Celebrating Seventy-Five Years Since the Establishment of the United Nations Charter: What’s Next?


Photo courtesy of the Stimson Center.

An Interview with Dr. Richard Ponzio who is Director of Just Security 2020 at The Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., which seeks to advance the global governance reform recommendations of the Albright-Gambari Commission, which he directed (2014-2016). Earlier, Dr. Ponzio served in senior peacebuilding roles with the UN and U.S. State Department in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, New York, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and the Solomon Islands. Dr. Ponzio has published widely, including Democratic Peacebuilding: Aiding Afghanistan and other Fragile States (OUP, 2011) and Human Development and Global Institutions: Evolution, Impact, Reform with Dr. Arunabha Ghosh (Routledge, 2016).

You are currently working on advancing practical global governance reforms by 2020, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, can you share your thoughts about the development of the UN charter as an enforceable legal document and if there are any changes that you would recommend to achieve the goals that were set out in the UN charter.

With the 75th anniversary commemoration fast approaching for the United Nations Charter on June 26, 2020 in San Francisco, now is an opportune time to take stock of the Charter’s evolution and prospects for further innovation and renewal. When the UN’s five permanent members of the Security Council plus twenty-four other original signatory countries deposited their ratifications with the U.S. government by October 24, 1945, this enabled the Charter–the foundational treaty of the United Nations–to come into force. Especially given the Security Council’s authority (Chapter VII, Article 42) to enforce decisions of the Council by taking “action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security”, its representativeness and overall effectiveness are critical to whether the Charter continues to serve as an enforceable legal document.

Fortunately, an amendment to the Charter (Article 23) was adopted, on 31 August 1965, by the General Assembly, enlarging the Security Council’s membership from eleven to fifteen, without elevating to permanent status any UN Member States occupying the additional four seats on the Council. At the same time, the 2015 Albright-Gambari Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance argued that it is time again to expand the Council’s membership, “in line with present-day-realities.” Through a simple amendment to Chapter V, Article 23(2) the Commission made the case for allowing non-permanent Member States to the Security Council to be elected to consecutive terms (i.e. thereby taking on, in many ways, “defacto permanent status”, with the length of terms to be determined. To further advance the Charter’s ability to allow Member States to adapt collectively to changing circumstances in fulfillment of this versatile treaty instrument’s main goals, Articles 108 and 109 of the Charter allow for single and multiple amendments, respectively. Indeed, the UN’s 75th anniversary may provide a propitious occasion to open up, review the relevance of, and either renew Member State commitments to or work to innovate major aspects of the Charter.

Beyond Security Council Reform, are there other major needed changes to the UN system that may involve amending the Charter?

Chapter XIII of the Charter deals with The Trusteeship Council, one of the six principal organs of the UN system. With the country of Palau transitioning from UN Trusteeship Status in 1994 to full membership in the world body (when both Secretary Madeleine Albright and Professor Ibrahim Gambari were the Permanent Representatives of their respective countries), the Trusteeship Council’s de facto role became all-but-defunct. Consistent with the Trusteeship Council’s “sovereignty-building” mandate, the Albright-Gambari Commission recommends replacing this Council with a newly empowered Peacebuilding Council—evolving from the current strictly advisory Peacebuilding Commission—with Charter enabling authorities for coordination on global responses to, resource mobilization for, and the prevention of protracted, violent armed conflict. In short, the Peacebuilding Council could be equipped to cope effectively with 2nd and 3rd order conflict situations not involving UN peacekeepers or on the agenda of the Security Council.

A further reform that could capture the imagination of millions of people worldwide in the run-up to the UN’s 75th anniversary commemoration is the creation of a UN Parliamentary Network (UNPN). Learning from more than thirty examples worldwide of parliamentary networks for global (e.g., the World Bank and World Trade Organization) and regional (e.g., NATO and the OSCE) bodies, the UNPN could operate as a parliamentary advisory body for the UN General Assembly to channel new perspectives and raise greater awareness and participation—by engaging local constituencies—in UN governance. Though it could evolve, over time, into a more authoritative body requiring Charter amendment, the UNPN could initially take root under Article 22 of the Charter which stipulates: “The General Assembly may establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions.”

Reflecting back at the past seventy five years of the United Nations, what do you think has been the biggest accomplishment for the UN, and what has been the biggest failure? And how can that be addressed moving forward?

Without a doubt, the avoidance of Great Power conflict is, in my view, the United Nations’ single biggest accomplishment since its establishment in 1945. Let us not forget the two devastating world wars in the first half of the 20th century that engendered this second, yet nevertheless novel, experiment in global governance. While the veto authority of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members (all, arguably, still classified as Great Powers with the means and general propensity to use force against external actors to protect or advance their interests) is sometimes viewed as a source of paralysis in averting mass atrocities, its mere threat has often served as a check against the wanton and illegitimate use of force to settle an international dispute. Without the Charter’s moderating approach, unrestrained Great Power-led kinetic violent responses to a major international disagreement could have potentially escalated into full-blown military exchanges, over the past seventy-five years, among the world’s largest military forces.

At the same time, the UN’s biggest failure—throughout the Cold War but even more recently—concerns its inability to avert or better manage the many civil wars and regional conflicts that have resulted in millions of deaths and untold suffering. Since 2010 alone, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program shows us a tripling in the number of major violent conflicts, with an overall escalation in fighting in a growing number of lower intensity conflicts (source: UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia, Uppsala Conflict Data Program, 2017, visit: http://www.ucdp.uu.se ). Mover, through the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the UN has only just begun to comprehend, let alone address more effectively, how climate change is becoming a troubling source of violence and refugee movements that can further exacerbate regional and global tensions.

Moving forward, UN peace and security institutional reforms dealing with the Security Council and Peacebuilding Architecture—along the lines of those mentioned earlier—become both a practical necessity and moral imperative. At the same time, a broader conception of security is needed urgently, beyond the relatively narrow notion presented in the Charter, to articulate better international policy responses to emerging drivers of large-scale violence, such as climate change, new kinds of extremist ideologies, and the misuse of powerful new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and cyber communications.