supported. There should be greater transparency, predictability and oversight in UN funding, and in the implementation of its peace mandates. Consideration should also be given to its human resource and procurement policies, gender parity and equitable geographic representation.
The revitalisation of the General Assembly is a critical aspect of reform. Its role and authority need to be strengthened.
South Africa’s position on the UNSC and General Assembly reform is guided by the African Common Position as enunciated in the Ezulweni Consensus. In the AU’s opinion, Africa should be allocated at least two permanent seats on the UNSC. The appointments should be accompanied with the prerogatives and privileges of permanent members, including the right of veto.
Adding additional permanent members without either abolishing the veto right, or at least extending it to all permanent members, may complicate decision-making. Retaining the veto in the hands of only the initial permanent five could lead to increased tension and frustration.
The veto right is often misused, thereby stifling important business: for instance, it could not pass a resolution on Covid-19 because of the US’s insistence that there be no reference to the World Health Organization. Similarly, when discussing the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, two “equally hopeless” opposing resolutions by members holding veto rights were introduced, with one commentator eloquently capturing the folly of having any expectation of a sincere consensus-seeking discussions while “world’s most powerful nations displayed their bitter differences”.
To move the reform process forward, it has been decided that negotiations should be text-based. It appears, however, there is no consensus among the permanent five for text to be put on the table. The US and other advanced democracies, for example, reject the notion that the UNSC’s legitimacy should rely on its composition, believing that its primary mission is to be effective, not representative.
South Africa also believes the General Assembly should be given a more prominent mandate in overseeing the implementation of the UN’s priorities.
The selection and appointment of the secretary-general should be more transparent and democratic. The option must be explored for the secretary-general to be elected for one longer, non-renewable period, as opposed to the five-year term with the option of five-year extension.
Moving the reform process forward will be a battle. With no consensus on the issues between the permanent five, no reform will happen. Therefore, one could understand why many have concluded that the deliberations relating to UN reform largely ring hollow.
Encouraging is that South Africa’s call for the reinvigoration of the UNSC reform negotiations has been included in the heads of state declaration to be adopted at the event to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary. It hopes co-facilitators will soon be appointed.
For all its faults, the UN has an important role to play. Covid-19 has proved this. The UN and its agencies remain the only intergovernmental body able to bring all nations together to find a co-ordinated approach to resolving global problems.
Withdrawal from the UN, or the cutting of funding to multilateral institutions, will be detrimental to the country doing so, and will have implications for humanitarian and development programmes. To say that the UN is toothless is to say countries can go it alone. They cannot. There are too many transnational challenges.
Nevertheless, no sober assessment can ignore that the organisation is facing serious issues relating to its credibility, legitimacy and relevance.
The choice is either business as usual, which will undoubtedly further erode the UN’s standing, or reform, which will gear it for the future and enable it to build on the critical work it has carried out since 1945. South Africa has chosen the path of reform.