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UN Reform

75 Years of Challenge and Change

Stephen Browne

Over three-quarters of a century, the UN has been impacted by major changes in the balance of powers among its member states, and is today threatened by nationalistic instincts. In this book, former UN insider Stephen Browne documents the textured history and numerous faces of the UN, from peacekeeper to humanitarian and development actor to stalwart defender of global human rights.
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Stephen Browne

The first chapter describes the origins of what has become a complex edifice, tracing some of its antecedents to the League of Nations and even before. The chapter is a reminder of the dominant influence of the US in the UN’s creation and subsequent expansion: mostly positive but also obstructive at times. In its founding, however, there were some built-in constraints which have never been overcome and which have frustrated many subsequent reform efforts. This chapter traces the origin of the many separately governed organizations and entities that make up what is now a disparate and dispersed ‘system’, divided somewhat artificially into the four pillars that correspond to the major functions of the UN: the subjects of the next four chapters. The UN’s dispersion today results in large part from the constraints built into the original design of the organization, a concern revisited throughout the book.

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Stephen Browne

Chapter 2 outlines in detail the peacekeeping story of the UN, from the earliest examples of overseeing ceasefire agreements to the more elaborate missions of peace enforcement, the disastrous interventions in the early 1990s, and the highly complex involvements of the UN in today’s conflicts. It is a story of invention and change as the UN adjusted to the Cold War and its aftermath, from inter-state to intra-state conflict and confrontations with global terrorism. Lessons were sometimes learnt too late to avoid failure, but practice has continued to evolve in which power-broking, processes and personalities have all played a part. Maintaining security also encompasses the before and after: prevention and reconstruction, in both of which UN experience has been mixed under the label of peacebuilding. The chapter also examines the record on disarmament, on counter-terrorism and the use of sanctions, before concluding with a review of the latest proposals on needed reforms.

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Stephen Browne

Chapter 3 reviews the evolution of what for many represents the most important function, and the central value system, of the UN: the promotion of human rights, starting with the Universal Declaration. It describes the main institutions which have been created to encourage compliance and enforce justice, against the backdrop of terrible state-driven human abuse in China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere, and the denial of freedoms in many other countries. The UN, however, with limited resources, continued to develop treaties, build institutions and hold conferences to keep the focus on human rights abuse. With the appointment of the first High Commissioner and a human rights office in 1993, activities moved into a higher gear. The Commission on Human Rights became a Council in 2005, special rapporteurs were appointed and the Universal Periodic Review became one of the most effective compliance review mechanisms. Another landmark was reached in 2004 when the International Criminal Court was established in spite of opposition from major powers. These institutions are not being used to full effect. Since 2016, the UN has given more prominence to refugee and migrant rights with the agreement of two new Compacts. Human rights activities are kept artificially separated from the UN’s other pillars and should become a more intimate component of all UN activities.

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Stephen Browne

Humanitarian aid is the subject of Chapter 4. Crises have grown in amplitude, becoming more frequently man-made. With the onset of climate change even the distinction between natural and man-made disasters has become blurred. With UN help, some countries have developed more resilience and better response capacity; but when crises are provoked by conflict, the UN’s main humanitarian organizations – the World Food Programme, the High Commission for Refugees, the Relief Works Agency and the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – are sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of suffering and held back from responding. Institutionally, the UN has been evolving almost continually as it attempts to build effective coordination within itself and between its organizations and a growing multitude of almost 4500 private and public relief agencies. But change is never enough. The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 examined the funding and the localization of humanitarian response as part of the UN’s new Agenda for Humanity and helped reaffirm the principles of sound humanitarian action. But there are obvious disconnects in the UN’s efforts. Three times as much is spent on humanitarian aid as on peacekeeping. And, while the development agenda speaks of ‘leaving no one behind’, it makes no provision for humanitarian action.

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Stephen Browne

The UN’s largest and most dispersed pillar is the development ‘system’ of more than 35 separate organizations, the subject of Chapter 5. Early on, the UN made a substantial original contribution to thinking on development, and its ideational role – involving research, information and advocacy – has played a major part in the global agenda on social development and the environment. Member-states, however, steered the debates on trade and economics away from the UN. In 1990, a part of the UN elaborated a paradigm of human development, fully attuned to the principles of the Charter; but it never became the appropriate integrating framework for the organization as a whole, encompassing human security, human rights and human needs. Instead, the UN has pursued a development agenda based on top-down sectoral approaches which maintained the separateness of the development pillar, to the exclusion of essential political and human rights dimensions. Its agenda has been developed through numerous international conferences and, since 2000, through the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals, the latter covering the period 2015–30. Operationally, the UN development system has had a mixed record, particularly as it finds itself in competition with many other sources of development assistance, and competes fiercely within itself as a result of growing silo-ization which the current funding pattern of earmarked resources encourages. Successive reforms have attempted to create more coherence, but with limited success due to the prevalence of patronage in the system. The development system needs to recognize that its real value-added lies in its ideational and normative functions, and should gear its operations to helping member-states become more compliant.

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Stephen Browne

Chapter 6 takes stock of the constraints to reform of the UN, some of which were built in from the inception. Considering the constraints and taking account of the current shortcomings, the chapter describes four areas in which the UN can revive its image and effectiveness: better internal management, particularly of its human resources; reform of its funding practices; a more coherent and consolidated approach to partnerships; and a rededication to those functions in which the UN has a clear comparative advantage. Beneficial change will require strong internal leadership and more harmony of functions and values across the whole system.

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Niamh Kinchin

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Niamh Kinchin

This content is available to you

Niamh Kinchin

When administrative decision-making is removed from the domestic context and placed somewhere where no framework for administrative law exists, how can we assure that our rights are protected and the rule of law is respected? Administrative law does not exist doctrinally outside of the domestic context, yet administrative decision-making occurs in the ‘global space’ and within the United Nations (UN) in particular. Administrative decisions in the global space are those decisions that are made by international institutions in the exercise of formal power, which create, amend or affect the rights, interests or obligations of individuals or groups, as opposed to States. When the ability to ensure that decisions are lawful, rational, fair, transparent and allow for participation is denied, an accountability deficit emerges. It is suggested that accountability of administrative decision-making within the UN could be conceptualised through the public law concept of administrative justice.