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Should Britain be spearheading a campaign to reform the UN?

Article by Adam Hug

January 4, 2012

The UK has a number of on-going goals at the UN, none of which have much chance of an early resolution. For example, expanding the permanent representation on the Security Council to more accurately reflect the global balance of power in the world today rather than that of 1945 has been the policy of successive UK governments. Yet the practical challenges remain as intractable as ever. Adding further nations with veto powers would make an already dysfunctional body almost entirely unworkable. The main alternative, supported by the UK, is creating new (second-class) permanent members, always in the room but without a veto, with the most likely candidates being: India, Brazil, Japan, Germany (the G4 group) and an African seat for which South Africa and Nigeria would compete. Membership for each of those countries would spark a reaction from neighbourhood rivals, some of whom form part of the ‘uniting for consensus group’ opposed to any fundamental reform that cannot command overwhelming support, while the lack of a veto would still rankle.

Britain’s sensitivity over its continued membership of the P5 will continue to guide its actions – pushing for reform while resisting attempts to merge the UK and French seats under an EU umbrella, an unthinkable move given Conservative antipathy to the concept of an EU foreign policy, rather than just wildly implausible as before.

The Human Rights Council is a much maligned body, noted as often for the dubious human rights credentials of some of its members (voted for by regional neighbours) and its focus on the Israel/ Palestine conflict as its wider contribution to global human rights practice. In a small victory for common sense, Libya was kicked off the council after the conflict broke out this year but this still begs the question what it (and others such as Saudi Arabia) was doing there in the first place. The council’s new(ish) Universal Periodic Review at least gives all member states the chance to cross-examine countries on their human rights records and here the UK can play an important role in pushing for greater direct involvement of the voluntary sector, both within countries under review and internationally. The UK also needs to push for stronger action against those countries that refuse to grant access to the Human Rights Council’s special rapporteurs. The UK can continue to push for wider support of the Responsibility to Protect principles, building on the arguments accepted at the UN in the Libya case, although Russian and Chinese scepticism will continue to limit its broader applicability.

The findings of DfID’s recent Multilateral Aid Review effectively articulated an agenda for reform of UN specialised agencies by identifying areas of organisational weakness and explicitly linking funding to performance. This approach has led to the withdrawal of funding from four UN agencies, including the politicised and contentious decision to cease UK funding of the ILO, while two others were put in ‘special measures’.

The UN can be an infuriating institution but is an essential one in which Britain has traditionally played an important role. Yet, there is little evidence to suggest there is scope for rapid progress. For example, while political change in the Arab World may lead to new democracies, they are unlikely to be much more supportive of Western-style interventionism than their predecessors. The UK should continue to work diligently behind the scenes to achieve gradual progress. Sadly there is little scope for Britain to successfully spend significant political capital to ‘spearhead’ a major campaign for UN reform.

First published in Politics First Magazine Issue 4 (

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