It needs to ensure fairer representation for the developing and low-income economies
By Aruna Sharma
Covid-19 has been a great equaliser in terms of human survival, economy and business in developed, developing and poor economies alike. It underscores the vulnerability of humans everywhere, hitting the poor and the middle-class, even as clouds of increase in poverty levels gather. Against this backdrop, with protectionist approaches on trade and business finding wide favour, each country has to discover its own mechanism to battle on the health front and restart the economy.
The concern now is that the haste on recovery should not cause countries to lose sight of the global commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.
The United Nations was formed with the aims of maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. However, the focus of UN councils has been on peace and security; the need now is to shift this on to social progress, better living standards and protection of human rights. Now, wars will be less physical, more economical. The UN should not become a Bridge of Choluteca, the exemplar of pouring resources into a solution that is rendered obsolete by an ’emerging normal’. The UN must develop a mechanism to ensure the protection of human rights across the globe, especially that of the poor and needy. Here, poor denotes not just the economically poor but also those being converted into a voiceless herd. The assertion of rights of equity and better standards of living had been flagged by US president Roosevelt long ago.
Formed after World War II, the UN’s aims and activities have expanded to make it the archetypal international body for the early 21st century. The focus is to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in member countries’ own lands as well as in other lands. The need to realign the structure of UN to make its chosen tool of SDGs effective has become imperative ever since the pandemic broke out.
The principal organs of the UN, to rejig themselves, have to shift focus to the participation of countries that need special attention to set appropriate strategies. The General Assembly’s primary focus is to promote social progress, better living standards and human rights. To that end, the UN formulated the MDGs and, subsequently, the SDGs, but the mechanisms adopted need a thorough relook. Each fall, the United Nations General Assembly, where each member has one vote, becomes a stage where presidents and prime ministers give speeches, largely clichéd. For the rest of the session, the General Assembly is the arena where largely symbolic diplomatic jousts are won and lost.
The United Nations Security Council has 15 members, with five (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) holding permanent seats. The 15-member Security Council is by far the most powerful arm of the United Nations. It can impose sanctions, etc. The shift required here is to have permanent representation of developed, developing and underdeveloped economies to ensure that the focus of the organisation continues to remain ‘no one left behind’ and enable the transfer of successful experiments and faith in democratic functioning wherever this is needed. Thus, the need to rejig the UN is also one that is rooted in the need to change its label from ‘powerful but paralysed’ to ‘vibrant, dynamic and effective’.
The charter of the office of the Secretary-General is vague in defining the duties of the United Nations’ top official. Nine people have held the position so far, all men. The Secretary-General is expected to show no favouritism to any particular country, but the office is largely dependent on the funding and good-will of the most powerful nations.
The Security Council, notably its five permanent members (P5), choose the secretary-general by secret ballot, to serve a maximum of two five-year terms. It is difficult for the Secretary-General to remain independent of the P5’s influence. Thus, there is a need to change the way the Secretary-General is chosen, by extending it to a secret ballot of not just permanent members but also the ten non-permanent members, who are elected for two-year terms and represent emerging and low-income economies in the Security Council. This will enable fairer representation.
The ECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council) is responsible for promoting higher standards of living, full employment and economic and social progress. The SDG mandate is the guiding factor here. The Covid impact has aggravated the situation that the ECOSOC needed to deal with, and there is a need for urgent attention to identify solutions for the emerging social and health problems. To enable the kind of cooperation necessary to reach the last person, the approach has to change from just supporting NGOs to enabling policy changes to combat the new challenge.
The need for the UN is to metamorphose in a manner in which it can be more direct in its action and relevant, one that is in sync with the challenges of the times. The challenges today are of inequity, the fear of worsening of all kinds of poverty because of Covid and the indispensable requirement of sustainable development.
The UN has to undergo urgent metamorphosis to sync the task of achieving the SDG with the new challenges emanating from the pandemic’s impact on life, livelihood and lifestyle across the globe. It has to enable cooperation among member-nations to ensure no one is left behind if the world is to recover and resurrect itself on the path to prosperity.
The author is Development economics practitioner & former Secretary, GoI