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The United Nations was established in the aftermath of the Second World War to work towards world peace. It was set up in the backdrop of a war that devastated large parts of Europe. There had been unions established earlier, that focused on specialized issues. However it was only in 1899 that the Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes was adopted in The Hague. The League of Nations, established in 1919 under the treaty of Versailles “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security” was the predecessor of the United Nations.

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By the late 1930s, the League of Nations proved to be incapable of fulfilling its main objective, that of ensuring that its members do not take to war. The Second World War showed how ineffective the League of Nations was. It was in the midst of the war that the foundations of the United Nations were laid, with American President Franklin D. Roosevelt coming together with Winston Churchill to establish the Atlantic Charter, forming the basis for the United Nations declaration. This declaration was an endeavor to ensure global security once the war was over.

The Need for Reforms

It is now more than sixty years since the United Nations was established to maintain international peace and security, promote basic human rights, and protect fundamental freedoms. However, limitations such as an accumulation of obsolete or duplicative permissions, lack of transparency and accountability, and the resistance of member states to reform have resulted in a system that is bureaucratic, expensive and unwieldy and unable to realize its potential. Inter-country conflict has reared its head again, and a fragile world order is prey to a large number of challenges. The main shortcomings of the UN today are located mainly in a conflict prone global order. It is evident now that these challenges will intensify further and therefore would require urgent reforms and streamlining of the United Nations in order for it to be able to take these challenges on. In spite of an obvious global defenselessness affecting human security, institutional reform of the U.N. has still not got a global consensus. Despite a realization that it is indeed the United Nations that provides some measure of security. As Voicu points out, “In times of multiple perplexities, with all its imperfections it is the U.N. that holds out the optimistic aspirations for a better tomorrow. Nobody can exclude the hypothesis that its radical institutional reform will continue to evade for an indefinite period of time existing expectations. Yet, the U.N. is able to recover from its existential crisis and will never sink into irrelevance”. (Voicu, 2005).

Sovereign powers collaborating in a globalised world need a set of rules that are agreed to at a multilateral level. This cuts down transaction costs of doing business and promotes efficiency. Trade and development thrive in a peaceful international environment. The United Nations offers the middle ground between unbridled nationalism and a uniform world order that takes into consideration individual country’s aspirations and collective good. That is why there is near unanimity in working towards a reformed and effective structure of cooperation under the United Nations. As Lipson says, ‘The U.N. is a political organization characterized by nearly constant reform activities in a conflictual institutional environment’. (Lipson, 2006)

History of Reform

At the time of the creation of the U.N., there were fifty one members, and the Allies had placed themselves in the center of this security system which was invented to prevent war. Today the U.N. consists of 191 member states, and the balance of military and economic power in the world has changed dramatically. The United Nations now has the opportunity to meet the challenges of a complex world by bringing together the ideas and resources of its nearly universal membership to act in the name of peace and security. Yet the Security Council does not seem to be up to the task of maintaining global security.

There have been endless deliberations and ideas for reforming the U.N. Security Council, but none has garnered support in totality from all the members of the Council. As Krasno points out, these calls for reform have faced insurmountable obstacles, preventing any movement on the issue. The amendment process set out in the U.N. Charter requires the concurrence of the five permanent members (P-5) for any change in the structure of the council. Practically speaking, not one of the five would approve any measure that would remove itself from the council or take away the power to veto resolutions. Consequently, any reform will have to maintain the privileged status of the P-5. Most nonpermanent members resent the inequality between their power and that of the P-5, and are not interested in adding any new permanent members to the council or expanding the use of the veto. (Krasno, 2006). The decline in the clout of the UN is apparent.

“The United Nations continues its slow decline as a force on the world stage and will go the same way as the League of Nations unless it is radically reformed and restructured. Reform of the U.N. Charter will be fundamentally important for the future relevance of the world body. The U.N. failed spectacularly to deal with Saddam Hussein, and its influence is likely to diminish further in the coming years unless it demonstrates a greater willingness to address the threat posed by international terrorism, state sponsors of terror, and rogue regimes developing weapons of mass destruction”. (Gardiner, 2003)

As Kim Holmes discusses, ‘The U.N. must undergo radical restructuring that includes revision of its Charter, reform of its major commissions, and the streamlining of its bloated bureaucracy. Wide-ranging reform will be critical to the U.N.’s future success. Fear of reform, not its prospect, holds the greater risk for the United Nations.’ (Holmes, 2003).

Prompted by members who were pro-reform and also by recent scandals the United Nations started a major reform effort in end 2005. A new Human Rights Council was set up in place of the disgraced Human Rights Commission and the Secretary General was asked to suggest improvements in the management, programs, transparency and accountability.

“The United Nations was designed to be, among other things, the world’s primary agency for maintaining international peace and security, and the center for harmonizing the policies of nations on important matters. If it is to be able to carry out those functions in the alarming conditions of the early twenty first century, it needs a radically new approach to its peace and security functions, a new degree of support and consensus from its members, and a renewing of its spirit and its structure.’ (Urquhart, 2004)


The Reform Process

It is not that the UN has remained blind to the need for change. Over the last 50 years many macro-level reforms were undertaken, primarily to improve the capacity of the U.N. on the whole and also large sections of it. These reforms focused on the organisation structure, coordination among various organs, budgets, and funding, peacekeeping operations and on training and development of staff capabilities.

* The Jackson Reforms

Robert Jackson was commissioned by the UNDP Governing Council to study the U.N.’s capacity to handles resources made available to it through the UNDP. His study showed how there was no sense of managerial direction as regards development planning, and that the U.N. was becoming slower and more unwieldy. His reforms called for a coherent plan for the rationalization of development activity, improvement in inter-agency coordination, not only of funds and other resources but also of aid delivery and technical assistance, and improvements in program budgeting and staff training

* The Dadzie Reforms

In 1975, a high-level group of experts was set up by the G-77 in the U.N. General Assembly to counter the failures of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Council for Trade and Development (UNCTAD). This group, known as the Group of 25, was to recommend structural changes in the economic and social sectors of the U.N. The problems of institutional fragmentation, lack of coordination and planning and shortcomings in the programming, budgeting and evaluation of systems were to be addressed.

Some of the recommendations of the group which was headed by Kenneth Dalzie included:

Creating a new post of director-general to coordinate socioeconomic activities within the United Nations
Establishing a new consultative procedure to achieve consensus on controversial socioeconomic issues being met  by the world
Replacing UNCTAD with an international trade organization
Revitalizing ECOSOC and redefining the role of the specialized agencies
However there were many problems with these recommendations, reflecting a sharp demarcation between the developing countries’ wishes and those of the developed countries. By and large the reaction to these reforms was disappointing. Even after the implementation of the Dadzie committee reforms, the U.N. system has remained as uncoordinated as before.

* The Group of 18 Reforms

In 1986, under pressure from the United States and other industrialized countries, a high-level group of 18 inter-governmental experts was established by the General Assembly to “review the efficiency of the administrative and financial functioning,” of the United Nations. The group made 71 recommendations to the General Assembly, including a revised budgetary process that introduced the use of consensus-based budgeting. Reforms included major downsizing and retrenchment and lasted for nearly 5 years. In the early 1990s, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali introduced broad reform proposals in reports, “An Agenda for

Peace,” (1992) and “An Agenda for Development” (1994). Extensive downsizing and axing of several top-level positions were implemented, continuing with the spirit of the earlier Group of 18 reforms.  Some of these reform initiatives proposed in the early 1990s led to substantive changes to the U.N. structure.

* The Annan Reforms

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan introduced many reform proposals during his tenure, most particularly in 1997, 2002, and 2005. He was increasingly concerned with issues such as the effectiveness of U.N. peacekeeping operations, appointing several commissions and independent panels. His breakthrough initiative of proposing and introducing a “two track” reform program slowly introduced a more institutional change process that went further than the earlier reform processes. The first track dealt with improving institutional systems whereas the second addressed ways of making the U.N. system more relevant to changing times.

As Blanchfield (2007) writes Annan first proposed cutting Secretariat administrative costs, combining three smaller departments into one large Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), and creating the post of Deputy Secretary-General. In 2002, Annan proposed additional reforms, including a reorganization of the budget and planning system to make it less complex; a thorough review of the U.N. work program; establishing a high-level panel to examine the relationship between the United Nations and civil society; improving U.N. human rights protection; and enhancing U.N. information services. In 2003, he appointed a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change to evaluate how the United Nations addressed present-day threats to international peace and security.

In 2006, the Secretary General issued a report entitled “Investing in the United Nations: for a stronger Organization worldwide,” in which a series of schemes and proposals towards streamlining the managerial structure of the Secretariat. The reforms proposed include:

Altering the recruitment process to make it faster and more proactive; with promotion of staff mobility
Transforming the leadership structure by giving the Deputy Secretary General more authority and accountability
Creating a Chief Information Technology Officer and upgrading the ICT system of the Secretariat.
Improving the reporting mechanisms of the Secretariat and governance mechanisms in place
* The 2005 U.N. World Summit

In September 2005, the World Summit at U.N. Headquarters in New York was convened to review the progress made. The Summit was instrumental in laying the ground for potentially significant changes to the U.N. system. Some of the reforms included establishing a Peace building Commission; strengthening Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF); establishing a Democracy Fund; strengthening the Security Council; improving U.N. system coordination; and creating a new Human Rights Council. Significant Secretariat and management reforms were also agreed to in principle. (U.N. Document, 2005). These included

Establishment of an ethics office
Greater whistle-blower protection
Strengthening oversight capacity
Review of all General Assembly mandates over five years old
Full financial disclosure by U.N. staff
* Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Reform

Ban Ki-moon, the current Secretary General of the U.N has declared that U.N. reform is “the most pressing and principled issue of today,” and that it would be a top priority during his tenure. His overall priorities include better coordination and consolidation with the U.N., improving accountability and professionalism with the U.N. staff and re-instating trust in the United Nations. Ban has encouraged staff mobility, public financial disclosures, supported U.N. Security Council expansion and maintained that an independent external audit would be carried out of all U.N. field activities.

Challenges to Reform

The biggest challenge for U.N. reform advocates is to find a common platform on which the interests of various stakeholders can be met. Since there is such widespread confusion about the actual definition about U.N. reform, there is often misunderstanding about the scope and appropriateness of the reform initiatives.

‘The UN’s change-management approach has given little thought to the question of the organization’s continued relevance in a changing international political and security environment’. (Knight, 2005)


Blanchfield points out how recent reform debates in the U.N. General Assembly and its committees have drawn attention to fundamental differences that exist among some member states, particularly developing countries (represented primarily by the Group of 77 and China), and developed countries (including the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom). Developed countries, who account for the majority of assessed contributions to the U.N. regular budget, would like the Secretariat to have greater flexibility and authority to implement reforms, specifically those related to oversight and human resources. Developing countries, however, generally object to policies that may enhance the power of the Secretary-General and decrease the power of the General Assembly and its budget and administrative committees. Observers are concerned that this difference in reform philosophy will create a deadlock in the General Assembly and significantly delay the implementation of some key management and budget reforms. (Blanchfield, 2007).

As Schaefer (2006) has shown some essential U.N. reforms are not being addressed at all. He points out how there has been no move towards reallocation of some of the U.N. regular budget from assessed funding toward voluntary funding. Further, little progress has been made on mandates to force periodic review. There is also no thought being given to balancing financial contributions and influence in the U.N. budgetary process by giving major contributors a greater say in budgetary decisions.

‘Some 48 countries have the lowest U.N. assessment—a meager 0.001 percent of the regular budget—and yet these countries pay only about $19,000 each per year. However, they have one vote—the same as the U.S., which pays 22 percent (or about $430 million). The 128 lowest-paying countries—two thirds of General Assembly members, which, according to U.N. rules, pass the budget — together, pay less than 1 percent of the U.N. budget. The combined contributions of these 128 countries equal less than 1/22 the amount paid by the U.S. alone.27 Until this imbalance is addressed, there will be little incentive for minimal contributors to vote in favor of U.N. management reform’. (Schaefer, 2006).


The major hurdles facing meaningful and far-reaching U.N. reform include factors such as differing reform perspectives where each member state has their own national interest to heart, and hold different views on the implementation of reform. A lack of understanding about effective prioritization of reform initiatives among member states also poses a big hurdle, as does the highly complicated and decentralized nature of the United Nations. Further, it is unfortunate that the majority of the U.N. membership does not care about U.N. reforms to improve effectiveness, accountability, or oversight. The member states are more worried about increasing the power of the organization so as to increase their own influence. It is even more inopportune as it is these very member states which stand to benefit the most from reforms leading to a more effective and efficient U.N. Systems

The Way Ahead

The UN has served as a peacemaker primarily by facilitating peace treaties, by monitoring the mobilization of military troops, resettling refugees and by building peace monitoring activities, apart from implementing human rights and national democratic elections. It has had a commendable record of success, ranging from mixed to transformative, in “second generation,” multidimensional peace operations as diverse as those in Namibia (UNTAG), El Salvador (ONUSAL), Cambodia (UNTAC), Mozambique (ONUMOZ), and Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES). (Doyle & Sambanis, 2005).

It is evident that the UN should focus on the minimum necessary structural, political, and economic changes to deal effectively and in a timely fashion with traditional peacekeeping. This would include improvements in force recruitment, supply of fielded forces, and transportation. The U.N. should also seek to enhance its “peace building” capabilities by developing better methods to recruit, train, and field competent electoral observers, civil administrators, and civilian police. There should also be a limited planning and support staff within the U.N. Secretariat and better coordination between the military and civilian components of peace support operations.

The WIDER study (2001) stresses on Security Council reforms, proposing four major reform areas:

Full or partial independent UN financing to “loosen the reins of political control now exercised by the powerful member-states” and “ease the pressures on the United Nations that have been attributable to resource constraints.” The financing issue “is less about money and more about political control,” the study says, calling for “some version of the Tobin tax, say on international foreign exchange transactions or stock market transactions, and some charges on the use of the global commons, are possible means of such independent financing.”
Establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, modeled on the European Parliament, to run parallel to the General Assembly but serve as “the voice of global civil society.”
Creation of an Economic Security Council, “essential as a means of governing globalization. It would ensure that the United Nations provides an institutional mechanism for consultations on global economic policies and also, wherever necessary, the international regulatory authority.
Establishment of a high quality Volunteer Peace Force to “de-politicize intervention by the United Nations” and enable it to provide a prompt collective security response wherever humanitarian emergencies arise.

It is obvious that the environment in which the U.N. came into being has changed drastically with many of the organization’s underlying principles being challenged. A bipolar world which existed during the cold war period, has since then seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany and a rise in information technology that unites the world like never before. On the other hand, the emergence of a number if small countries that have tended to move away from democracy and embrace dictatorships has redefined diplomacy in a challenging new diplomatic context. Reforms have proved to be ineffective and not particularly increased the U.N.’s worth in today’s world. As Bassiouni argues, “International cooperation is a necessary prerequisite for ensuring the success of post conflict justice in specific societies and forms part of a broad global commitment to truth telling, combating impunity, acknowledging victims, and ensuring accountability in the wake of severe political violence. In moving towards the resolution of these issues, it is essential that the United Nations define its role regarding post-conflict justice in a clear, focused manner. Establishing Post-Conflict Justice Guidelines and Principles will assist the Security Council and the United Nations in balancing the demands for justice and peace with a firm commitment to institutional accountability, democracy, and the protection of fundamental human rights” (Bassiouni, 2006).

In the words of Kofi Annan:

‘the world will not measure the [UN] reform process by the number of items on the agenda—by how many more or fewer activities are undertaken, or how many committees are formed or disbanded. The Organization will be judged, rightly, by the impact all these efforts have on the poor, the hungry, the sick and the threatened – the peoples of the world whom the United Nations exists to serve.’ (Annan, 2006).


The rising number of terrorist attacks, rogue states sponsoring terrorism, drug trafficking spawning violence, border disputes, racial intolerance leading to disturbances world wide and the increasing perception of inequality among nations poses a collective threat that requires joint action and coordination across continents. The responsibility of an institution like the UN in such times becomes onerous and the present state of affairs within the United Nations doesn’t augur well for world peace.

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Krasno, J. (Spring,2006). Legitimacy, Representation, and Accountability: A Proposal for UN Security Council Reform. Yale Journal of International Affairs, pp  93-100.


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U.N. document, A/RES/60/1, 2005 World Summit Outcome, September 16, 2005.


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Voicu, I. (2005). Reforming the United Nations: Prospects and Limitations, ABAC Journal. Vol. 25, No.3. pp. 1 – 28.


Wider Study. (2001). Governing globalization: don’t wait for crisis before reforming key institutions, World Institute for Development Economics Research. Last accessed, 11th April, 2007.