As good a place as any to witness the slow decline of the post-second world war global “order” is the UN security council – if they would let you in, which they won’t. Don’t bother with that rarefied organ’s “public” meetings. None of its real diplomatic business is conducted in the open.
In a reflection of the state of the world, the security council, which is charged with the maintenance of international peace, is busier than ever. Years ago, the council met for a few hours once or twice a week. These days it meets all day, often at night and weekends too. Overworked diplomats discuss an ever-lengthening agenda of crises, from North Korea to Libya. The long list of meetings and committees may demonstrate the council’s energy in addressing the manifold factors behind modern conflict but it also reflects the council’s failure: it doesn’t take a diplomat to see that insecurity is spreading.
Then there’s the semiotics. Once limiting itself to crisp, pointed decisions (such as its demands for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories), its resolutions have grown ever longer and less intelligible. The council has designed five or six (no one can say with certainty) different categories of its public statements. There used to be one. Heads of UN missions tell me they cannot understand the confused mandates the council has given their peacekeepers. Governments I have advised say they have no idea of the meaning of resolutions directed at them.
There are many reasons behind the UN’s inability to stop the devastating war in Syria, but it’s not good enough merely to blame Russia, as western diplomats tend to do. The disturbing truth is that the world’s primary institution to deal with war is not working.
The basic problem is that the council’s founding premise of a world ordered by states no longer holds. Conflicts such as al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or Islamic State, originate from particular local circumstances but often have regional and global reach and consequence. Designed to prevent and arbitrate state-to-state conflict, the council has failed to adapt to an entirely different world.
On 12 September 2001, when I was part of the British delegation,I joined other shocked diplomats in the council chamber to condemn the previous day’s attacks. Long before that awful day in New York and Washington, the nature of political violence and global insecurity had already altered forever. But the council’s arrogant presumption that governments decide and the rest abide has not changed. The failure of governments and their multilateral institutions is epic. What seemed then like episodic and geographically limited threats have now morphed into permanent war, insecurity and extremist violence on almost every continent.
Unfortunately, most debate about reform at the UN misses the point. Discussion revolves around the stale questions of new permanent members of the security council or restrictions on the use of the veto. Both are desirable but neither will happen soon – or fix the deeper problem. If we’re not careful, the UN will collapse into irrelevance, much as the League of Nations failed in its day.
This year, a successor to Ban Ki-moon will be appointed. We need a tough and independent secretary general who will give impartial and specific recommendations to the council, without fear or favour to the prejudices of the “P5” permanent veto-wielding members, and with one over-riding prerogative: the protection of civilian life. In one notorious example, the head of UN peacekeeping failed to pass on warnings to the security council of imminent genocide in Rwanda because he believed its members didn’t want to hear them.
An independent secretary general would long ago have demanded a ceasefire in Syria with clearly spelt-out consequences, including coercive sanctions, for those who breached it. Likewise, an international conference to agree and implement a timetable for the two-state solution for Israel/Palestine, a requirement endorsed repeatedly by the council and every member state of the UN.
The secretary general would need the freedom to appoint a strong, experienced team, with appointment on merit and not the traditional divvying-up of senior jobs among the P5, a practice that institutionalises their unhealthy dominance, not only within the council but also of the secretariat and the information it conveys to the council.
Officials have admitted that certain UN reports are edited by permanent members before delivery to the security council (I did it myself once). There are taboo issues, such as Chechnya or tensions in the South China Sea, which are banished from the council’s agenda because it is “understood” but never publicly admitted that certain powerful countries forbid their discussion. In recent years, it was confrontation over Kashmir that brought the world closest to nuclear war, yet mention of this hotspot is tacitly prohibited too.
The UN investigations into its failure to prevent mass killings in Rwanda, Srebrenica and Sri Lanka all identified serial weaknesses, both political and institutional. But no one should be confident that such tragedies will be competently addressed in future. The need for a brave and decisive new secretary general is literally a matter of life and death, in fact many deaths.
Despite the claim that the security council now holds more public meetings than ever, the vast majority of its substantive negotiations are conducted in private. I spent four and a half years in the council and never saw a good reason why most of its deliberations should remain closed to public scrutiny except to disguise the frequent superficiality and poverty of its debates (though occasionally privacy may help negotiation).
Televising parliaments has improved democracy. Diplomats should be judged by what they say: a weak form of accountability but an improvement on its total absence today. Transparency in the diplomatic dealings at the UN would render the resulting decisions more comprehensible and thus legitimate. The public would be more engaged, for instance when the council discusses aid delivery to besieged towns in Syria. People might begin to care about what happens at the UN.
Finally, there’s one simple reform the council could put in place tomorrow. It can listen to the people and parties affected by its decisions. When the council discusses Syria, Libya or Somalia, you can safely assume Syrians, Libyans or Somalis will not be present. It is indefensible that, despite the reality that almost all its agenda concerns conflict between “non-state” groups, the security council still only allows states to address it, and even that is not frequent practice when they are not members of the council.
On rare occasions the council grants an audience to non-state parties – but only those it approves of. It should be routine practice that legitimate and representative parties present their views before the council takes decisions about their futures. After all, they know their countries – and conflicts – best.
Diplomats should get used to dealing with more eclectic groups who must be persuaded if there is to be peace. Ending conflict requires multiple stakeholders in the room. This kind of work takes patience; it is already practised by the better mediators and diplomats. They understand that sometimes unwieldy coalitions and repeated rounds of talking (and listening) are more likely to effect peace than over-negotiated pieces of paper that almost no one reads.
These improvements do not require the UN charter to be rewritten: they are already stated within it. There’s way too much deference to decades of musty and antediluvian tradition at the UN; a few determined and gutsy diplomats could make these changes happen. Beset by new forms of conflict, the world outside its gloomy chambers demands that the UN lets in some light.
Carne Ross was a British diplomat for 15 years before resigning over the Iraq war, including postings as the Foreign Secretary’s speechwriter, political officer in Afghanistan and Middle East expert at the UN in New York. He now runs Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group that advises democratic governments and political movements on diplomatic strategy, including at the UN Security Council. Over 19 years, he has attended the UN Security Council as part of five different delegations. He is the author of The Leaderless Revolution: how ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century.