United Nations Reform: Slow, patient work to make the UN better

By Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association United Nations Office. He also serves as Chair of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security and Co-Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights.
As President and CEO of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security, I also serve on the NGO Security Council Working Group. This working group meets with the ambassadors of those nations currently serving on the UN Security Council and with high ranking officials and missions working on Security Council issues. The most interesting of these meetings are with the member state ambassadors of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group. This group of small and medium sized member states meets at the Swiss mission to the UN to work on improving how the UN Security Council works and increasing transparency in the election of a new UN Secretary General. In July 2015, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group proposed a "Code of Conduct regarding Security Council action against genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes," which calls upon all members of the Security Council (both permanent and elected) to not vote against any credible draft resolution intended to prevent or halt mass atrocities. As of a meeting I had with the ACT Group on March 22, 2016, 111 member states of the United Nations have signed on to this code of conduct. Canada and the United States are not among those 111 nations. I fear there is currently little chance of getting the United States to commit to this important code of conduct before the U.S. national elections in November. However, with the new Liberal government in Canada, this could be low hanging fruit for Canadian Unitarians. I would like to see UUs in both the United States and Canada take this on as an advocacy issue. This is important to ensure that the United Nations can act effectively against genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes without fear of a veto. By mobilizing Unitarian Universalists in support of signing this Code of Conduct, I feel that we can obtain early success in Canada and eventual adoption by the United States, perhaps as soon as next year. By the same token, the ACT Group would like to see the veto abolished entirely. It is the single aspect of the UN Charter which makes it nearly impossible for the UN to act when action is needed. Any one of the permanent 5 members of the UN Security Council (“the P5”: USA, UK, France, Russia and China) can block any measure voted on by all the others. This gives far too much power to these five nations (the victorious powers of WWII in 1945). The veto protects the power of the P5, but harms the effectiveness of the UN. It will take time and overwhelming popular support to change this system. The ACT Group has also worked on transparency in the selection of the UN Secretary-General. The upcoming selection of a new Secretary-General in 2016 will be the most transparent in UN history. Each of the candidates will speak to committees of the UN General Assembly and explain what they would do at UN Secretary-General (UNSG). Such a thing has never happened before; customarily, the selection of the Secretary-General has taken place entirely in the Security Council behind closed doors. Only once a candidate was approved by the Security Council would they be brought before the General Assembly for ratification. The current UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s second four-year term will end on December 31, 2016, at which point his successor will take office. A discussion is also taking place regarding terms of office for the UNSG. There is nothing in the UN Charter about terms, and past UN Secretaries-General have served terms of various lengths. The discussion at hand is about either one term of 7 years or two terms of 4 years each. The ACT countries remain split on this issue. The advantage of one 7 year term is that the UNSG would not have to pander to member states in order to get reelected. One term would enhance the UNSG’s independence. A recent op-ed in the New York Times, written by a disillusioned former UN diplomat, criticized the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the United Nations system. One can only draw the conclusion that the UN needs to be improved, but not that we don’t need the UN. While both the UN and our own national governments have much that should be improved upon, and all are far from the ideal we hope for, we really cannot expect any progress on arms control, nuclear disarmament, climate change action, the elimination of global poverty, expansion of human rights, education for all, better nutrition for all, improvements in the distribution of water and sanitation, and a million other global issues without the United Nations. I retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2007 in protest against its homophobic policies. Perhaps my early retirement helped bring about some small amount of change and perhaps resignations from the UN, such as that of the op-ed author, will have the same effect. The point is to make the UN better rather than to throw the baby out with the bath water. As flawed as it is (and it is flawed) we need to UN now more than ever.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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Bruce at UN

Bruce Knotts, Director of UU-UNO

Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon