This week’s hard-hitting report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a reminder of the influential and inspirational role the United Nations can play.
The U.N.’s secretary general, António Guterres, called the new assessment, which predicts average global temperatures will be 1.5 degrees warmer by 2040 than they were in the pre-industrial era, a “code red for humanity.”
The IPCC was founded in 1988 by two U.N. agencies, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Its role is to distill and package the scientific evidence for climate change, based on work by thousands of individual scientists. For a truly global problem, the IPCC’s inclusive approach is probably its single biggest strength – as it is for the U.N. more generally.
While New Zealand is a member of all kinds of multilateral groupings, even the biggest of these – such as APEC and the Commonwealth – pale in size and scope when compared with the United Nations. With 193 members, the U.N. is the world’s ultimate public square. But amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.N.’s 75th birthday last year largely went unmarked both in New Zealand and around the world.
A conference being held at Parliament this weekend by the United Nations Association of New Zealand (UNA NZ) will provide an opportunity to reflect on New Zealand’s role in the U.N. to date – and to consider current challenges.
The local association is almost as old as the United Nations itself. It is one of over 100 national associations around the world dedicated to promoting and supporting the U.N.’s mission, but also to providing the institution with valuable constructive criticism when it is needed.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta will address the conference on Saturday morning, as will the EU’s ambassador to New Zealand, Nina Obermaier. Both are likely to emphasize the value of the U.N. and multilateralism in addressing current global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
The U.N.’s public health arm, the World Health Organization (WHO), has played a pivotal role in the COVID-19 pandemic response. But it has also been criticized for not responding more quickly, and for not being rigorous enough in investigating how the pandemic began. The U.S. under the Donald Trump administration even announced it would withdraw from the WHO.
Joe Biden, the new U.S.president, reversed the decision, but also made clear that he was still unhappy with the WHO’s approach to COVID-19. Earlier this year, 14 countries including Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. released a joint statement that criticized a WHO report into the origins of the coronavirus in China. New Zealand, aware of the sensitivities over criticizing China, did not sign the joint statement. However, it did release a somewhat softer, separate statement a few weeks later.
Despite the criticism, the WHO and the U.N. as a whole are major beneficiaries of the new emphasis by Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the importance of a “rules-based order.” The phrase genuinely expresses the new U.S. administration’s internationalist values. But it is also intended as implicit, indirect criticism of what Biden sees as unilateral foreign policy approaches taken by countries such as China and Russia – and the former Trump administration.
The WHO situation in relation to COVID-19 encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the U.N. more generally. The ability to build a broad consensus and keep everyone on board is a distinct advantage over smaller, more selective international organizations. But at times, this can come at the price of effectiveness. Most U.N. bodies have little real power other than to name and shame.
The Human Rights Council (HRC), created in 2006, is another example of a U.N. body that is frequently criticized, mainly because it allows countries known for poor human rights records to become members. Mirroring its later actions over the WHO, the United States withdrew from the HRC in 2018 under the Trump administration, only to re-join earlier this year under Biden.
For New Zealand, the HRC has led to the U.N. having a bigger impact on domestic politics. Every five years, the human rights record of each of the U.N.’s 193 member states is subjected to a comprehensive review. While outside experts lead the process, New Zealand government agencies, including the country’s own Human Rights Commission and other local and international non-governmental organizations, also play important roles through the submission of reports.
The most recent round of U.N. scrutiny in early 2019 brought 194 recommendations for action, of which 164 were accepted by the New Zealand government. A number of recommendations related to housing. For example, Qatar, an HRC member at the time, recommended New Zealand “increase the availability of adequate and affordable housing for all segments of society while paying particular attention to low-income families.”
A year after the HRC’s review, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on housing, Leilani Farha, visited New Zealand. Her report, presented in June, called New Zealand’s housing situation a “human rights crisis that must be addressed urgently.” The report was promptly echoed by Paul Hunt, New Zealand’s human rights commissioner. Hunt, himself a former senior U.N. official, announced earlier this month that he was launching a national inquiry into housing, which he said was a “massive human rights failure.”
For New Zealand, the upshot was that a U.N. inquiry sparked a political debate over whether housing should be seen through a human rights lens.
Admittedly, for the U.N. as a whole, the constant willingness to create new entities like the IPCC and HRC to address perceived new challenges has been both a blessing and a curse. While it has ensured the U.N. has remained as relevant as ever, there has been a distinct lack of root and branch reform. Duplication, overlap, and overly bureaucratic procedure are U.N. hallmarks.
A recent comprehensive and very readable discussion paper by Colin Keating, a former New Zealand ambassador to the U.N., and former Green MP Kennedy Graham, identifies many of the problems – and proposes some innovative solutions.
Writing about the U.N.’s approach to environmental issues, Keating and Graham express their frustration at the “Commissions, Panels, Conferences and almost countless other subsidiary bodies.” They call for a streamlined process led by the U.N. General Assembly, bluntly warning that “we cannot afford to continue to have multiple different Kaitiaki [guardians] trying to do the same job.”
On reforming the U.N. Security Council – the U.N.’s most powerful body, which has largely remained unchanged in the way it operates since 1945 – Keating and Graham propose radically increasing the Council’s size and redefining its mandate. This would allow it to more effectively address current challenges, including environmental and health threats, as well as civil conflicts.
The lack of action over the past year by the U.N. Security Council in relation to crises on three different continents – in Belarus, Ethiopia, and Myanmar – illustrates why the current system undoubtedly needs reform. The central reason for the Council’s paralysis is the veto power vested in its five permanent members: China, France, Russia, the U.K., and U.S.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who headed the U.N. Development Programme from 2009 to 2017 and also co-chaired the recent Independent Panel that scrutinized the WHO’s response to COVID-19, regularly expresses her frustration at the lack of action by the U.N. Security Council on major issues.
In January, for instance, she tweeted: “Given extensive reporting of participation of #Eritrean troops in conflict in #Tigray over many weeks & of many war crimes committed in the region, shouldn’t this deadly & complex conflict be getting priority attention from U.N. Security Council?”
Unfortunately, after a short-lived period of pragmatism following the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s – dubbed the “sanctions decade” – the Security Council now appears to have largely reverted to a zero-sum, Cold War-style approach. Deadlocks at the Security Council and the failure to impose sanctions on rogue regimes explain why Western countries are increasingly putting more effort into establishing their own, independent sanctions frameworks.
In New Zealand, the Autonomous Sanctions Bill – a member’s bill under the name of National MP Gerry Brownlee – is currently before Parliament, after being drawn from the ballot in July. These alternative approaches are needed because while collective, multilateral action under a U.N. mandate is preferable, the interests of great powers often stop it from happening.
Comprehensive U.N. reform might help to break the stalemate, but don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.