The need for United Nations reform in adapting the organization to a new global balance of power is widely recognized. However, these reforms often hamper the lack of a global consensus on how it should be implemented. The UN reform program relates practically to all areas of the organization’s activities, including peace support, development and human rights. Proposals also refer to institutional issues, including budget and governance reforms in the UN system. This paper discusses key areas of reform and provides suggestions for possible changes. The United Nations reform trajectories reflect the spirit of the moment in which they are proposed, as well as concrete events that emphasized the need for action and encourage the international community. For example, the UN Security Council reform debate has been the most intense in the early stages of UN operations (1950s and 1960s), after which the climax has reached its peak and the debate has lost momentum (due to the known differences between UN member states, a). In contrast, institutional reforms to make the UN bodies more efficient, faster and more responsive, have accelerated since the 1990s and are currently widely supported. Reforms of the development of the UN, human rights and peace architecture have steadily advanced over the years – along with reforms of the peace support system – largely conditioned by the shift in political reality, the configuration of power and the evolution of the nature of global conflicts and threats.

More than seventy years old, the United Nations finds itself at a critical juncture, which should be honestly confronted by the member states who are its proprietors and who endowed it with its present features. Two paths lie before the world community. Countries should decide either to reduce their demands on the United Nations, thus giving it a decent chance of carrying out reduced policies with its existing resources, or they should recognize the necessity of improving its capacities and grant it greater resources, functions, and coordinating powers. Avoiding a decision risks condemning not just the organization but the world to a deeply troubled future. This is a much more fundamental issue than improvements to specific parts of the system, welcome though the latter would be.

In light of global circumstances, it would be wiser to take the second of these two paths and improve the United Nations for the benefit of future generations. A half-century ago member states recognized that a set of international instruments to achieve aims they could not secure by themselves was very much in their national interest. The world of 2018is clearly a vastly different place than that of 1945, and the gathering pace of technological change, global demographic growth, and environmental pressures will make the world of 2050 radically different from that of today. As the demands on states and governments increase, the need for the world organization is growing, not shrinking.

The chief reason effective international instruments are required is an eminently practical one, as the founders realized. Simply put, states, people, and businesses need an international system to provide physical, economic, and legal security. They need some form of international police force to deter terrorists and other breakers of the peace, bodies like the World Trade Organization to head off trade wars, institutions like those developed at Bretton Woods to assist emerging economies, international human rights organizations to guarantee individuals’ basic freedoms across the globe, and a myriad of agencies and offices to ensure such basics as telecommunications and safe air traffic. If the United Nations system did not exist, much of it would have to be invented.

Moves toward reform must take into account that the very different political and ideological stances of member governments, interest groups, and voters will critically influence whether specific proposals succeed or fail. Indeed, unless governments can agree on basic principles regarding the roles of the United Nations and are ready to compromise on changes in the system, years of international gridlock could lie ahead.

Also, there is the touchy issue of states’ sovereignty. Although the original members agreed in 1945 (and countries that joined later concurred by subscribing to the charter) to bind themselves in various ways for the common good, they emphasized national sovereignty and prohibited intervention in matters “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” What they constructed was not an embryonic world government but an international corporation, so to speak, with the nation-states as shareholders. The concern with sovereignty is no less strong today, whether among conservative Americans or governments in Beijing or New Delhi, and any schemes to enhance the United Nations will have to reckon with that sentiment. The organization can only be as effective as member governments, in agreement, desire it to be.

Yet global forces for change are weakening the traditional authority of the sovereign nation-state in ways unforeseen in 1945.

Finally expanding the Security Council seems like one of the more reasonable ways to improve the representative character and thus the legitimacy of the world organization in the eyes of its 192 members and their people. Increasing the council’s overall size from the present 15 members would allow more nations to participate on a rotating basis in decision-making by this critically important organ. And adding to the permanent membership would permit the Security Council to reflect the changes in the global balance since the five victorious powers of 1945 insisted that the charter include special provisions upholding their status and interests.

Yet proposals to promote certain countries to permanent membership are quickly enmeshed in political objections. For example, Japan and Germany have strong claims, as the second- and third-largest contributors to the U.N. budget, but would their neighbors be happy with the change? And given the special responsibility of the permanent members to maintain peace and security, should permanent membership be granted to Japan, whose constitution had restricted it in sending forces abroad until 2 years ago?

Then, since admitting a Germany or Japan to permanent membership would unduly increase the influence of the “North,” it would be necessary to compensate by including a number of states from the “South,” especially larger regional powers like India, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa. Yet this suggestion provokes criticism from those countries’ neighbors. Why not consider instead permanent regional membership on the Security Council, whereby different countries take turns representing their part of the world? Yet how likely is it that Britain and France would cede their historical status as permanent members and trust their interests to a European representative?

The veto right of each permanent member further complicates prospects for Security Council reform. The drafters of the U.N. Charter assumed that the Big Five were to be chiefly responsible for maintaining the peace and defeating aggressors, and therefore should control the use of United Nations forces. Moreover, it was vital that the great powers not opt out of the organization, the shadow of the U.S. absence from the League of Nations loomed large here, so their governments had to be reassured that at least in matters of war and peace their interests would not be overruled. Over the subsequent half-century, however, the veto has been invoked in many other circumstances, such as blocking resolutions and opposing nominations. If the number of permanent members on the Security Council was increased, would that not increase the risk of many more vetoes in the future? One solution might be to deny the newer permanent members the veto, but that would confuse things by introducing a third membership category. Some have proposed that the veto be abolished, a splendidly egalitarian idea, but highly unlikely to win approval by the Permanent Five.

The best that can be hoped for is a compromise after negotiation in the General Assembly. An increase in the number of both permanent and rotating members of the Security Council, and a restriction of the veto to questions of war and peace as the founders intended, would not crimp the Security Council’s effectiveness but would make it less like the old boys club of 1945.

Тhe process has already begun with the formation of study groups in the General Assembly and with the publication of reports on the United Nations past, present, and future. Member states, acting through their permanent missions in the General Assembly, must now push ahead with a sustained examination of the various reform proposals, understanding that no single one will be perfect but that a distillation and then an advancement of the better ideas is urgently required. The historic moment should not be missed. The world owes it to the generations yet to come.

Aleksandar Ostojić

First year student at Faculty of law University in Belgrade


  • Reform of the United Nations Security Council by Richard Butler, AC Penn State University School of International Affairs
  • Study: Reforming the United Nations: State of Play, Ways Forward, Author: Wanda TROSZCZYŃSKA-VAN GENDEREN
  • Reform of the United Nationsby: Allison Goody and Marcus Pistor, Political and Social Affairs Division, 24 February 2006

    Author: Aleksandar Ostojić