United Nations General Assembly Reform
19 September 2011
In 1945, the establishment of the United Nations was a triumph of hope over experience. The League of Nations had failed to forestall World War II, yet the creation of the United Nations signalled optimism that such horrors could be avoided in the future—hope that succeeding generations, as the charter says, might be saved from ‘the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind’.
I spoke a month ago in the adjournment debate about the challenges of reforming the United Nations Security Council and I want to follow up tonight by offering a few suggestions for reform of the United Nations General Assembly. Again, I am grateful to William Isdale for his assistance.
The General Assembly is the largest body of the United Nations. It is the place where all member nations are represented and have a say. It is supposed to be—and should be—a forum of great significance. Regrettably, the views of experienced observers are damning.
In his book on the United Nations, Australian Catholic University Professor Spencer Zifcak says the assembly ‘is a body of only the most fleeting relevance to the conduct of world affairs … a forum in which the agenda consists mainly of national grievances… the resolutions proliferate without review’ and are ‘almost impossible to translate into practical action’. For anyone who cares about issues that come before the General Assembly—which range from disease pandemics to nuclear proliferation and transnational crime to climate change—this is worrying stuff.
The United Nations’ High-Level Panel has concluded that the central difficulty for the assembly is its lack of focus and procedure. For instance, its huge and inflexible agenda leads to repetitious discussion and the desire to achieve unanimity generates resolutions that are vague, vapid or represent the lowest common denominator. No fewer than 18 resolutions have been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the subject of its own revitalisation. Since this is the world’s principal deliberative forum, it is time that some of these resolutions were acted upon.
For instance, smaller, more expert committees could help sharpen debate prior to them coming before the assembly. The general unwillingness to delegate to committees should be met with clearer guidelines as to when it is appropriate to do so. It is important that the General Assembly be a forum for the discussion of global issues that matter, not the minutiae of budgets and administration. We need to strengthen the office of the President of the General Assembly, a position held by HV ‘Doc’ Evatt from 1948 to 1949 when he was the United Nations’ fourth president. The President should be able to prioritise the most important issues on the agenda and call debates on major issues.
When it comes to speeches, the floor should be opened to competing positions, not just to anyone who wants to speak, and time limits must be better enforced. Currently, delegates regularly go well over their allotted 15 minutes but are not stopped. In 2009 Muammar Gaddafi spoke for an hour and a half, causing his translator to break off mid-speech with the cry, ‘I just can’t take it anymore.’ This is still short of Fidel Castro’s 1960 effort of 4½ hours in the General Assembly and well below the United Nations Security Council’s record for a speech—just under eight hours.
To make it more authoritative, the General Assembly should be better equipped to publicise its decisions and to monitor action taken on its resolutions. At present there is a tendency for resolutions to proliferate almost endlessly, without regard to what has been said before and with little follow-through.
The General Assembly, as the most representative organ, should also have a greater say in selecting the Secretary-General of the United Nations as a whole. The General Assembly has the formal power to appoint the Secretary-General on recommendation of the Security Council. But in practice the Security Council has assumed the decisive role by sending only one candidate for the assembly to approve. The Security Council should be encouraged to send the General Assembly more than one candidate to choose from. This would go some way towards democratising the United Nations by ensuring that the Secretary-General is someone that all nations have a say in appointing.
We expect a lot from the United Nations. It is indispensable in the world we now find ourselves in. The United Nations runs on less money than the Manhattan fire service — but reform need not be expensive. The United Nations’ value comes in providing a space for deliberation, not a world government. A concerted effort is required and a commitment to the realisation of the United Nations’ central project: creating a safer, more prosperous world.