„Off to a New Beginning, Moving beyond National Borders“

Rede vor der OLmun 2019 international session

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I thank you for this invitation to address you on the topic of „Off to a new beginning – Moving beyond borders.“

Yes indeed, we need a new beginning of political and diplomatic multilateralism and find ways and means that help us address the problems which transcend national borders. We need new ways which allow us to cooperate among nations in a constructive way. To do so, we need to go back to the origins of the United Nations, we need to recall the letter and in particular the spirit of the UN Charter. Only such a recollection of the original purpose and mission will allow us to make the UN fit for today’s global and international challenges.

The spirit of the UN

The UN was founded in the name of the peoples of this world. According to the charter the United Nations were to free the world of the “scourge of war”, faithfully observe human rights, ensure that international law is respected, so that social progress and better living standards “in larger freedom” can be promoted. In order to achieve this the Charter states: we shall “practise tolerance”, and “live together in peace as good neighbours”. We shall “unite in order to maintain international peace and security”, and “to use armed force only in the common interest”. In addition, the Charter said that an “international machinery” should be set up, which will promote “the economic and social advancement of all peoples”.
I am speaking today to you as a former senior UN official and not in any official capacity. This gives me the liberty to neglect to a large extent Realpolitik and share with you some bold proposals for reform. Such neglect, albeit temporary, is necessary to allow for clear thinking and to worry about the feasibility of these ideas later. In fact, I would like to strike a bargain with you: I give you some ideas, and you translate these ideas into tangible results through your deliberations and decisions at your meeting.

Global Multilateralism

Let me start by stating the obvious: the UN are not the only multilateral organisation which exists today. There are the International Financial Institutions – ie the IMF, the World Bank, and the IFC; WTO, the OECD, the G20 and the G7; and regional groupings like the EU, ASEAN, MERCUSOR, AU, Arab League, CIS, BRICS to mention only a few. Neither is the UN the only global multilateral organisation, e.g. the IMF is a global institution, which even has an advantage over the UN, because it has policy-based financial means at its disposal with which it can enforce its fiscal policies, without, however, always giving due regard to the economic, social and other consequences of such enforced policies. But that is another story for another occasion to talk about.
Still, many believe that the UN is unique in spite of all its shortcomings and that it would have to be invented, if it did not exist. What then makes them unique, and which are the shortcomings which we need to overcome?
As to the uniqueness 4 points come to mind:
1. All internationally recognized nation states are members of the UN.
2. They thus represent almost 100 % of the world population true to the opening statement of the UN Charter “We, the peoples of this world”.
3. All member states have an equal vote whether they represent 500000 people or 1.4 billion people. The UN are thus not leaving any nation state behind in their current voting structure. Besides, the UN decision-making bodies cherish the voting by consensus.
4. Foremost, however, the UN stand for a very specific thinking and a set of values. They stand for settling conflicts through negotiations and compromises, and not through wars, and the UN are built on the respect of the human rights of each and everybody.

Shortcomings in today’s UN

The third and fourth point lead us right into the middle of the shortcomings of the UN. Powerful national leaders of today do not think that diplomatic negotiations and compromises are valuable as political solutions, but consider deal-making and/or military action as more important. They do not believe that the rule of law and the protection of human rights are the best guarantee we have against the abuse of power and the mistreatment of people, but that the protection of self-interest should be our first priority.
What then can be done to overcome such a philosophical divide? The short answer is, we need different political leaders, but that is easier said than done. Therefore, while we wait for having such new leaders elected, let’s review some of advice and reform proposals we might wish to give them.

Participation

In national democracies, we give all people above a certain age voting rights, and we establish constituencies, which represent an equal number of such voters. Hence, would we not need to introduce some differentiation to the voting system within the UN? Besides, in national elections we have political parties as a transmission mechanism between the general voting population and the eventual representation in parliament. Hence, do the governments of nation states still suffice as such transmission mechanisms in the UN? Of course, we have groupings among the member states, such as the Group of 77 and China, regional groupings, the LDCs, SLC, SIC and the like, but can we consider them to be adequate in terms of representing different interests and views among the peoples of this world? There are ideas to establish a global parliament which would have representation based on population size. Is this feasible or at least desirable as an additional UN body?

Delegation of Authority

In the Security Council the situation is different. There, not all 15 members are equal, although they still all have one vote. But 5 countries have a permanent seat und have a more important voting power than the other members. They can exercise a veto. When they do, this normally means negotiations stop and a planned resolution is dead, although the General Assembly can assume direct responsibility of the issue, if 2/3 of the member states vote for such an action. But let me add, it is not the veto as such which is the stumbling block, it is the fact, that such vetos are cast in an effort to block a specific view by one or the other permanent member. In particular the European members and non-permanent members of the Council have developed many informal mechanisms to work around these clashes between the US and Russia/China, the council will only develop its rightful watchdog function, and take authoritative decisions, if and when these clashes can be overcome. I shall come back to this.

Global Developments

In many ways, the system did hold during the decades of the Cold War, as no global military conflict erupted, but only among and within smaller nations, although in many cases these were proxy wars, having the two blocks supporting different camps from behind the scenes. Some attribute the avoidance of a global war to the existence of the atomic bomb. This threat certainly played an important role, but I believe it was also the possibility of leaders from both blocks to meet in the UN and speak freely.
When in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the Soviet Block, free market economies and neoliberalism became the dominant political philosophy with global free trade and large multinational corporations with direct foreign investments in many countries. At the same time the East West impasse over human rights appeared to have been overcome in the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993. The UN under the leadership of Kofi Annan attempted to develop a blueprint for global development through a series of international conferences and the Millennium Summit in 2000. The aim of these conferences was to uphold human rights as the guiding value, and to create social justice while at the same time managing the use of natural resources sustainably. While all conferences ended with a consensual result, the adherence to the decisions were, let’s say, spotty. Technically all the UN summits of the 1990s adopted normative outcome documents/resolutions; some of which with mechanisms for measuring progress along agreed targets and some with binding conventions such as the CRC and some ILO conventions. In parallel there were a number of soft law agreements.

Now, 30 years later, the ground is shifting again; but this time we witness that the UN is unable to uphold the spirit of the UN and oblige member states to stick to existing international law and the UN charter. It is not that today there are no forces within and around the UN committed to the spirit and letter of the UN charter, but political leaders, who say, my country’s interests have priority over all international and global interests and concerns, occupy the main stage of international politics. Which camp will become the decisive force and shape today’s and future world politics is too early to say. But what we most likely shall see is the strengthening of non-governmental forces, such as civil society networks on the one hand and big business on the other and many other actors in-between. They all will bring strong pressure on national governments. What will be the outcome of this interplay of different forces, let’s say in 10-15 years from now, is too early to say, but in five points I would like to summarize what the current result of this interplay of forces is:

1. Neoliberalism and economic globalization have created incredible wealth concentrated in the hands of a small number of families and countries, while at the same time alleviating a great part of abject poverty. Acute income poverty decreased between 1995 and 2013, when measured at the global level, but, both in relative and absolute terms, they increased in South Asia and Subsaharan Africa, although in all regions life expectancy and educational levels were raised. These developments are coupled with the depletion of most of the planet’s natural resources beyond their capacity of renewal and are causing global warming which is as yet not under control.
2. Neoliberalism and economic globalisation have promoted and even accelerated the development of new technologies, and unleashed a wave of digital applications which create unknown opportunities, but also great disparities within and among countries.
3. The difference between the haves and the have-nots is growing, to an unprecedented extent. As 1% of the world’s population have the same wealth as 50 % who live on this planet, the rich perpetuate unsustainable economic activities, in particular unsustainable production and consumption and this in turn is limiting equal opportunities for an ever-growing number of people. The most dynamic among those seek opportunities for themselves and their families as migrants and often work and live under trying circumstances. With their remittances they often sustain the economies of their regions or countries of origin.
4. These developments and changes in the demography create a widespread sense of insecurity and fear among many people in many countries, which in turn lead to nationalistic, xenophobic and racist political trends. We experience a growing defiance of the principles of human rights and respect for the agreements which most countries have ratified. Hundreds of human rights defenders/climate activists/journalists are imprisoned, tortured or even murdered each year.
5. Since the late 1980s each year there are around 50 armed conflicts ongoing in the world, with no end to these military fighting in sight. And even, when the Security Council unites and passes a resolution to end these conflicts, little, if anything is achieved. Although we need to acknowledge that there would be an even greater number of armed conflicts, if it were not for the many UN led peace-keeping missions around the globe, the uncontrolled fighting and terrorist attacks are putting a large number of civilians in deadly danger.
Clearly these trends are against the UN Charter.

The UN response to date

What have the UN, the secretariat and the member states, done to counteract these negative global trends?
One important step was the globally led discussion through national, regional and global consultations and through the Internet, and the formulation of the Agenda 2030 with its 17 SDGs, targets and indicators, which the General Assembly approved in September 2015. The participants in these consultations were government officials, staff of NGOs and other civil society organisations, individuals of all ages, but in particular young people, pupils and students. They elaborated a social, economic and ecological blueprint for the world. If and when all goals are met, we shall live in a very different world. The agenda is transformative in nature and demands creative and innovative action in all countries. In those countries, where the UN funds and programmes and the specialized organisations like WHO, FAO, ILO are active, they assist in accelerating the transformation. In OECD and/or EU countries necessary actions are left to the national and regional authorities, but not all these countries have as yet taken the Agenda 2030 on board. Germany is just such a case. Much remains to be done in our country as in many other wealthy nations. ECOSOC and the reformed system of UN Resident Coordinators certainly have a crucial monitoring role to play and they will have to point out periodically the achievements or rather the danger of not achieving the agreed goals. But let’s also not overlook that the consensual adoption of the agenda and the 17 goals are non-binding for the member states. Is it thus only a wish list or can it or, at least, should it not be more? Although for all international treaties there are monitoring processes in place, but their power does not reach further than blaming und shaming those who do not fulfil the treaty obligations.

International Cooperation

It is interesting to note that international cooperation with regard to SDG 10, overcoming inequality within and among countries, has until now found the least operational attention. And yet, we do need a global policy debate, how to foster creativity, innovation, change, without, however, continuing the current practice of “winner takes all”. Innumerable studies exist about the various aspects of inequality and inequity, many proposals have been made, in particular with regard to steer funds into those countries, which are disproportionally left behind in the global economy, but I think we are not as yet addressing the root causes of such uneven developments. Getting rich may be glorious, getting super-rich and suffocating all other efforts is a problem. Being individually free to choose your own life style and course, is okay, but if we leave lots of others in the process behind, it becomes a problem. In other words, we need a global debate on how we want to balance, in future, individual pursuits and the pursuit of the common good. In academic circles the debate has begun. One very elaborate and early study is Tony Judt’s “Ill fares the Land”. Of similar interest are the writings by Pickety, Stiglitz, OXFAM and others. But such academic discussions are just beginning to reach the political sphere. For instance the Economic Forum in Davos had a report from an expert group stating that the existing inequality is a major global threat, similar to climate change. The UN organisations, too, have done some thinking in this regard in recent years: UNRISD flagship 2010 was on inequality, UNDP, World Bank, UN women, DESA reports all have addressed this. The HLPF in July 2019 is dedicated to SDG 10. World Bank & DESA convened an expert meeting on SDG 10 in April and I hear that UNDP through its HDR 2019 will contribute to the ongoing global debate.
It is equally interesting to note that with regard to SDG 3 health and well-being for all, cooperation within and among countries is booming, and we even have a Global Action Plan in its first phase, because of an initiative by Germany, Ghana and Norway as a result of the G 20 process. This Global Action Plan has, among others, measurable milestone targets to be reached by 2023 and an elaborate monitoring system, which shows where the gaps are between current trends and needed developments. Such global action plans, would be desirable for all other SDGs as well.
Often the UN don’t mention the price tag which such an ambitious agenda carries. Fortunately, our colleagues from the World Bank have in this regard a sharper eye. They have calculated that over the remaining years until 2030 we are short of some 350 billion US Dollars a year. If one considers that member states spent some 1.8 trillion $ in 2018 for military purposes, a reduction of 20 % might help. Alternatively, the World Bank suggests to use Private Public Partnerships more than before. But that raises other issues.

What the UN can and should do in addition

Let me now turn to some of the reform steps, which need to be taken, so that international policy and politics are truly governed by the spirit and letter of the UN charter. In some ways this is the chicken – egg situation. What comes first: a change in our thinking and attitudes, or a structural reform which will change our thinking?

1. Strengthening the authority of the Security Council

Let’s take the need to reform the Security Council. In a few words: the council has to be more representative of all current member states, hence the composition has to be changed. I favour the proposal to divide the world into 8 regions and to give each region two seats. All regions shall have veto power, but a veto is only acceptable, if and when a draft resolution violates the letter and the spirit of the UN Charter. In other words: we need to define when and how a veto is permissible. If you wish to read more about this fairly radical proposal I suggest you look up the article published on my website. Included in a reform of the security council should also be, that the current practice of the council to informally review many conflicts and other threats to global peace, the council members should look at issues which are global in scope and scale and threaten international peace and stability. It should be acknowledged that the council in recent years has been very active and is diligent in its review and monitoring of threats and conflicts, but little of this work is known outside the UN. This invisibility has to be overcome by focusing the council’s attention on global key issues, such as climate change and disarmament and agree on a binding decision. Germany is taking up some of these issues as a current non-permanent member of the SC and is forming coalitions with members from other regions, but it could be forceful in this endeavour. We all know that acting on article 26 of the UN Charter is long overdue, and the German initiative will hopefully contribute to change this situation. While for all the just mentioned issues separate UN bodies exist, and thev should continue to exist, it is indispensable, that the Security Council from time to time throws the spotlight on these issues, as was done some years ago with regard to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The discussions in the Security Council clearly gave the fight against this threat to the global society a big push and greater attention by all the member states. Initially HIV/AIDS was a runaway epidemic. Today we can say, it has become a partial success story. We have not yet conquered the disease, but we have contained its further spread.

2. Making participation stronger

We need to come closer to reflect the will and interest of the peoples of this world. Now, this is potentially a minefield. But, let me still throw in the following idea: A vote in the General Assembly and its subsidiary bodies should in future be valid, when more than half of all member states representing at least 51 % of the world’s population have accepted a draft resolution. This will replace the consensus mode, but does still allow for a consensual decision, too. Such a change, by many considered a breach of one country, one vote, may still help to accelerate decision-making in the UN bodies, and may encourage many more member states to deal with global issues at and through the UN in a proactive manner. It also should make such decisions binding for all member states. As you know, consensus decision by the General Assembly today remain non-binding. I would welcome if the G 20 rather than to meet separately would carry its work into the UN and would spearhead this part of the reform process.

3. Reducing financial imbalances

A related issue is whether the organisation should cap the assessed contributions to the UN secretariat at a much lower level. Currently the US pays 22% while the next largest contributor, Japan, pays below 10 % of the total budget, as do the next in line Germany, China, France and Great Britain. Russia at this moment pays around 3%. Such capping may lead to reductions in the overall income, but it may give further reforms of the UN secretariat in New York and Geneva a strong push. Basically, the secretariat should focus, as it does in the area of humanitarian assistance, on the coordination of activities by other UN organisations and serve the security council and the general assembly. Technical cooperation activities should be transferred to specialized UN organisations and thus free up the secretariat’s financial and human resources.

4. Managing global participation better

There also is a need to improve the mechanisms by which we have the peoples of the world participate in meetings and conferences. The process leading to the Agenda 2030 was a big step in that direction, but now we also have to have this participation as we implement the SDGs. In particular, we need to ensure that civil society organisations from all member states are admitted to the discussions of UN bodies. This is a tall order, and by definition, admission will have to be selective, in order to keep meetings manageable. But assuming we would admit 2 NGOs from each member state to the sessions (in total ca. 400), we would limit and expand NGO participation at the same time. However, national NGOs from smaller countries may not always be able to attend. Therefore they should be given the option to be represented by an INGOs. At present, too many NGOs accredited come from only a small number of member states, mostly Western and economically wealthy, but while not excluding these, we need to find ways and means to facilitate NGO participation from all countries in the world. In principle, civil society organisations need to be given a voice, and they need to be listened to.

5. Strengthening enforcement capacity

Most difficult is a reform that would strengthen the capacity of the UN to enforce decisions by its executive bodies, i.e. the security council and the general assembly. As such enforcement needs to be carried out by the member states themselves, we need to strengthen the authority of the UN bodies in such a way that member states have to respect the relevant decisions and feel obliged to implement them. Regional groupings, “alliances of the willing” and their political and military forces can and should serve as powerful enforcement mechanisms. The case of Kuwait after the Iraqui attack in 1991 is still a model for such collective and successful action. Why then, did we not continue to act in a similar way in Syria and Yemen? This is not the place to analyse these cases in further detail. Suffice it to say that international peace has to be secured by the member states with mandates from the UN security council. We need to reintroduce the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which we needlessly misused in the case of Libya, and we need to confirm the principle that human rights are a higher legal norm and standard than national sovereignty. To get there, we do need a different approach to solving such crises. President Truman’s statement of June 1945 during the closing session of the UN founding conference in San Francisco still holds:
“We all have to recognize-no matter how great our strength–that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please. No one nation, no regional group, can or should expect, any special privilege which harms any other nation. If any nation would keep security for itself, it must be ready and willing to share security with all. That is the price which each nation will have to pay for world peace. Unless we are all willing to pay that price, no organization for world peace can accomplish its purpose.”
A current case which begs for a solution along those lines is Venezuela. While it is admirable that the Norwegian government, once more, is engaged in mediating a solution, the security council should have been giving such a mediation mandate. As three of the five permanent members have vested interests in this Venezuelan conflict and have taken sides, as members of the security council they should be acting in the interest of the Venezuelan population. That, at this stage, means mediation and not taking sides.
Furthermore, in cases of armed conflicts, like in Syria and Yemen, the council should not only impose sanctions and a weapon’s embargo from all sources, but also be able to enforce this. Monitoring alone will not suffice. It will indeed demand a military command, which is empowered by all member states, to intercept weapons’ delivery. The international justice system will need to act on those who defy a Council decision and have offenders stand trial in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and/or for genocide. In cases, where the security council comes to the conclusion that none of the warring parties can protect the civilian population within a foreseeable timeframe, the UN should be authorized to establish a trusteeship government, which temporarily will assume, under the UN flag, the public administration, while the national political camps negotiate a settlement to their conflict. In Syria, we have some elements of this solution in place, but not all. In Yemen, we are all watching more or less helplessly as this man-made disaster is ongoing, and the UN does not succeed in protecting the civilian population.
In order to oversee such cases of a caretaker government, the Trusteeship Council should be given a revised mandate. Such cases, however, should be rare and only the last resort. The situation of East Timor, after its vote for independence from Indonesia, can serve as a model, as the UN caretaker government has produced a positive and lasting result.
One quick word on sanctions: we need to avoid that sanctions harm the civilian population and we should through the UN make it very clear that sanctions are ineffective means to bring about regime change, and that sanctions should be based on a collective decision an not decided unilaterally.

Radical ideas, strong networks

These ideas are radical in the context of today’s international politics, and they require a very different political thinking, if we wish to implement them. The nation state will continue to exist, but all national leaders will have to assume their share of responsibility for international peace and peoples’ well – being everywhere. Civil society organisations have a tremendously important role to play to bring about such a change in all countries. We need networks and solidarity and we need stronger mechanisms to uphold the authority of the UN, in order to level the international playing field. When we have to criticize some of the UN actions and some of its officials, this should, we have to guard ourselves against discrediting the whole UN.

4 Dimensions of reforms

Each of the above proposals is related to the four dimensions of democracy, namely accountability, participation, fairness and equity. They in turn are the building blocks for people to live in “larger freedom”. You will note that I am not suggesting that there is only one political system which aligns all these building blocks properly. I think, there are many different ways by which we can use these building blocks and construct a solid democratic home in each country. How to do this, we shall leave to the people of each country, but we can from the UN side provide a helping hand to improve their respective governance system.

The Way Forward

Undoubtedly such UN reforms will need extensive discussions within and among the member states. Equally beyond doubt is that such reforms cannot such be left to governments and their diplomatic representatives. We need a spectrum of participants in such a reform debate, which reflects the complexity of today’s governance system with non-state actors such as NGOs, the business world, media and scientists. We have to start a process of consultations in a similar way as was done for the Agenda 2030. Fortunately, the UN charter gives us an opening for such discussions. In Article 109 (slide) it is foreseen that every 10 years a general conference should be held, which assesses whether the UN is still functioning according to the demands of the global challenges. Such a conference was never convened, but it is high time that it be held, and discuss with the same commitment, as was shown by the founders of the UN 1945 in San Francisco, how to rebuild a UN which can indeed and measureably ensure international security, peace, and human well-being for all, while fostering and relying on international cooperation and development.
I leave it to you, the members of this assembly, to tackle these ideas and to establish a roadmap, which will get us to a new beginning. My ideas are not only meant to make the UN more effective, they reach farther than that. They push the envelope as one says. Let me close by stating the following: On the basis of my 30 years with the UN (slide), I can unreservedly say that the UN is making the life of many people better. The UN gives people hope and encouragement, and through its operational activities it supports their survival, and helps them to create better living conditions for themselves and their families. My ideas thus aim to not only recognize the UN’s soft power more widely, but also to give it some means by which hard power can be exercised in cases where international law, human rights and the well-being of people are violated. We need a UN which is not only one among many global and multilateral organisations, but we need a UN which is the flag ship for the whole fleet of all nation states and multilateral organisations, and thus for all the peoples in the world. Thank you!

Autor: Kerstin Leitner

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