This week, senior leaders and diplomats are meeting in New York City for the annual high-level General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly. The delegates are assembling at what feels like a low point for international peace and security — the maintenance of which is the U.N.’s central mission.
In times like these, we need the U.N. to work. But right now, the U.N. General Assembly (all U.N. member states) is not selective enough when voting on potential members. This has created a whole host of related problems and made it difficult to keep corruption and despotism out of this vital global organization. In order to make sure all members are indeed able and willing to carry out the U.N. Charter’s obligations, the U.N. should flip its membership system on its head. What we need is a merit-based system that requires states to meet or commit to meeting a certain set of standards before becoming members, and demonstrate progress in or support of those standards in order to maintain membership.
In times like these, we need the U.N. to work. But right now, the U.N. General Assembly (all U.N. member states) is not selective enough when voting on potential members.
The U.N. was created in 1945, after World War II, with the explicit goal of preventing another world war. Its key mission was the maintenance of international peace and security, in addition to protecting human rights, delivering humanitarian aid, promoting sustainable development and upholding international law. The U.N.’s Charter states that membership “is open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.”
Although the charter does not set prerequisites or conditions for countries to become members, the U.N. can hardly claim that it is entirely made up of “peace-loving States.” For over 20 years, U.N. secretary-generals, governments and national security experts have debated the question of reform. Should the U.N. Security Council be made larger, and if so, how? Should the U.N. only focus on humanitarian efforts? How should the U.N. be re-organized to maximize efficiency and transparency?
Many proposals for reform focus on inclusivity, but perhaps exclusivity is what’s needed.
The current system allows its members to advance their individual agendas, and in the case of repressive regimes, this often results in blocking efforts that support peace, security and human rights. Syria provides the perfect case study. Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, the U.N. Security Council (consisting of 15 members, five of which are permanent) has been unable to pass a resolution that would help limit or even end the bloodshed. (For example, the council could issue multilateral sanctions against the Syrian government, or refer war criminals to the International Criminal Court.) Russia, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been able to veto 13 such resolutions, including one last week that would have pushed for a ceasefire.
The U.N. system is noble, but it includes too many regimes that have repressive policies and in some cases are actively committing human rights abuses. These regimes use the international body to either try and further their own agendas or prevent the U.N. from carrying out its own.
The current system allows its members to advance their individual agendas, and in the case of repressive regimes, this often results in blocking efforts that support peace, security and human rights.
Russia is not the only nation to use or threaten to use its veto power in ways that prevent the U.N. from supporting international peace and stability. Earlier this month, China threatened to veto the renewal of the U.N.’s mission to Afghanistan — an assistance mission that seeks to support peace and development in the country — if the United States did not include language in the resolution on China’s economic Belt and Road Initiative.
The makeup of the U.N. Human Rights Council is also a symptom of the problem created by including repressive regimes in the UN. The council responsible for “strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe” consists of some of the world’s worst human rights offenders, including Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Egypt and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others. Here, too, the fact that so many despots and oppressive regimes are voting members in the General Assembly is at least part of the problem. When the pool of voting nations is itself corrupt, the results of any elections must also be considered at least partially corrupted.
Instead of the current U.N. membership system that welcomes most nation states as members regardless of their policies, the U.N. should move to a merit-based membership system. Such systems are not all that novel — in fact numerous international bodies have similar processes, for example the World Trade Organization. Such systems have also proven at least partially successful in affecting change. Beijing, for example, agreed in 2001 to undertake a number of economic and trade-related reforms in order to be admitted to the organization.
The U.N. Charter already dictates that "peace-loving States" should, in the judgment of the U.N., be able to carry out the obligations in support of the U.N.’s mission. Based on this mandate, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres should establish a process for that “judgment” to be reached and to implement a merit-based membership system.
Given the current makeup of U.N. members, however, each and every existing member should be assessed and go through the process as applicants. And those who do not meet the appropriate standard should have their membership revoked.
Implementing a merit-based membership system at the U.N. is not the silver bullet to making multilateralism succeed — but it could be an imperfect, but achievable, way forward.