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UN Reform: Why It Matters for Africa

Address to Africa Policy Forum by Gareth Evans, President of the International Crisis Group and Member of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, Addis Ababa, 26 August 2005


In a speech in June this year UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said 'I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the Organization, and if we miss it this time, I don’t know when [world leaders] are going to get the opportunity again'.

He was not exaggerating. What makes 2005 a critical watershed for the UN is the way three things have come together - a perceived need for change, a detailed agenda for change, and a clear opportunity to achieve change - in a way that has not been the case for a long time, and will not happen again for a long time

The need for change is now almost universally acknowledged. While the UN system accomplished many great things during the Cold War years (not least presiding over decolonisation) and has made some major advances since (including in its core business areas of peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding), it has in recent times been under stress as never before. In particular:

management and accountability systems are under scrutiny and outright attack as never before with the Oil-for-Food issue; and

in its most basic and far-reaching function – determining when and in what circumstances it is permissible for a state to use military force – the system has been shaken to its foundations by the bypassing of the Security Council to start the 2003 Iraq war.

We have come to what Kofi Annan famously described two years ago as ‘a fork in the road, a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself’: either the international community could reaffirm the international rule of law and abide by the principles of cooperative internationalism, or descend into anarchy, finding ourselves utterly unable to cope with the security problems of the 21st century - terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, continuing wars within and between states, organised crime, and the great pure human security issues of poverty, disease and environmental catastrophe.

As to the agenda for change, this has been mapped in detail, more ambitiously than ever before and with more preparation than ever before, in the two big reports commissioned by Kofi Annan at around the time of his fork-in-the-road speech – the Sachs Report on the Millennium Development Goals, the Report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change on 21st century security threats - and then by the Secretary-General’s own report, In Larger Freedom, superbly distilling the essence of those two earlier reports in a blueprint for change ranging over development issues, security issues, human rights issues, and the basic architecture of the international system.

As to the opportunity for achieving change, the occasion for bringing everything together and making the necessary decisions is with us with the 60th Anniversary year of the UN, with the World Summit next month, celebrating the occasion and intended to chart the course forward, planned to be the biggest gathering ever of heads of state and government.

But there is a real danger of that opportunity slipping away. Negotiations have been proceeding now for several months, under the guidance of the President of the General Assembly Jean Ping, to translate Kofi Annan’s recommendations into an agreed Draft Outcomes document – in a form that could be endorsed at the World Summit. The latest draft of that document runs to some 38 pages, and although there is a significant measure of consensus on a number of points of substance – including in particular in the development area - there is anything but complete consensus at this stage on the product: and only two weeks left for negotiations to conclude.

The problems are coming from two main directions:

First, the US, where the newly arrived Ambassador Bolton has in recent days been pushing three options: reducing the whole document to a 2-3 page summary, renegotiating the whole 38 pages of the present draft line by line (with some 750 US amendments now in circulation to help discussion along), or disaggregating the document enabling each state to sign on to the elements it likes and oppose the rest. The last two options are obviously complete non-starters. As to the idea of a shorter summary, this is not without merit provided it is an accompaniment to – not a substitute for – the detailed text, and genuinely covers all the main issues and not just those of particular interest to the US. Some insiders say that Ambassador Bolton has not been given an 007 license to kill by Washington – just a mandate to get the best possible result for the US - and that the US will eventually settle for a reasonable give and take outcome. Others are not so sure.

Second, and I suspect even more seriously, a major rearguard action is being waged by sections of the Non-Aligned Movement, mostly non-African (and being joined now on a number of key issues by Russia), who have been profoundly unwilling to move away from familiar positions, on everything from changing management and personnel systems, to anything that could possibly be construed as limiting the complete freedom of action of individual sovereign states.

If a worthwhile outcome is to be achieved at this late stage, given these competing pressures, I think two things in particular are required: first, greater engagement by capitals (and the Secretary-General personally) in the final negotiations, given the difficulties New York based diplomats seem to have in moving beyond entrenched positions; and secondly, stronger and more focused engagement by the African group within NAM in particular. I see Africa having central role to play if any kind of decent outcome is to be assured – essentially as a bridge between more extreme NAM positions and US positions, adding weight to the centre ground and making it more difficult for others to claim that the world is hopelessly divided.


The reason why Africa should play a central role in the current UN reform effort is simply that reform of the UN seems to me, for reasons I shall spell out in a moment, a vital African interest. In saying that, I am very conscious that I am speaking to you as a non-African - and as such naturally likely to inspire among Africans a ‘here we go again’ response: here’s another white Westerner telling us what’s good for us, in the long tradition of colonialists with their civilising missions and benign paternalism. My only defence to that not unreasonable charge is that sometimes an outsider can offer a useful perspective, and that in my case there are perhaps three particular reasons why I’m being rash enough to talk to you:

as the head of the International Crisis Group, and before that Australia’s Foreign Minister spanning the period of the anti-apartheid campaign to the mid 1990s, I have been immersed for many years in this continent’s security and governance problems;

as Co-Chair, with Mohamed Sahnoun, of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, and as a member of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel, I have had many exchanges with African leaders and policy makers on issues that go to the heart of the role of multilateral organisations in relation to the roles of individual sovereign states; and

perhaps most importantly, I’m an Australian: that means I come from a country which, like just about every country in Africa, doesn’t have the economic or military clout to boss anyone else around, and for that reason usually starts with a strong bias towards cooperative internationalism and a rule based international order; it also means that I am – like nearly all my countrymen - not very good at being bossed around or patronised by anyone else, least of all former colonial masters, and can empathise with anyone similarly inclined!

So, for what it’s worth, why do I believe that UN reform matters for Africa – and is overwhelmingly in Africa’s interests to get behind? There are two big reasons, and it’s very easy to state them succinctly. First, the UN is the most important standard-setting institution in the world and it is critical that it stay credible in this role; and secondly, if the standards and principles the UN sets are to be more than empty rhetoric, there have to be effective multilateral institutions to make and implement detailed policy.

The UN is the most important standard-setting institution in the world. The rules and principles it lays down are of the first importance for Africa, and if the UN system collapses or loses credibility, that is very bad news for this continent.

I would suggest that among the standards and principles most worth fighting for, and seeing affirmed or reaffirmed in this year’s summit process, not only from an African perspective but from that of most countries in the world, are these:

Development and security are inextricably connected - you can't have either without the other - and that respect for fundamental human rights is ultimately what sustains both.

The primacy of the UN Charter must be accepted by all states, and with it the pre-eminent decision-making role of the Security Council on issues of peace and war.

The rights and prerogatives of individual sovereign states, who continue to be the frontline actors in protecting and defending against threats to both state and human security, must be respected.

The sovereignty of individual states carries with it, however, not only rights but responsibilities - responsibility to the wider international community, to neighbours affected by its actions and, not least, the responsibility to protect its own people.

Threats to both state and human security, at both the prevention and reaction stage, must be addressed cooperatively, and at regional and global as well as national levels.

Of course it's one thing to talk about needing to have the UN remain credible as the world's great embodiment and guarantor of these kinds of standards and principles, but quite another to see it operating effectively to deliver on them. So the other big reason why it is in Africa’s interests to get behind UN reform is that if these standards and principles are to be more than empty rhetoric there have to be effective multilateral institutions to make and implement detailed policy. That means in turn:

effective development institutions, starting with an Economic and Security Council that is not seen as dysfunctional and marginalised, but is rather a high level development cooperation forum, regularly debating issues at ministerial level and above (not just second and third secretary level as is largely the case at the moment), addressing the interlinkages between development, trade, finance, the environment and social issues, and what is necessary, year in and year out, to achieve the Millennium Development Goals;

effective security institutions, starting with a Security Council properly representative of the world of 2005, not 1945 – which certainly means, in turn, effectively permanent seats for the major African countries – and one with much more transparent and effective working methods; it also means effective machinery for following through with preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, peacekeeping and where necessary peace enforcement, and peacebuilding;

effective human rights institutions, including a properly resourced and empowered High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a replacement for the now almost wholly dysfunctional Commission on Human Rights, which has become a purely political forum all too willing to neglect or defend the indefensible; and

an effective Secretariat, to weld the whole system together, with personnel and administrative structures and processes that are responsive to today’s extraordinarily complex needs, not stuck in a 1950s time warp; and one that works effectively with regional institutions with a fully thought out and operationally delivering division of responsibilities between them


So where is the reform process now at? With just three weeks left before the World Summit, how close are we to getting out of that summit the kind of big leap forward that it is so much in Africa’s interests – and indeed, I would argue, the whole world’s interests – to achieve: the affirmation or reaffirmation of the key standards and principles which should underlie the whole multilateral system, and the commitment to specific institutional and policy changes that will make those standards and principles a reality?

The detailed issues – as they have been articulated by the Secretary-General, debated over the last few months, and embodied in the Draft Outcomes document – have been divided into four ‘clusters’, relating respectively to Freedom from Want (development issues), Freedom from Fear (security issues), Freedom to Live in Dignity (human rights issues) and Institutional architecture issues.

Development Issues.

Here the news is reasonably good, though the US and some other countries (including, regrettably, my own) remain unwilling to commit to any kind of timetable to get to the 0.7 per cent of GDP development expenditure target, and there are some signs that the US is threatening to reopen other text here as a way of generating leverage for getting its way in the other policy areas. Generally speaking, a broad consensus has already developed around the Millennium Development Goals and the outcomes of the Monterrey International Conference on Financing and Development and the recent Gleneagles G8 on what is required from both developed and developed countries. For the developed countries it involves more aid, both long term and of the ‘quick win’ variety, wider and deeper debt relief, and a serious commitment to a decent outcome from the Doha trade round. And for the developing countries it involves clearer national strategies for achieving stronger governance, eliminating corruption and policies capable of generating economic growth.

What is most needed from the Summit is not so much new ideas, new directions and new or dramatically changed institutions (although some moves to revitalise ECOSOC would be more than welcome), but simply to hold that Monterrey consensus together, and give it real practical effect, translating familiar rhetoric into operational reality.

Security Issues.

Across the spectrum of peace and security issues, sensitivities are high, and there is much less general consensus evident. There are four main areas of focus. The first, on which the news is best, is further improving conflict prevention and resolution capability. This means better peacemaking capacity (though better prepared and supported mediators and negotiators); far more readily available reserves, both military and civilian, for peacekeeping and other peace operation; and a far more systematic and coherent approach to post-conflict peacebuilding – the failure to follow through on which, as Africans know better than most after the experience of Angola, Rwanda and Liberia for a start, is the most depressingly familiar reason for the recurrence of avoidable conflict.

On this set of issues there is widespread agreement, though much remains to be done to translate general principles into operational specifics. The most important single innovation proposed is the establishment of a new Peacebuilding Commission. The idea is to bring together – in a new institution, linked to both the Security Council and ECOSOC, and properly serviced by a highly professional secretariat, with decent funding support - all the key stakeholders for each particular situation, including not only the UN’s own programs and agencies, but the international financial institutions, the donor community, the relevant regional organisations and of course representatives of the countries in distress, in order to work out coherent recovery and reconstruction plans and systematically, and with sustained rather than ad hoc attention, ensure their implementation. If the new body works as intended, it will fill a major gap in the international institutional system – and one of huge relevance for Africa - and be progress indeed. The spoilers on this issue don’t so much contest the basic idea, but argue for the whole question of the structure and operation of the new body to be referred back to the General Assembly – which is of course a recipe for, at best, endless further delay in start-up.

The second set of issues on the peace agenda is disarmament and non-proliferation: where the news is much more gloomy. What is needed is action both on the supply side, in particular to constrain the availability of fissile material; and on the demand side to reduce the motivations for acquiring weapons of mass destruction (by addressing everything from real security threats to perceived double standards in arms control regimes), but what is presently likely to happen is neither. There was no sign at the NPT Review Conference earlier this year of any agreement whatever on any of the four big activities crying out for shutdown by mutual consent if a new cascade of proliferation is to be avoided - nuclear testing, new and continuing weapons programs, reprocessing or uranium enrichment – and things are no better now with the Summit less than a month away. Something useful may emerge from last minute negotiations, but if the US has its way, it certainly won’t include endorsement for the CTBT or a fissile material cut-off treaty.

The third issue is confronting terrorism, where the need here is twofold - to embrace a broad based policy response going beyond intelligence, policing and military cooperation to addressing root causes, including political grievances; and to find common cause at last on an international definition of terrorism making attacks against civilians and non-combatants as indefensible as piracy and slavery. Arguments on all this continue – with the US wanting the new definition but not being keen on any broader policy change, and some rearguard actions being fought from sections of the NAM against any clear new definitional norm – but the present signs are that this area is close to reasonable resolution.

The fourth big issue in the security basket is redefining the rules governing the use of force – which essentially means a set of guidelines for the Security Council identifying criteria for legitimacy such as magnitude of threat, force as a last resort, proportionality of response and the need for such action to be likely to do more good than harm. Though this a proposal that I personally regard as centrally important, it is for all practical Summit purposes now dead, killed by a combination of resistance from the US to having any guidelines at all which might constrain the Security Council’s (and by extension its own) freedom of action, and some not very intelligible arguments from some on the other side that to have any principles purporting to limit the use of force to exceptional, highly defensible cases, is somehow to encourage it

Human Rights Issues.

On the question of new international machinery to protect human rights, consensus is gradually growing – or perhaps more accurately, opposition is gradually being ground down, though a rearguard action continues to be fought from within sections of the NAM against any change at all – for the idea of replacing the Commission on Human Rights with a new, standing Human Rights Council, with its members elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, and its procedures made more professional. An important outstanding issue is whether the proposed two-thirds election majority requirement would in fact succeed in weeding out from membership of the Council the worst of the violators.

My own view is that an even bigger human rights issue on the Summit agenda is one of particularly acute concern to Africa, not least over the last decade: how to respond effectively to genocide, ethnic cleansing and similar massive human rights violations within states – the issue of 'the responsibility to protect'. The core idea which it is hoped will be endorsed is that state sovereignty carries with it responsibilities as well as rights, and that while the primary responsibility for protecting its own people from avoidable man-made catastrophe rests with the sovereign state itself, if that responsibility is abdicated, through incapacity or ill-will, it shifts to the wider international community; and, further, that this international responsibility has three distinct dimensions, the responsibility to prevent such catastrophes by all available diplomatic, humanitarian and other means, the responsibility to react including (but only as a last resort) by military intervention authorised by the Security Council, and the responsibility to rebuild shattered societies.

While the idea of the 'responsibility to protect' has been supported from the outset by Sub-Saharan Africa, whose countries understand its significance better than anyone, and has generally been thought likely to survive the New York negotiations, there is still real fragility on this issue at the Summit, because of the rearguard action continuing to be fought against the whole 'responsibility to protect' concept by some in the NAM, joined now, unhappily, by Russia, who basically refuse to concede any kind of limitation on the full and untrammelled exercise of state sovereignty, however irresponsible that exercise may be. This is an issue on which a strong African voice during the endgame negotiations would be immensely helpful.

Institutional Architecture.

In addition to the Peacebuilding Commission and Human Rights Council issues I have already mentioned, there are three other particularly crucial institutional reform areas on the table for the Summit.

The first is administrative reform, focusing on the Secretariat but also in the UN system generally. The central issues here are empowerment and accountability – the Secretary-General, presently probably the most impossibly micro-managed chief executive in the world, needs much more freedom of action to choose and deploy resources where and when they are needed, subject to fully explaining and justifying what he has done. Change here cannot happen without member states allowing and encouraging it, and unfortunately the crucial change issues are losing their way, caught, as Kofi Annan said rather ruefully recently, in the crossfire 'between uncritical lovers and unloving critics'. The passion of the US to achieve far-reaching change at almost any cost, and the passion of some NAM critics (including in particular Egypt) at the other extreme, to resist almost any change at all, is inhibiting any real momentum developing for basic, sensible change to make the system work better – and here again mainstream African voices could be particularly useful in helping find common ground during the last days of negotiations.

The second institutional issue is reforming the debating chambers: ECOSOC and the General Assembly. Both these crucial institutions, whose role should be norm-setting and direction-setting as well as providing debating chambers for the great global issues of the day, have become conspicuously dysfunctional, and must be restored to pre-eminence. Much of that is achievable simply through better agenda and process management, and a great deal of lip service is being currently paid again to just that. The trick, as always, will be to translate the rhetoric into effective operational reality.

The remaining major institutional issue is of course reconstruction of the Security Council, on which a huge amount of political and emotional energy has been invested, to so far remarkably little effect, other than to deflect the attention of capitals in particular away from rest of this year’s reform agenda. My own view is that the issue is an extremely important one, and simply has to be seriously addressed, if not this year, certainly very soon. It is true that if the Council does not come to better represent, in terms of its permanent or usual membership, the world of the 21st century rather than that of 1945, it will not fall apart immediately. But the powers of the present Permanent Five will be steadily diminishing assets. A Security Council without any guaranteed presence of the major African powers, or India, or Japan or Brazil simply cannot remain credible in perpetuity.

Of the two alternative models proposed by the High Level Panel and the Secretary-General for achieving greater representativeness, attention has almost wholly focused on the first, involving six new permanent seats, but without any change to veto powers, rather than the second model, which would have added no new permanent seats at this stage but created a number of renewable four-year positions that would be potentially available to enable the presence on the Council of all the most important regional players.

Rather against my initial expectations, it became clear that if only the African Union could have agreed with the final position of the G4 Group – Japan, India, Brazil and Germany – that an extension of the veto was unattainable, the six-permanent seats model had every chance of winning the necessary General Assembly two-thirds support. And it would quite likely even have survived, at the later ratification stage, the antagonism now being fiercely expressed by both the US and China (for the reason that, at the end of the day, the US would find it very difficult to deny Japan, and China would be reluctant to destroy the aspirations of India, Brazil and the two African aspirants).

But we have now seen the chance for any resolution slipping away, certainly by the September Summit, and with it probably the chances of any African permanent seats for the foreseeable future. Although the African response has been cast as one of high principle – turning on the veto issue – in reality it seems to have been driven by familiar political imperatives: concern by Egypt and the North Africans that both the seats would go south of the Sahara, and concern by a number of sub-Saharan countries about the prospect of Nigeria and South Africa ascending permanently to heaven. I understand that the 10-nation group appointed by the AU will continue to wrestle with the issue right up to the Summit, with another meeting of AU heads scheduled the day before the Summit starts, but the prospects of any breakthrough at this late stage seem exceedingly slight.

I would hope, but don't at all now expect, that some attention will now be paid again by all the serious aspirants to the alternative renewable non-permanent seat model. The issue of the Security Council's legitimacy is just too overwhelmingly important for it to be relegated back to a never-ending negotiating process that has over the last 15 years produced precisely zero forward movement.


Sixty year olds – as I can personally testify, and my wife can confirm, since I am precisely that disconcerting age myself – are notoriously unreformable. They are also, notoriously, not always the first to appreciate signs of their own decay.

There are plenty who are justifiably sceptical that the UN and its member states will ever be capable responding to the challenge of reform, not just on the Security Council issue, but all those with which we have been wrestling this year.

But we have no alternative, and I would suggest this is at least as much true for Africa and Africans as anyone else. As the world learned, very much to its cost, when League of Nations fell apart in the 1930s, if we did not have an effective global collective security institution, we would simply have to reinvent one all over again. We have now more than the makings of such a security institution, and an excellent global development system and human rights protection system, but a number of elements across all of them are in desperate need of fundamental change.

We have very little time left now to make the necessary huge leap forward that this year’s conjunction of circumstances makes possible. It's now up to political leaders, and those who influence them to deliver, and there is, as I have suggested, a particularly important role for African leaders in that respect. Having missed the party ten years ago - this 60th birthday year may be the last big anniversary occasion to work the necessary change before irretrievable senility sets in.