United Nations Reform

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 18th April 2006.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Labour, City of Durham 9:30 am, 18th April 2006

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean. The request for this Adjournment debate arose from the visit a number of hon. Members made in January to the United Nations headquarters in New York. I thank the Minister and his officials for arranging that visit and supporting us so effectively. The purpose of the visit was to learn more about the UN and to consider the challenges that it is facing. It was also aimed at increasing our knowledge of the importance of UN reform and how the process of reform is developing.

At the outset, it is worth saying that the visit was extremely useful. The group decided on our return to do what we could to raise the profile of UN reform with our fellow MPs; hence today's debate. It is always important for MPs to learn more about the UN, but the timing seemed particularly acute because of the proposals for reform agreed at the world summit in September 2005—an important year for the UN as it saw its 60th anniversary. Obviously, that gave added impetus to the process of reform.

In broad terms, the summit agreed that reform should happen across a number of fronts simultaneously. The first tranche covered institutional innovations, such as establishing the Peacebuilding Commission and reforming the Security Council. There was then a second tranche about management and secretariat reform, such as reviewing existing financial and human resource rules, and budgetary review. A third tranche concerned policy co-ordination.

The wide-ranging reform package is intended to make the organisation more fit for purpose for 21st century needs. The role of the UN is a changing one, and has been changing especially in recent years. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General, has summarised the changes thus:

"In the 16 years since the cold war ended, the Organization has taken on more than twice as many new peacekeeping missions as in the previous 44 years . . . Over half of its . . . civilian staff now serve in the field—not only in peacekeeping, but also in humanitarian relief, criminal justice, human rights monitoring and capacity-building".

That is the background, but there are other reasons for the need for reform. We look to the UN to prevent conflicts, broker solutions to disputes, lead the fight against world poverty, disease and malnutrition, and tackle environmental issues, especially climate change. There are also concerns about the UN's past failure to respond effectively to crises such as Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, not to mention the thorny issue of Iraq.

In order to respond to these issues and challenges, the Secretary-General put together a high-level panel to consider reform, which published a report in December 2004. The reforms were outlined at the world summit, and they largely followed the report but with some changes. We can conclude that the expectations of the role that the UN can and should play have never been higher. The reform programme is essentially about trying to deliver a UN that can meet current and future expectations.

Opinion about whether the reform programme goes far enough is varied, with probably about 191 versions—one or more for each member state. The Secretary-General has expressed his unhappiness that it has not gone far enough, especially in tackling the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. That is pertinent at present, given the situation with Iran.

In general, there seems to be a degree of agreement that with so many different—and often competing—agendas at the UN, it is perhaps surprising that reform has got this far and that it is so wide-ranging. There is even a website that documents the process of UN reform. Our Library has put together an excellent briefing, which I am drawing heavily on in today's debate. I am also relying on the report put together by my hon. Friend Mr. Coaker on behalf of the group who attended the UN in July.

Where are we now with the reforms? I hope that the Minister will ultimately answer that question, but I have a few issues to throw out for consideration. First, I want to centre on the tranche of work on institutional innovations. That sounds as though it could be quite a minor task, but it is absolutely huge. It includes putting together the Peacebuilding Commission, the human rights council and the central emergency response fund and tackling Security Council reforms, the mandate review and the General Assembly review.

I will turn first to the Peacebuilding Commission, which was created in December 2005, just before our visit. It aims to fill a gap in bringing together relevant actors and resources to advise on and propose integrated strategies for post-conflict peace building and recovery. That is an enormous task. Negotiations are continuing about representation on that, and I would appreciate an update from the Minister. It is fair to say that the group saw the establishment of the commission as an important step forward for the UN. We were a little surprised to find that 18 peacekeeping missions are taking place.

In the many meetings on the topic that we attended, there was complete agreement that security and development needed to go together hand in hand. It was hoped that by co-ordinating post-conflict work more effectively in a country through the Peacebuilding Commission, some of the issues underlying conflict might be addressed, which might reduce the likelihood of conflict erupting again.

It is worth looking at Sierra Leone as an example of a country that the UN is due to leave in the near future and where the Peacebuilding Commission may have a role. We discovered when we were at the UN that there was some uncertainty about what the UN's leaving would mean for Sierra Leone. The ambassador was unsure not only of the possible consequences, but of the time scale. A ministerial update would be helpful, in particular a comment about how the Peacebuilding Commission could help.

Most importantly, the Peacebuilding Commission is seen as a vehicle for reconstruction post-conflict, to co-ordinate the multiplicity of institutions that can become involved in reconstruction. It would be interesting to know whether other agencies, including non-governmental organisations, are willing to co-operate with the Peacebuilding Commission's activities.

I move on to the human rights council. When we visited New York, one of the issues that was causing greatest concern was the establishment—or rather, the lack of it, at that stage—of the human rights council to replace the largely discredited UN Commission on Human Rights. The issue was raised by a number of countries, and it was clearly divisive. The establishment of the council was eventually agreed on 15 March 2006. The new council will be smaller than the commission, with improved status as a subsidiary of the General Assembly rather than the Economic and Social Council.

The human rights council's membership is still being debated. Notably, the United States opposed its formation because members will be elected by simple majority rather than the two-thirds favoured by America. Elections are scheduled for 9 May. America argued for the two-thirds majority because a simple majority vote for membership would enable rogue states to become members, and the presence of rogue states in the membership of the commission had been responsible for eroding its credibility. Despite that view, some changes have been made, however, and members that commit gross or systematic human rights violations can now be suspended by a two-thirds vote, although we shall have to see whether that happens. However, there is probably some relief that the US is still on board to the extent that it is applying for membership and giving financial support. I am sure that the Minister's comments on how he sees the human rights council developing will be interesting.