United Nations:

Searching a New Road Map for peace and security in the 21st Century

Comments on the high-level panel report for UN reforms on international peace and security, and the achievements/failures of the global UN summit

A talk given at the CND Annual Conference Workshop on UN Reform

University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London, W1B 2UW

on Saturday, 15 October 2005

Vijay Mehta





During its nearly 60 years of existence UN through its work comprising more then two dozen organizations has some remarkable successes to its credit in peacekeeping operations. It has helped people rebuild countries from ruins of war. UN has maintained peace and order in such diverse places as Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mozambique, Cyprus and Kashmir, over 30 years in difficult circumstances.

At present, 18 peacekeeping operations employing 80,000 people are working around the globe, maintaining peace and security. It is much cheaper than the $350 billion the US Senate gave George Bush to pursue the wars and keep peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same token, failures of UN from time to time have been quite stark. The UN has acted unwisely at times and failed to act all together at other times. One need only to think of peacekeeping disasters of Somalia in 1993, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and the "safe areas" in Bosnia in 1994-95. Also UN has passed resolutions ie on Israel – Palestine conflict, Iraq etc. which it had no intention to keep. But the UN at its best is only mirror of the world. It reflects divisions and disagreements as well hopes and convictions. Some times it only muddles through. As Dag Hammerskjold, the UN's second Secretary General, put it, "the UN was not created to take humanity to heaven but save it from hell".

In more recent times, the UN was marginalised when the United States (and its ‘coalition of the willing’) unilaterally attacked Iraq. This prompted Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General, to appoint a 16 member panel of eminent persons to report on threats to international peace and security in the coming century and recommendations on how to deal with them.

In this workshop we will examine how UN have kept and promoted peace and security within this uncertain world facing increasing threats and challenges. It has through its specialised agencies, attempted to promote arms control and disarmament for conventional as well as mass destruction weapons, and seeking to promote peace keeping and conflict prevention through a range of channels. We will also consider the recommendations of high level report, and the World Summit 2005 outcome for the future role of UN in maintaining peace and security in the world.

The primary function of United Nations and central part of its mandate for which it was established is to maintain International Peace and Security as is enshrined in its charter. It carries its functions through its specialised agencies i.e. Security Council, General Assembly, UN peace keeping operations, office of Disarmament affairs (First Committee and Commission), conference on Disarmament (CD), The International Atomic Agency (IAEA), University of Peace and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). These agencies have the responsibility of general principles of co-operation in the maintenance of International Peace and Security, including the principles governing disarmament treaties and regulation of armaments. Some of UN achievements have been the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968 (NPT), Anti-Personnel Landmine treaty 1997, the chemical weapons convention 1992, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty 1996 and many multilateral and bilateral agreements including creation of nuclear weapon free zones (Latin America, Caribbean, and Africa.

The IAEA plays a prominent role in peaceful uses of atomic energy and at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons by its International Inspectorate team and its verification measures. The Nobel peace prize recently awarded to it is an indication of how important its role is in curbing global arms trade.

Challenges to peace and international security- 6 main areas

The high level panel report highlights how nations can work together to meet the challenges to peace and security in the 21st century. The report, called ‘A more secure world: Our shared responsibility’, contains recommendations on changes that could be made within the UN system so that it can better address today’s complex threats and security challenges.

It contains 101 recommendations for dealing with the six areas identified by the Panel as being the greatest challenges to worldwide security in the future. The areas are: continued poverty and environmental degradation, terrorism, civil war, conflict between states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and organized crime.

The report is perhaps the most far-reaching official review of the UN’s role, in particular in the fields of peace and security, since 1945 and the signing the UN Charter. It is a report which is policy driven and member-states need to act urgently if the UN is continue to remain an important player in world affairs. Unlike other UN reports, including the 1992 Agenda for Peace by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, member-states took little action to implement its recommendations.

The report took into account that we live in an interdependent world where the threat agenda cannot be categorised into previous modes of thinking- namely, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ threats. The problems of international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction cannot be adequately solved without dealing with the phenomena of the failure of states often leading to major regional instability and conflicts, and a whole range of issues which have not traditionally been considered as part of the peace and security nexus at all – poverty, environmental degradation, pandemic diseases and the spread of organised crime – to mention the most prominent.

Every one of these threats requires a universal response if it is to be effectively dealt. Only a broad, common agenda provides any hope of mustering such a universal response. As the problems are interrelated, the report reaffirms that a multilateral approach is a key ingredient to solving these global challenges.

The interventions in Kosovo and Iraq highlight the illegitimacy of the use of force where no mandate was authorised by the Security Council for going to war. The report concludes that Article 51 of the UN Charter, which recognises the use of force for self-defense, should be ‘neither rewritten nor interpreted.’ It does, however, endorse the emerging norm that there is a ‘responsibility to protect’ where sovereign governments fail to protect their citizens in the event of genocide and wide-scale human rights violations. In such instances, the Security Council may authorise military intervention as a last resort if the decision has been taken collectively.

To stop the risk of countries sliding into chaos, State collapse and becoming a haven for terrorists, a Peace-building Commission is recommended to take a proactive approach in preventing future instability. In particular, it seeks to work with national governments to assist the transition from conflict to post-conflict peace-building. More advanced systems of prevention are needed to assist developing countries to halt terrorists finding shelter in weak states.

Countering the spread of nuclear weapons and WMDs

The report recognised that the various international rules to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, biological and radiological – were under great strain. A world in which those rules had further eroded would be an infinitely more insecure one if such weapons fall into the hands of terrorists who might have no compunction about using them. To avoid such developments the report recommended a range of urgent actions – to encourage acceptance of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol providing for snap inspections, to increase cooperation between the IAEA and the CWC and the Security Council on the basis of regular reports, to resume negotiations on an intrusive regime of inspection for biological installations, and to prepare for a biological incident or attack.

Tackling ‘soft’ threats alongside ‘hard’ threats

The Panel also realised that to face the threats mentioned so far, the soft threats - poverty, environmental degradation, pandemic disease, organised crime – need also to be part of the main reform agenda. To this end, there is an urgent necessity to complete the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to tackle development. Furthermore, the report stresses the need to substantially increase financial resources to fuel development programmes and to counter AIDS and other pandemic diseases.

As the report makes clear, development and security are inextricably linked. A more secure world is only possible if poor countries are given a real chance to develop. Extreme poverty and infectious diseases threaten many people directly, but they also provide a fertile breeding-ground for other threats, including civil conflict. Even people in rich countries will be more secure if their Governments help poor countries to defeat poverty and disease by meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Consequently, the international community should not only view ‘soft’ threats as part of the development agenda but also be an important component of the peace and security agenda.

Proposed Draft Changes and Outcome at the UN World Summit

The proposed draft placed before world leaders summit an agenda to move forward decisively towards three important goals; halving poverty in the next ten years; reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and the protection of human rights. The introductions of reforms are aimed at repairing the damage done to the UN reputation by Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq and the oil for food scandal. The report advocates a shared vision of development, collective security, rule of law, protection of human rights, and strengthening the United Nations system.

However the prospects for reforms have been met with hostile reaction from US. John Bolton, the controversial new US ambassador upset the UN diplomats by demanding 750 changes to a twenty-nine-page draft prepared for the summit by a committee under the UN General Assembly President, Jean Ping of Gambia. Because of these objections little progress was made at the summit.

The most far-reaching reforms advocated are in seven areas: poverty & economic development, proliferation /disarmament, human rights, peace-building commission, terrorism, the UN system, and the environment.

Achievements and failures of the UN summit

After many countless meetings and hours of wrangling, the most significant results of the summit were as follows:


  1. A Peace-building Commission, agreed in principle, but no details have been finalised. The leaders propose setting up a UN peace-building commission that will emphasise "the need for a co-ordinated, coherent and integrated approach to post-conflict peace-building and reconciliation". Its members will include the Security Council, Economic and Social Council, World Bank and IMF representatives and other regional organisations (European Union, African Union). The Peace-building Commission will be funded by a standing Peace-building Fund for post-conflict peace-building, funded by voluntary contributions. It hopes to start its work by 31st December 2005.

  2. Human Rights Council agreed in principle. The leaders said that "to further strengthen the United Nations human rights machinery, we resolve to create a human rights council". This is going to replace the United Nations human rights commission, which the US and Europeans object to because serial human rights abusers such as Libya and Sudan served on it.

  3. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were reaffirmed at the summit- established in 2000 to halve global poverty by 2015.

  4. Greater recognition that the world body has a ‘responsibility to protect’ – to ensure genocide, ethnic cleansing and other wars should not be ignored in the name of state sovereignty. The leaders agreed that "each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity". Amid the overall disappointment about the summit, this was one historic achievement.


  1. Reforms of the UN Security Council were put off.

  2. No progress on disarmament. A full page devoted to non-proliferation and curbing weapons, from nuclear to conventional, was dropped entirely from the final draft. It was nothing less then a disgrace.

  3. Failure to agree on a definition and comprehensive strategy to counter terrorism.

  4. The summit failed to break new ground on life-saving measures to assist billions of people living in extreme poverty. Other programmes dealing with HIV/AIDS, education, health care, gender equality, maternal and infant mortality were only reaffirmed.

Enhancing peace and security

For peace keeping to be effective and successful UN need to adopt the following recommendations:

  1. Improving the current state of the world requires the US to recognize that we live in an interdependent world – our threats and challenges are also interdependent. Therefore, we need a multilateral approach which seeks to work cooperatively and use the UN system to resolve disputes rather then seek unilateral solutions.

  2. We need a global framework for peace-building, which include better understanding of prejudices, intolerance, exclusion and above all the rejection of all dialogue for offsetting the global threat of terrorism.

  3. States need to reaffirm and work towards the three pillars of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (disarmament, non-proliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy). After the dismal failure of NPT review conference in May 2005 we need to revitalise the machinery of disarmament. Proliferation of arms of all kinds- whether they be weapons of mass destruction or small arms- inherently constitutes a threat to peace.
  4. For achieving a culture of peace, the current climate of political instability, global wealth-poverty divide, human right abuses, and the lack of support from governments and mass media, and the complexity of violence are major obstacles which need to be overcome.

  5. The international community need to link the agenda of development, environment and disarmament together. We can not have security amidst starvation and we cannot build peace without alleviating poverty and we cannot have either without a better environment. Only a peaceful society can work its way up to creating the institutions ripe for development and free itself from injustices and human rights abuses.

  6. Education should be enhanced for a culture of peace, nonviolence and reconciliation. By eliminating root causes of war we can lead to lasting peace. The world today spends billions preparing for war. Should we not spend a billion or two preparing for peace. The reduction of defense budgets and demilitarisation should be applied to fund the economic aid and conflict resolution.

  7. To build on peace and collective security initiatives like Peace Building Commission, a Human Rights Council combined with rule of law and responsibility to protect will go a long way in ending conflicts and tyranny in the world.

  8. Peace is not just absence of war. It is in fact a phenomenon that encompasses good governance, economic development, social justice, environmental protection, disarmament, respect for human rights and democratic process.

  9. The civil society and NGOs with UN should form a thriving global alliance which can eliminate the universal plague of war.

  10. Political will and mobilising public opinion are critical elements in promotion of peace. UN with the help of civil society should work for co-existence and prevention among warring factions for peaceful settlements.


It is important to remember that no amount of systemic change at the United Nations will in itself be of much avail if the main protagonists do not re-double their efforts to resolve a number of long-running, still festering disputes. In that context Palestine, Kashmir and North Korea stand out a mile. We need a new willingness to address all of these issues.

A new enthusiasm should be directed towards disarmament, and that efforts be made to reduce the supply of nuclear weapons. There needs to be improvements to the enforcement capacity of the Security Council and better public health defenses to combat the threat of biological weapons.

The outcome of the UN summit was disappointing. The United Nations summit in New York, saw 159 leaders enjoying the Big apple’s five –star hospitality, while deciding on the futures of 6 billion others. But the outcome failed to produce positive results, with decisions on UN reform and eradication of poverty fudged.

There were a few achievements such as the creation of a Peace-building Commission and Human Rights Council. If we want to see a reformed UN, political pressure, a constructive dialogue and the momentum for the reform process must be kept alive for the formation of a truly global UN fit for handling international peace and security challenges of the 21st century.


There are appendices to this article which can be downloaded from the VM Centre for Peace website (www.vmpeace.org).

1) Recommendations of the UN High-level Panel Report on Nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons disarmament

2) 2005 World Summit Outcome (pp.69-105)

The article will also appear in the next issue of World Disarm newsletter.

This paper can also be accessed at www.vmpeace.org