The reform of the United Nations: Reflections for the incoming Secretary-General



The Hon. Kevin Rudd

26th Prime Minister of Australia

Chair, Independent Commission on Multilateralism

Remarks at the United Nations Security Council Retreat

Greentree, Manhasset, NY

3 November 2016


Distinguished members of the Security Council,

Distinguished incoming members of the Security Council,

Dear friends,

I thank the Permanent Representative of Finland for extending this kind invitation to me.

Just as I thank you, as members of the Security Council, for the opportunity to speak with you this evening.

And to you, Secretary-General, we thank you for your leadership and wish you and your dear wife all the best for the future.

It has been a privilege to get to know most of you over the last couple of years that I have lived in New York.

The more I’ve come to understand the pressures each of you are under, the more I’ve come to sympathize with how you manage the challenges you face each day sitting on the Council, dealing with both matters large and small, those which dominate the global media, and those that don’t.

It is a difficult business discharging the dual responsibilities each of you have: both as representatives of the national interests of the member-states who have appointed you; but at the same time acting as members of a critical international institution for whose future you are also co-custodians.

Knowing many of you quite well, I know for a fact that you come to New York not just in pursuit of an interesting diplomatic career, but because you also believe in the inherent mission of these United Nations we have crafted together as an international community over the last three-quarters of a century.

Reconciling these two missions, one national, the other global, is no easy thing. But nor is this task unique in the history of international diplomacy.


Over the last two years, I’ve spoken with most of you about the work I have been doing as Chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, convened under the auspices of the International Peace Institute here in New York.

I’ve spoken to many of you extensively about your observations, aspirations and frustrations with this ungainly “Parliament of Man”.

The extent to which your views have been adequately reflected in the Chairman’s Report that I have now produced, is a matter for you to judge.

We’ve also, at the ICM, had the privilege of speaking with all the geographical groupings of the UN, and with our ambassadorial advisory boards here, in NYC, and in Geneva and Vienna, as well as our outreach in various national capitals.

We divided the UN’s overall work into some sixteen thematic areas, covering the classic domains of peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, humanitarian engagement, as well as budget, management and personnel.

And around each of those sixteen thematic areas we convened on average a working seminar each month here at Greentree, occasionally elsewhere, involving representatives of member-states, the Secretariat, the UN funds, programmes and agencies, civil society and academics.

On each occasion, we spent a day and a half discussing each of these thematics in as much detail as possible.

We took the view that it was best to “let a hundred flowers bloom, and let a hundred schools of thought contend,” to quote the ancient wisdom of our Chinese friends.

We publicly released discussion papers and policy papers in each of these thematic areas in order to elicit further comment from the international community.

We also met separately with civil society institutions.

And we had convened a series of town hall meetings at the IPI where each of these chapters was open to a public forum for discussion.

And the end product, you now have before you: this Chair’s Report, which very much reflects my own thinking on what I’ve observed over the last two years; the formal report of the ICM itself, which seeks to collate as accurately as possible the views put to the commission by those we consulted; as well as final renditions of each of the individual 16 policy papers which will be progressively placed on the IPI’s website.

And I’d thank the governments of Norway, Canada and the UAE for their financial support for this commissions’ work over two years, totaling about USD $10 million.

This, therefore, has not been a small undertaking.

It has taken a lot of time, and I’m pleased to report to you that I’ve not taken a single dime.

We have done this report because, with the election of a new Secretary-General, we believed it was useful to provide him with practical proposals for reforming this institution with one core objective in mind: how to ensure that the UN remains “fit for purpose” in responding to the demands for effective global governance for the 21st century.

It is now a matter for both the SG and for member-states to do with the report what they will.

Our task has simply been to think through these challenges as honestly, thoroughly and fairly as has been humanly possible in order to provide a set of integrated, practical recommendations for the future.

One half of the report is diagnostic: seeking to come to terms with the radical changes in the global environment which the UN is now required to navigate, candidly identifying the institution’s historical strengths, and its weaknesses, as we seek to face the future.

The second half of the report is not diagnostic, but prescriptive: it seeks to identify ten core organizing principles that could govern the overall direction of UN reform in the future, as well as 55 individual recommendations across the full spectrum of the UN’s work.

Our modest aspiration as a commission is that this might positively contribute to the wider debate on UN reform, and more broadly the reform of the institutions of global governance.

As you know, the report has no official status within the UN system.

We have simply approached the task as friends of the UN, as the IPI has been for the last half century.

Macro-Challenges Facing the System

So in our analysis, what are the major themes to have emerged from our work over the last two years?

First, there is a strong global consensus that the world of the 21st century needs a stronger, not a weaker UN.

This is not the product of historical sentiment, or emotional attachment to an institution we love.

It’s the product of the fairly brutal assessment of the current dynamics of global geopolitics and geoeconomics; the new dynamics of globalization, both positive and negative, which we see writ large across most of our countries; the rise of new challenges to the effective sovereignty of nation-states; the proliferation of non-state actors, a number of them committed to the destruction of the inter-state system; and the proliferation of new, deeply-destructive technologies across societies, economies and militaries.

As seasoned practitioners, you’ve heard the refrain a thousand times before: at a time when the pressures demanding greater global cooperation are at their height, the forces pulling our world apart, and in multiple different directions, are also at their worst.

And we, dear friends and colleagues, find ourselves in this institution living along the fracture line separating these two great sets of contending forces, not quite knowing which forces will prevail.

Second, there is an equally strong consensus that, while the UN at present is not broken, it’s in trouble.

And this is reflected at multiple levels:

  • Despite great successes at Paris last year on climate change, and on this very day when the Paris Agreement enters into force, there is growing evidence across the breadth of the global policy agenda of states “walking around” the UN system, rather than using the institutions of the UN to resolve the great questions before us, and if recourse is then made to the UN, often doing so as a diplomatic afterthought, in search of a form ofpost facto
  • Moreover, there are growing debates about the functional effectiveness of UN agencies in discharging their mandates, for which FAO and the WHO provide prime examples.
  • Furthermore, this is critically reflected in the emerging crisis of UN funding, most particularly in voluntary contributions. Private not-for-profits are now attracting more funding than many UN agencies. To the point where major global humanitarian appeals, even for crises like Syria remain grossly under-subscribed. This is symptomatic of a broader malaise.

Third, there is also an historical view about the future of the United Nations which is simply this: there is no guarantee that any institution, either national or international, lasts forever.

As Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld reminded us half a century ago, this experiment in global governance is very recent in human history.

Even against the European standard of modern inter-state relations, the UN represents barely one-fifth of the expanse of time separating us from the Treaty of Westphalia.

Those of us who have been practitioners understand that the UN, in so many respects, represents the thin blue line between civilization and barbarism; between global order and global disorder.

Regrettably, most of human history has been characterized by disorder, rather than order.

Therefore, there is nothing inevitable about the UN’s future as an institution.

It’s not as if we’re going to wake up and read in The New York Times tomorrow morning that the UN suddenly closed its doors.

But there is a danger, through the accumulated forces of entropy and inertia, over a long period of time, that the UN turns into a hollow shell where we all come to the meetings, but where the real work is done elsewhere.

There is a deep resolve among many of us in this room, led by the Secretary-General and his own reform program, that this not be the case.

At a level of deep psychology, this points us in a direction which says that for the institution to survive, let alone to flourish, in this profoundly inter-connected world of the 21st century, it will require conscious, active efforts in reinventing the institution.

No institution, and certainly no corporation, can ever stand still, otherwise it dies.

You know, as well as I do, that the UN Charter is a remarkably robust document which has stood the test of time.

The challenge, therefore, is not reinventing the Charter, but to continue to apply afresh the principles of the Charter to the institutional arrangements of the day; and to the specific policy challenges we face at a given time as well.

To stand still is not an option.

To stand still is to drift backwards.

Fourth, as part of these general reflections, it requires all of us to think afresh of whether we, the member-states, both great and small, both permanent members of the Security Council and those who are not, actually want a fully functioning and effective multilateral system for the future.

The truth is that multilateralism as both a concept and a practice is under deep threat around the world today.

That partly explains a point I made earlier about why member-states increasingly walk around the UN, because it is seen as too slow, too cumbersome, too dilatory to produce real results in real time to solve real problems.

We should pause to reflect, however, how it is we came by our decision in San Francisco in 1945 to establish this institution of multilateralism, together with the Bretton Woods institutions, as core pillars of the post-war global order.

And that’s because we concluded after 1945 that unilateralism was not a good thing.

Aggressive bilateralism was not a good thing.

And even competing plurilateralisms, particularly when organized against underlying principles of a “balance of power” was at best hazardous.

So do our governments actually want a fully functioning multilateral system for the future?

If they do, then they must own it, argue it, and demonstrate it by re-energizing and re-inventing itself.

Otherwise there is a grave risk that as a principle of global governance, it will fade away, as did the partial multilateralism that was the League.

Fifth, there is the question of geopolitics.

It is not as if geopolitics was invented yesterday.

It has been the permanent condition of international relations since societies first organized themselves into states.

It is useless, wishful thinking to try to magically wave away geopolitical realities.

The uncomfortable truth is our post-war global order is a hybrid of high realism, deeply reflective of the state of great power politics, and neo-liberal institutionalism, as reflected in this institution, the UN, the wider fabric of international law, and the various international arbitral mechanisms we’ve established to give it effect.

It is not the case, as generally perceived, that the Security Council can’t agree on anything.

On this the data is clear, and reflected equally clearly in this report, that the veto is now applied less often by the Security Council than in most periods of the UN’s history.

But we all know where the big exceptions have been over the last decade and a half.

Once again, these realities can’t simply be wished away.

But the bottom line is we have a crying global need for a radical improvement in the functioning state of great power relations in order for the UN system to function effectively as a whole.

And at the center of this will lie the future relationship between the presidents of the U.S., the Russian Federation and China.

I realize this is a statement of the obvious.

But sometimes it’s important to state the obvious.

Because the future wellbeing of the whole institution that we share is also at stake.

The truth is, the Secretary-General cannot control the future direction of global geopolitics.

That will be a given within which the Secretary-General must operate.

But quite apart from those constraints, the UN is a notoriously difficult beast to manage.

Organizing Principles for UN Reform

The report therefore recommends 10 basic principles for future UN reform for the next Secretary-General.

Principle #1: The introduction of a comprehensive doctrine of prevention across the entire UN system—across peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian engagement.

I realize fully that prevention is not a novel idea.

But it’s time we ceased debating the concept and began applying it comprehensively to all that we seek to do.

The Security Council is the last place I need to speak on why prevention is better than cure on the core threats to peace and security.

But a comprehensive doctrine of prevention also requires a rearrangement in institutional structure, resources and culture.

We need a more effective one-to-three year planning horizon for the UN’s policy planning staff, so that we identify crises as they begin to emerge.

We need to radically enhance the resources of the Department of Political Affairs in support of political missions.

We need a permanent stable of UN Special Envoys covering the full breadth of linguistic, cultural and functional expertise necessary to act effectively in the field, and effectively supported by the DPA.

Principle #2: The UN equally requires a new, comprehensive doctrine of delivery.

What do I mean by that?

You know as well as I do that there is a danger of this great institution simply drowning in an ever-deepening sea of reports, high-level panels and even independent reform commissions like mine.

There is a real danger we face of report-writing becoming a substitute for effective, measurable, accountable, action delivered on the ground.

This is as much a question of institutional culture as it is one of institutional design.

The professional, career staff at the UN need to have their careers rewarded and enhanced by their ability to deliver programs on the ground against agreed and measurable data.

Principle #3: Consistent with this approach, we need to permanently prioritize field operations over the center, just as we need to develop an effective, integrated “Team UN” in the field.

The current Secretary-General has introduced One UN.
This has been a good start.

As part of this work, I visited a One UN flagship operation in Hanoi.

But what we need to do now, if we are serious about the question of dealing with our rigid institutional silos, is to move to fully-integrated, multi-disciplinary teams in the field, guided by common mandates across all UN agencies, and under the leadership of fully empowered Directors of UN Operations in each country.

Principle #4: If we are going to deal with the problem of institutional silos, we need to deal with it both at the center and in the field.

At present, our Secretary-General has some 43 individual direct reports to him from the heads of the UN Secretariat, Funds, Programs and Specialized Agencies.

This expands to nearly 100 if you include his team of Special Envoys.

Our Secretary-General is a super-hero in managing this number of direct reports to him.

What I have argued for is a senior management team at the center of UN operations in New York which is a maximum of 10 in number, including:

  • The secretary-general;
  • Three deputy secretaries-general responsible for the spectrum of UN policy and programs (one for peace and security; one for sustainable development; and one for humanitarian support);
  • A chief financial officer;
  • A chief operating officer;
  • A new chief communications officer;
  • The UN legal counsel to cover international legal and other legal and probity questions;
  • The chef de cabinet responsible for daily political liaison with member states; and
  • The executive director of UN Women to mainstream the gender equality agenda across the full spectrum of the UN’s core decision-making processes.

Principle #5: The effective implementation of Agenda 2030 will require quite specific institutional changes if we are to take the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the 169 targets within them, and the 15 year time-frame we have set ourselves to deliver them.

Of course, we all say this is a matter for the member-states.

But if we are being brutally honest with ourselves, we also know that the credibility of this institution will suffer if by 2030 these goals remain elusive.

So what is to be done?
The report argues for a single person responsible for the delivery for the SDGs within the UN system—namely the Deputy Secretary General (Sustainable Development).

The report argues that this DSG form a joint commission with the World Bank with a combined Secretariat charged with the actual delivery of these goals on the ground.

The UN has the policy framework. The Bank has the cash, or at least some of it.

The report also argues for a tripartite mechanism involving both the UN, the World Bank and global private finance.

All of us know that the multi-trillion dollar price tag hanging off the end of Agenda 2030 cannot and will not be met even faintly by global public finance.

Furthermore, within each key country, where the challenge is greatest, the SDG National Action Plans need to become the first item on the duty statement for each proposed Director of UN Operations in the field, and against which their performance is also measured.

On the SDGs, the policy settings are done.

No more reports are needed.

But as with climate change, unless action, accompanied by real financial flows occurs, there is a danger of these great policy achievements ending up as a dead letter.

Principle #6: Given the UN cannot do everything, we need a more formal global compact between the public and the private development sectors, so that joint assessments can be made, and the prioritization of our collective efforts be made a reality.

Principle #7:Producing a new “Agenda for Peace, Security and Development” that integrates the all of the UN’s work into an agenda which recognizes the profound inter-connections between the three traditional pillars of the UN’s mission.

Principle #8: The full integration of women at the center, and across the totality of the UN agenda, not just in discrete parts of it. Women should occupy 50% of all UN management positions, at HQ and in the field, by 2030.

Principle #9: A new, formal global youth platform, recognizing the explosion of structural youth unemployment with the creation of a new subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly called UN Youth should be established.

Principle #10: The capacity of the UN to efficiently, effectively, and flexibly act within the reality imposed by ongoing budgetary constraints, rather than hoping that the fiscal heavens will one day magically reopen. They won’t. This means that the reform of the fifth committee is essential for the success of the next Secretary-General

On top of these, the ICM report details more than 50 specific recommendations in peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, humanitarian engagement and budget, management and resources.

These are listed in the report.

I commend these to your attention.




Friends of the UN, one and all.

I have already acknowledged the contribution of the outgoing UNSG Ban Ki-moon.

And I would also like to wish the incoming Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, well.

Mr. Guterres is a good man.

He has formidable political and multilateral experience.

He is well qualified to address the great tasks that lie ahead of us all.

I commend both to him and to you, as member-states and as members of the UNSC, these modest recommendations for reform.

I thank you.