by Asoke Mukerji
Editor’s note: The author was the Indian Ambassador to the UN 2013-2015.
Calls for “reformed multilateralism” at the UN’s 75th anniversary session in September 2020 stressed the need for equal participation by member-states in UN decision-making. Five years earlier, when adopting Agenda 2030, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) acknowledged the inter-linkage between peace, security, and development. With its universal scope, Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development has become the central focus of the United Nations (UN) for the foreseeable future.
Agenda 2030 requires a paradigm shift in the approach of UN member-states to global issues and underscores the imperative for an inclusive human-centric approach through the participation of multiple stakeholders in UN activities. This would enable the UN to pool resources through partnerships to meet the major challenges in all its three “pillars” – political, human rights, and socio-economic development.
The Political Pillar
The maintenance of international peace and security, the “primary responsibility” of the UN Security Council (UNSC) under the UN Charter, is threatened by increasingly assertive unilateralism and polarization by major powers, represented by the Council’s five permanent members (P5). Confrontation between the P5 has fractured the functioning of the UNSC.
World leaders gave a unanimous mandate fifteen years ago for “early reform” of the UNSC “to make it more broadly representative, efficient and transparent and thus to further enhance its effectiveness and the legitimacy and implementation of its decisions”. This rationale for UNSC reform is even more valid in 2021, as the P5 use their veto privilege to prevent the UNSC from resolving major crises confronting the world. The inadequacy of the UNSC’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has already claimed over 2 million lives worldwide including over 400,000 Americans, illustrates the problem starkly.
The United States has a declared interest in reforming the UNSC to co-opt the new realities of the 21st century in the pursuit of its national interests. Addressing the joint session of India’s Parliament on 8 November 2010, President Barack Obama of the United States listed specific areas where India and the United States would collaborate in global affairs and said, “I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member”.
However, the United States has remained inactive in the Inter-Governmental Negotiations (IGN) launched by the UNGA since 2007. During 2014-15, the Chair of the IGN succeeded in getting 120 member-states in the UNGA (including France and the UK, but not the United States, Russia, and China) to contribute to a working document for text-based negotiations on UNSC reform.
The document, which includes the five areas identified by the UNGA for UNSC reform, was tabled by the African President of the General Assembly (PGA) and adopted by consensus on 14 September 2015. Subsequent attempts at text-based negotiations in the IGN have been systematically opposed by China, backed by a group of 12 countries called “Uniting for Consensus”. Since 2016, successive PGAs have been persuaded to fragment the integrity of the IGN.
To reform the UNSC, the United States must join hands with the pro-reform member-states in the UNGA to overcome China’s obstructionist tactics. This would mean negotiating an UNGA resolution in the IGN to be adopted by a two-third majority vote, rejecting China’s untenable pre-condition of “widest political consensus”. India has been an advocate for UNSC reform since 1979 to make it more representative and equitable.
In the absence of UNSC reform, the humanitarian toll exacted by violent conflicts and terrorism will continue to rise. The UN reported that, in 2019 alone, more than 20,000 civilians had been killed or injured in conflicts in just 10 UN member-states, with Afghanistan topping the list with 10,392 civilian casualties. Many of these conflicts are already on the agenda of the UNSC.
The UN has a priority to protect civilians, especially women and children, caught in these conflicts. In West Asia and Africa, where the UNSC has made protection of civilians the core mandate of its peacekeeping operations (PKOs), this represents a major challenge.
UN PKOs deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), South Sudan (UNMISS), Central African Republic (MINUSCA), and Mali (MINUSMA) account for as much as $4.5 billion of the UN’s total annual peacekeeping budget of $6.5 billion (to which the United States contributes 27.89%). More than 56,000 of the 80,000 UN peacekeepers worldwide deployed by the UNSC are in these four PKOs.
To make PKOs effective, the UNSC must become more inclusive in its decision-making. Elected UNSC members, as well as troop contributing member-states not represented in the Council, must be allowed equal participation in decisions on PKOs.
India, which has contributed more than 200,000 troops to 49 of the 71 UN PKOs since 1948, has the experience to help the UNSC respond to this challenge. India’s pioneering use of women UN peacekeepers in Liberia between 2007-2016, and subsequently in South Sudan to protect civilians and help rebuild national governance institutions, demonstrates the value of a ground-up approach in implementing PKO mandates to protect civilians caught in conflicts.
The Human Rights Pillar
In its human rights pillar, the UN’s biggest challenge comes from the impact of rising inequalities between and within its member states, which has been aggravated by the current pandemic. If not addressed in an inclusive manner, this can jeopardize the incremental success of the UN in constructing a rule-of-law-based global framework to uphold human rights. These successes include the removal of discrimination based on color between 1946-1994, outlawing mass atrocity crimes like genocide , and asserting gender equality  in 1948.
The time has come to reform and empower the elected 47-member UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to respond effectively to this challenge and bring in human rights perspectives from the “Global South”. Despite the decision of the United States to walk away from its elected seat in the HRC in 2018, the work of the Council during the past fifteen years, especially through the Universal Periodic Review of all 193 UN member-states, provides the basis for investing the HRC with “primary responsibility” for the UN’s human rights pillar. Returning to its elected seat in the HRC must be a priority for the United States if it is to play a major role in reforming the HRC.
The Socio-Economic Pillar
The challenges facing the UNSC and the HRC impact on the UN’s pillar of socio-economic development. The UN’s activities in this area are dominated by the process of implementation of Agenda 2030 with the eradication of poverty as its overarching goal.
UN Specialized Agencies like WHO, FAO, ILO, UNESCO, and UNICEF play a major role in the effort to implement Agenda 2030. Three aspects make Agenda 2030 transformational. First, it puts the onus on each UN member-state to prioritize and implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) laid out in 2015. Second, it encourages multiple stakeholder participation for resourcing and implementing the SDGs. Third, it focuses on multilateral financial flows and technology transfers as the means of implementing the SDGs.
The challenge posed by the fallout of Covid-19 to implementing Agenda 2030 is already visible in socio-economic terms. In the short term, the UN’s effectiveness in this sphere will be determined by a coherent multilateral effort to ensure easy and affordable access to Covid-19 vaccines, particularly for vulnerable societies. It is relevant to recall that when the UN was confronted with the HIV-AIDS crisis twenty-five years ago, it adopted an “all-of-UN” approach and created UNAIDS, co-sponsored by 11 UN Specialized Agencies. From a high of 1.7 million deaths from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide in 2004, UNAIDS brought the number of deaths down to 690,000 in 2019. The United States and India were active partners in this process.
In the longer term, implementing Agenda 2030 will require leadership in the UN system to keep the focus on the twin priorities of climate change and socio-economic progress. The United States must not only rejoin the Paris Agreement, but also lead a holistic reform of the three multilateral institutions (the IMF, World Bank and WTO) that have sustained the peace after the Second World War.
The UN needs to be ahead of the curve in responding to new as well as traditional challenges. This is especially true of the digital domain, which has been thrust into the UN’s mainstream activities by the Covid-19 pandemic. A roadmap for a human-centric multiple stakeholder approach to securing and applying digital technologies drawn up by the UN Secretary-General must be integrated as a priority into the UNGA’s agenda to bridge “digital divides”.
The Way Forward
To achieve “reformed multilateralism”, UN member-states must agree on a coherent and sustainable way ahead. A UNGA-led multiple stakeholder General Conference, organized like the meetings to negotiate Agenda 2030, would provide the platform for these discussions. The objective of the Conference would be to amend the provisions of the UN Charter regulating the three major pillars of the UN’s activities, so that the UN can be made “fit for purpose” to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
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Asoke Mukerji is a retired Indian Foreign Service Officer (1978-2015). He was India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN in New York (2013-15) and India’s negotiator in the WTO (1995-98). He oversaw India’s multilateral engagements, including on counterterrorism and cyber issues (2010-2013). His previous diplomatic assignments include the UK (with the personal rank of Ambassador), Kazakhstan (as Ambassador), Russia (as DCM), UAE (Consul General), Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan (as India’s first resident CDA), the United States (as Political Officer) and former Yugoslavia. He chaired India’s National Security Council Secretariat Multi-Stakeholder Group for recommending cyber norms for India (2017-18). In 2018, the University of East Anglia (UK) awarded him a Doctor of Civil Laws (honoris causa) degree in recognition of his contributions to international diplomacy.